Passing The Torch At 90

Merce Cunningham Company In Cleveland For The First Time In 23 Years

Modern-dance icon Merce Cunningham turns 90 in April, and Clevelanders will have an opportunity to participate in a little pre-celebration this Saturday. It's been 23 years since the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has performed here, so it's fitting that the program features three historic and distinct Cunningham dances that showcase the 14-member company's range of motion and emotion: "Sounddance," "Fabrications" and "Second Hand."

And who better to talk about Cunningham's legacy than Robert Swinston, the assistant to the choreographer who has taken on many of the solo roles Cunningham made famous? So what's it like to dance a role created and danced by Cunningham?

"It's a tremendous honor," says Swinston, who joined the company as a dancer in 1980. "I've been privileged to dance some of his parts, and have been involved in staging parts for other dancers.

"Merce choreographed to give himself a chance to dance," he says. "Each role is different. Each creates different physical demands."

Cunningham, who is widely recognized as one of the world's greatest living choreographers, started his career as a dancer - in tap and ballroom. Yes, Cunningham was a "hoofer."

But he soon embraced modern dance and for five years was a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company. After leaving Martha Graham, he choreographed independently. He formed his own company in 1953.

Known as a great collaborator, Cunningham has worked with numerous visual artists and musicians, most notably composer John Cage, his life partner, who died in 1992.

Swinston says that during much of Cunningham's early career, the choreographer was "hands on." He managed the company, taught classes, went on the road, choreographed - and, yes, danced. Swinston was named assistant to the choreographer in 1992. He toured with the company and reconstructed some of Cunningham's works for other dance companies. Three years later, Swinston became Cunningham's sole assistant, after the death of artistic director Chris Komar.

"Even at that time, Merce was still hands-on," says Swinston. "It took me a number of years - during the process of reconstructing Merce's dances - for him to trust me with his work."

"Sounddance," created in 1975, was first revived in 1994 and again in 2004, with Swinston in the Cunningham role. It begins with one dancer (the Merce role) emerging onstage from a draped area at the back, followed by the other dancers, who remain onstage until they are swept back into the tent-like structure as though they're caught in a wind tunnel. Swinston is onstage the entire 18 minutes. "The dance is high-voltage and takes a lot of stamina," he says.

Swinston first saw "Sounddance" in 1977, several years before he joined the company. "It blew me away. The chance to do this dance is the highlight of my career."

"Fabrications" premiered in 1987 and was re-created in 2002 by Patricia Lent of the original cast. Cunningham made the dance by the "chance process," based on 64 phrases (the number of hexagrams in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of oracles) that decided the order the dancers would make certain steps. There is no improvisation: The dance is precisely choreographed and the dancers know exactly what to do onstage.

"Second Hand," was made in 1970 in collaboration with Cage. The story behind the piece begins in 1944, when Cunningham created "Idyllic Song" to the first of three movements of Erik Satie's Socrate, a work for voice and small orchestra, transcribed for piano by Cage. Many years later, Cage asked Cunningham to choreograph the other two parts. He did, but following the premiere in 1970 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Satie estate refused to release the rights to Socrate. So Cage created new music using an identical rhythm but different note values, which he titled "Cheap Imitation." Cunningham renamed his piece "Second Hand."

In the days leading up to his birthday, Cunningham continues to work at the company's Greenwich Village studio. "Merce is still teaching classes. He's teaching twice a week," says Swinston. "He's in a wheelchair. He does travel, but only to the really big cities."

So how will Cunningham celebrate this milestone birthday? With the premiere of a new work, says Swinston, the aptly titled "Nearly 90." "And it's nearly 90 minutes in length," says Swinston. "He's been working on it for months."


Merce Cunningham Dance Company Ohio Theatre, PlayhouseSquare Center Co-presented by DanceCleveland and the Cleveland Museum of Art 8 p.m., Saturday, January 31 216.241.6000 Tickets: $25-$60