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Sunday, April 7, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Merce Cunningham Comes Home -- An Honor Awaits The Famed Choreographer When His Troupe Makes A Rare Seattle Visit

Seattle Times Dance Critic

He's a multimedia pioneer, a computer nerd, a possessor of great art. Great minds flock to work with him. World leaders send party invitations. He doesn't comprehend the word "vacation."

Centralia native Merce Cunningham, whose commodity is dance repertory, will never be a billionaire. Even after creating close to 200 dances - 500 if you count the improvised "events" he stages, which recycle previous created material into new forms - the choreographer and his 55-member team still must hustle financially.

During a recent phone interview from his lower Manhattan studio, Cunningham, now nearly 77, had to speak over loud background crashes. His loft space, which had been turned into a filming studio for the afternoon, was hastily being emptied in time for a 6 p.m. dance class.

"We only get to film four hours a day," he said, "and then we have to stop, that's it." He sighed.

"Running a dance company," says Cunningham dryly, between loud knocks, "is the last thing in the world to keep your sanity."

Money may be tight, but world-wide honors and requests for performance dates have been flooding in for the beloved leader of the American postmodernist dance movement. During the company's 1995 London season, Dancing Times critic Alaistair Macauley wrote: "Nothing in dance today - almost nothing in the arts - is more interesting or marvelous than Cunningham's work."

UW music department faculty member Stewart Dempster, who has

been performing with the Cunningham Music Ensemble since the '70s, says "the morale of the company is as high as I've ever seen it. Merce has a real chemistry with this group of dancers, it's really special."

Traveling to Seattle

Since the death in 1992 of his collaborator, avant garde composer John Cage, Cunningham's music ensemble, which plays live for all the troupe's performances, went through several directors. But now, with Japanese violinist Takehisa Kosugi at the helm, they're thriving.

"It's basically a traveling electronic studio," Dempster says. "They're always working on it. Then they stop and do a concert, then they get back to work."

It has been nine years since Cunningham's troupe has performed in Seattle. But this month, the UW World Dance Series - with partner organizations Cornish College of the Arts, Dance on Capitol Hill, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Art Museum, Spectrum Dance Theater and the University of Washington libraries, dance department and school of music - is sponsoring a month-long visit by the troupe.

The $200,000-plus residency program, the most extensive in UW World Dance's history, will feature lectures, performances and workshops that touch on every aspect of Cunningham's broad career. It's a series of collaborations that company manager Bill Cook describes as "a self study in modernism."

The events include a performance of modernist electronic music scores by Cage; a discussion of Cunningham's visual arts collaborators, including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, at the Seattle Art Museum; and a screening of dance films by Cunningham Foundation filmmaker Elliot Caplan at 911 Media Arts Center.

"You must think like the octopus, in many directions," Cunningham says, about the daunting number of mediums that he investigates. "That way there are many possibilities."

At his headquarters in Manhattan where his foundation works - it includes resident designers, a music ensemble, an archivist, an administrative staff and the dance company - he explains "we happen to be interested in a number of (art forms) and we like to explore them as far as we can go."

Honoring a Cornish student

For Cunningham, the Seattle residency will begin on a sweet, nostalgic note next Sunday, when Cornish College of the Arts holds a gala to present the choreographer, a former Cornish student, with the first Nellie Cornish Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Nellie Cornish was really a superb woman, of such enormous strength," Cunningham says. "It means a lot to me that the award is in her name."

It was during Cunningham's tenure at Cornish, from 1937 to 1939, that he first met Cage, who was then working as an accompanist for the dance classes. (Cage invented his famous prepared piano during that time as a way to bring a percussion element to his playing.) The two artists went separate ways for a couple of years - Cage to California to teach, Cunningham to New York to dance with the Martha Graham Dance Company. When they reunited in New York in 1943 to produce their first collaborative concert, they began a lifelong partnership that lasted until Cage's death.

