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He's been at this for a while, but even after more than 50 years before the public, there remains something weird and wonderful about Merce Cunningham's dance pieces. His troupe rehearses without music. And whatever music ends up being made for the works everything from John Cage's still-shocking sonic surprises to the tidal wave of sounds of David Tudor's Ocean score seems merely to happen by accident alongside the dances. The choreography, dictated by chance as much as by Cunningham's own inscrutable inspiration, is improbably sensual.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company makes its long-awaited Miami debut at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts this weekend, with an entourage that includes the apocalyptic Icelandic postrockers Sigur Ros playing live alongside the dancers. Merce in Miami is a citywide party for an octogenarian who continues to embody the definition of surprising and new.
"He's never been to Miami," says Justin Macdonnell, artistic director of the Carnival Center. "In a 50-year career, Merce has never been to Florida. I was pretty surprised when Merce said that I thought he meant öfor a while.' But no, never. Who would have thought it?"
The Carnival Center hosts three different dance programs. It commissioned the world premiere of eyeSpace, bringing together designs by Miami artist Daniel Arsham and an electronic score by David Berhman on a February 23 double bill with 1993's CRWDSPCR pronounced "Crowd Spacer" featuring blues by John King. On February 25, Sigur Ros joins the dancers for Split Sides, a 2003 piece that still has the dance world marveling at this improbable mix of austere modern dance with rock and roll. That same program offers a rare revival of Crises, a 1960 Cunningham classic with music by Conlon Nancarrow that is as celebrated for its original designs by Robert Rauschenberg as it is for its choreography.
The festival winds down the first three days of March with a major staging of Ocean, Cunningham's 1994 return to choreography after the death of his partner, John Cage. Oceanfeatures a crush of bodies in a maelstrom of beauty that ranks as one of the masterpieces of American dance.
Dancers and dance fans alike should note a master class in Cunningham technique February 24 in the Peacock Studio, taught by company star Robert Swinston. There are also smaller events in the Studio Theater February 24 to March 4, many highlighting some of the new music inspired by Cunningham and Cage. The musical climax likely will be Sunday, March 4, in an older piece that few before Cage thought was playable at all: Thirty-six pianists from the local music community will come together to perform Erik Satie's 18-hour marathon Vexations, free, in the lobby of the Knight Concert Hall.
There are still Cunningham detractors, and not just because of his strange musical choices. A lot of what these beautiful bodies do in a Cunningham dance can seem, well, odd. Perhaps there is some frustration built into any attempt to make abstract art, and in dance that frustration is inevitable. Cunningham's dancers cope with bizarre balances and unexpected rhythms, or simply stand still as if discovering secret harmonies. "I will tell you what John Cage was fond of saying," Cunningham once told me. "He would tell the audience that he had made this music, and that I had made this dance, and that for their convenience we would perform them simultaneously."
Sound simple? Not at all. Each audience member has to choose what to notice in a Merce Cunningham work. Cunningham and Cage were made for each other, in art as in life. They first collaborated in 1953 for the first program by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. This partnership continued until the composer's death in 1992. Cunningham has not stood still, though, and since his partner's passing there has been a breathtaking range of new work. The first of these was Ocean, which is an homage to Joycean chaos that ends up paying tribute to a different Irishman, Samuel Beckett. The dance, which was to have been scored by Cage, now combines a gentle electronic score by David Tudor with more aggressive sounds by Andrew Culver. Cunningham's latest, Split Sides, features two dance performances, one paired with a live performance by Sigur Ros, the other coupled with taped music by Radiohead; a roll of the dice determines which dance piece goes with which band. All of it will be new to Miami.
An ambitious festival by any standards, Merce in Miami also emerges as a persuasive argument for the Carnival Center itself: Sigur Ros live, Radiohead on tape, John Cage never really dead, weird sounds, hot bodies in motion, even the motion of the Ocean captured in dance. Then there is the occasion for Miami to experience for the first time the work of one of the great artists of our time, and for the Carnival Center to play its role as a catalyst for arts and creativity throughout the local community. Homegrown artists were chosen as collaborators through the Carnival Center's partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Florida Dance Association. Miami-Dade College's New World School of the Arts student dancers will participate in the presentations alongside Cunningham dancers. And there will be Miami's own edgy Subtropics Music & Sound Arts Festival in the Studio Theater. With something for everyone interested in new dance, new music, and new painting, the festival adds up to a conscious mission to expand the audience for the arts.
"In many ways," says Macdonnell, "Merce in Miami does many of the things we set out to do here. One is to try to broaden the experience for artists and for audiences in Miami, to just give them a wider spectrum of opportunity, a chance to a see a different side of what is happening in the arts."
Macdonnell sees parallels between Cunningham's chance aesthetics and his own programming for the Carnival Center.
"You roll the dice," said the artistic director. "We'll see what happens."