By Rachel Straus
Under a glowing sculpture, two arms shoot into space. A synthesized sound pulses as a dancer's chest unfolds skyward. A woman's long legs make quick flickering spirals. What transpires is visually stunning and necessarily experimental: the performing dancers are hearing the music for the first time.
This is a tradition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which is celebrating its half-century mark this year with an extensive foray into improvisation and collaboration. In "Event," the name of each performance in an eight part series at the Joyce Theater, the 85-year-old Merce Cunningham combines new, old, and excerpted pieces of his choreography in units, intermixed differently for each performance. He collaborates with six musicians, whose improvised and pre-recorded sounds are performed together live. Eight visual artists created installations, which the 14 dancers maneuver around.
Tuesday night's "Event" - which included musicians John King, George Lewis, and David Behrman, visual artist Jacqueline Matisse Monnier, lighting designer Josh Johnson, and costume designer James Hall - resembled a space odyssey. The musicians, seated in front of their laptops below the stage, improvised electronic thuds, hums, and echoes. All the musical motifs solidified the evening's otherworldly quality, sometimes to serious and other times to light-hearted affect. This was one "Event" that met with a good deal of success.
Dancer Julie Cunningham, who joined the company this year, appeared to revel in the sounds. She smiled effervescently (something that most Cunningham dancers don't do) through the entire 80-minute dance. She defied gravity's pull in her balances and leg extensions like a happy Martian.
Above Ms. Cunningham, Ms. Monnier's nine sculptures floated, matching the dancers' flooding and receding movement. Against these forces, Dancer Andrea Weber, also new to the company, performed an extended solo. As her upper body reached towards her raised leg, her precarious balance created breathless suspense. Later seven-year Cunningham dancer Holley Farmer, as she moved downstage in a fluid sequence of sharp leg extensions, demonstrated the company signature combination of grace and sharp-edged aggression.
Just before the curtain came down, Mr. Cunningham clustered his dancers together as though they were posing for a group portrait. Through that brief image, he acknowledges 50 years of dancemaking. Without a moment's hesitation, the entire audience rose to their feet to give him their appreciation.
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