Cunningham choreography makes Yale debut

Students rehearse for the Yale Dance Theater project’s performance of the late Merce Cunningham’s choreography on Friday. The students were directed by three former members of Cunningham’s dance company.
Students rehearse for the Yale Dance Theater project’s performance of the late Merce Cunningham’s choreography on Friday. The students were directed by three former members of Cunningham’s dance company. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

After a semester of rehearsal, the Yale Dance Theater program will bring the choreography of the late dance legend Merce Cunningham to the stage in the first performance of Cunningham’s work since his company dissolved in January 2012.

In two performances on Friday, Yale Dance Theater aims to explore the future of Cunningham’s legacy d, said program director and theater studies professor Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11. The YDT project was started last year as an initiative to study the work of influential choreographers, Coates said.

“The overall project is to look at this question of legacy for an artist who is creating in live movement that is based on time and space,” Coates said. “We’re looking at the form this takes three years after [Cunningham’s] passing, and how to think about its preservation.”

When Cunningham passed away in 2009, his company embarked on a two-year international tour. After the company’s final performance at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory in December 2011, the Merce Cunningham Trust gained control of the licensing rights to Cunningham’s vast choreographic repertory. Now, the trust develops projects for professional dance companies and universities that wish to interact with Cunningham’s work, said Patricia Lent, the Cunningham Trust’s director of repertory licensing and former company dancer.

Lent added that the goal of the trust is to spread Cunningham’s work as far as possible, while designing projects that meet the specific needs of each dance company. Since the Cunningham Trust also arranges for former members of the company to lead classes or workshops at schools, she said, this often includes determining how to structure the educational component of each collaboration.

“As someone who danced with [Cunningham], I’m particularly interested in the authenticity of a group’s experience with the work,” Lent said. “It’s a very important part of sharing his work, since it’s not just about how it looks during the performance. It’s about the work in progress.”

Since Yale is not a conservatory, YDT’s approach to the project has been more geared toward studying the thought process behind the choreography than focusing on technical perfection, company member Elena Light ’13 said, adding that the conceptual nature of Cunningham’s style lends itself to a serious intellectual approach.

“Cunningham’s work is basically philosophy in motion,” Coates said.

Light added that the group views the performance as the culmination of a project, which includes a blog kept by YDT members on their experience. Lent said when she worked with Coates to design the project, Coates requested three Cunningham company dancers from different generations so that the group could study his work from multiple points of view.

YDT rehearsal director Meg Harper, who performed with Cunningham’s company in the 1960s, said she has never worked to put on a performance of Cunningham repertory with a university dance company before, instead teaching classes without the goal of a final show. The pressure to prepare for a performance has caused the dancers to advance their technical skills relatively quickly because of the combination of technique classes and practice in choreographed works.

Friday’s performance will feature two pieces: a 22-minute selection of “Roaratorio,” one of Cunningham’s established works that was featured on the world tour, and a “MinEvent,” a shorter version of one of Cunningham’s signature composition techniques called an “Event.”

Jennifer Goggans, another rehearsal director who danced with Cunningham’s company in its final 10 years, said that since she danced to the piece during the world tour, she was able to teach many parts of it from memory. Harper added that between personal experience, videos and a detailed set of notes created by Lent during her 2000 reconstruction of the piece, the rehearsal directors were able to put Cunningham’s original choreography back together to teach the YDT dancers. Goggans added that the most difficult part of the process was determining which of multiple versions of certain movements to include, but that the final product stays true to Cunningham’s original choreography.

The “MinEvent” is a site-specific collection of scenes comprising pieces from Cunningham’s longer established works. For instance, scenes in “Events” often take parts of longer pieces and invert the movements or add or reduce the number of performers, Light said. She added that many of the scenes in the “MinEvent,” which Harper, Goggans and the third rehearsal director, Neil Greenberg, put together, are altered versions of movements from “Roaratorio,” since YDT dancers had already spent so much time studying that work and were constrained by a limited amount of rehearsal time.

The rehearsal directors designed the “MinEvent” to be staged in Payne Whitney Gym’s John J. Lee Amphitheater, where Friday’s performance will be held. Coates said that the company elected not to practice in the space until today. Goggans said that when she danced with Cunningham’s company, the dancers did not get a chance to adapt to the space until hours before the performance, so the Yale performers’ experience emulates Cunningham’s improvisational style.

Coates said that while John Cage’s 1979 score for “Roaratorio” will play from a recording, musicians from the School of Music have composed a piece meant to accompany the “MinEvent.” This piece, based on Cage’s technique of replicating the sounds of everyday life, is not correlated to the dancers’ movements, she added, explaining that Cunningham’s style called for independence between music and dance. The dancers take their cues from an internal rhythm in the choreography, rather than from moments in the music, Coates said.

Accordingly, the dancers practice in silence, Goggans said, pacing themselves based on the rehearsal directors’ snaps and claps until they internalize the rhythm with no external accompaniment.

Yale Dance Theater gave its inaugural performance in Spring 2011, featuring Twyla Tharp’s piece “Eight Jelly Rolls.”

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