In "Merce Cunningham: 50 Years" by Cunningham archivist David Vaughan, to be published by Aperture Press in 1997, a quote from Cunningham illuminates the inception of that lifelong relationship. When Cage came into Cunningham's modern dance composition class to fill in for a vacationing teacher, it was, says Cunningham, "a revelation.

"Suddenly there was something very precise and very strict to work with. He simply made us make things - you had to think about, not just have some feeling about what you were going to do next, but think about it, and that was an extraordinary experience."

Praise from Baryshnikov

Superstar dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who arranged his White Oak Dance Project tour to start in Seattle so he could hand Cunningham his Cornish Achievement Award next week, can't say enough about Cunningham's artistry.

"He's a master, the best living choreographer in the modern field right now," said Baryshnikov. "The divine Merce."

With the death of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, says Baryshnikov, Cunningham is "very much on his own right now, in terms of the separation from the rest of the field. He just has an amazing understanding of the theater and unbelievable working discipline."

Baryshnikov thinks Cunningham must have been influenced by Graham.

"He observed Martha's endurance and her mental stamina, because you know dance was her life and there was nothing else. He knew very much that he had to reinvent himself in terms of the technique, which Martha did very successfully, and he did it on his own with very much different tools, so to speak."

The latest "tool" in Cunningham's belt is a software program called Life Forms, which he has installed on a $20,000 high-end SGI computer (which was donated to him) and a Mac Powerbook for tour dates. Life Forms, a three-dimensional human-animation program developed by Tom Calvert, a professor of computer science and kinesiology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., does not replace studio time with dancers. It's something Cunningham uses after hours or during the dancers' vacations.

"Like film, like camera, like chance operations, and like the work I began with John Cage," Cunningham says, "Life Forms is a way to discover something new, not a way to solve anything. It's just one of many tools I use to look again at movements I've created." He's been using the program since 1989.

"I think of an anecdote I once read about two elderly marvelous tap dancers. One phoned up his friend in New York after years and years, and his first question was: `Are you making any new steps?' In other words, are you busy doing what you're supposed to?"

Taking `new steps' in Seattle

Cunningham's Seattle visit concludes with a chance for Seattle audiences to see a lot of "new steps."

"Installations," featuring music by Trimpin and video by Elliot Caplan, will have its world premiere at Meany Theater on May 2, on a program that also includes "Beach Birds" (1991), with music by John Cage, and "Ground Level Overlay" (1995), with music by Stewart Dempster.

"Installations" is named for the dozen video monitors that will be located onstage, showing 16mm shots of the dancers, plus the marimba pipes that Trimpin is going to hang from Meany's ceiling for his "spatial piece" of music.

Though Cunningham once had a TV going onstage during a dance, "Installations" marks his first use of pre-shot video footage.

"I know this sounds odd," he says, "but I think the whole visual change in our culture with television and computer screens everywhere enters absolutely into dancing. Not directly, of course: We dancers always have to work on the edges.

"But I think it's one of the reasons one of the audiences have grown over the last 10 to 15 years: People have looked at the television and realized that they can look at something, without necessarily feeling like they have to define it through words. You can just look . . . I never understood why people think dancing has to have a story, why it has to have some meaning."

Cunningham and Caplan have both been shooting footage for "Installations."

"The camera itself has a time to it," Cunningham says, "a rhythm if you like, which is not the same as human rhythm. But when the two get together they can reproduce something different than you've ever seen before. . . We hope what we're filming will be like decor and action at the same time.

"I just wish we could shoot more . . ."

Cunningham begins to laugh his Zen-master chuckle.

"I remember with John Cage years ago when we were driving somewhere, we had a borrowed car and almost no money at all, and John said, `Well, we mustn't let the economic impediment get in the way." Cunningham laughs again.

"Because if you're doing something that completely interests you, why do anything else?"

Published Correction Date: 04/11/96 - Cornish College Of The Arts' Award Ceremony For Merce Cunningham Will Be Held Tomorrow. An Incorrect Day Was Noted In This Article.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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