BACK in the mid-'50s, when he faced both financial woes and the snobbery of the New York dance establishment, choreographer Merce Cunningham started taking his fledgling troupe on the road for "one-night stands" at any venue he could book. In a VW bus bought with borrowed money, "we used to travel great distances. After all, performing for one night was better than nothing," he says with a chuckle.
Speaking by phone from his New York studio, the 88-year-old Cunningham -- now a modern dance icon -- admits to fond memories of those days. "I remember a great deal of laughter, no matter how difficult it was," he says.
Half a century later, that sheer zest for putting on a show has not abated, as spectators at the Orange County Performing Arts Center are due to find out tonight. Far from re-creating yesterday's masterpieces, Cunningham's dancers will perform a new work, with a score composed for iPods programmed to "shuffle," and another piece devised especially for the center's Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Tonight will, in fact, mark the first time that Cunningham's company performs in multiple sites in the course of one night, while OCPAC will set a new artistic precedent not only in utilizing most of its venues for one presentation but also by having commissioned a site-specific dance for the newest of them.
Seeking the antithesis "of the canned performance, where we're just one stop among 30 cities, we wanted to create a living, breathing event designed specifically for the center," says Aaron Egigian, OCPAC's senior director of music programming. "We also felt that Merce is one of the leading if not the greatest choreographer of the last 50 years, and we were thrilled at his willingness to create something this unique."
"Think of it as a taster's Merce," says Robert Swinston, a longtime Cunningham dancer and assistant to the choreographer who has spent the better part of a lifetime championing the singular aesthetic philosophy he developed with his creative and life partner, the late composer John Cage: Although dancing and music may occur simultaneously, neither has to be in sync with the other.
Tonight's show is to begin with a talk by Columbia College Chicago dance professor Bonnie Brooks on how to watch a Cunningham performance and end with UC Irvine students performing a Cunningham dance, "Playground," in the center's Community Arts Plaza, complete with audiovisual effects supplied by Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton students. In between, the audience will watch the work that Cunningham created for the 2,000-seat Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, migrate over to the plaza where the Cunningham dance film "Beach Birds for Camera" will be shown to live music and, with iPods in hand (more on those later), wind up in the older, 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall for the Southern California premiere of "eyeSpace."
For neophyte viewers of Cunningham's narrative-free, musically independent dances, Swinston advises, "Approach them like paintings in a museum, where you're not trying to sum up what you're experiencing, you're simply moving from painting to painting."
Take Cunningham's latest site-specific work. Called "MinEvent," the 37-minute dance will be performed in Segerstrom Concert Hall by the entire 14-member company and culled from works in Cunningham's repertory dating from 1967 to 2003. It is the most recent in a long line of collage-like works that Cunningham has created, beginning with a dance for a Vienna museum in 1964. Since then, these pieces, all called "Events" or "MinEvents," depending on length, have been performed in, to name just three locations, Grand Central Station, the Piazza San Marco in Venice and a beach in Australia.
Working with photographs of the new hall for guidance, Cunningham chose movement sequences "for a space that was built for music. I always say yes instead of no," he says, both jocular and cryptic when asked about any choreographic challenges he might have faced. The hall's stage floor, for example, was designed for orchestras, not dancers. "But in these cases, I do have to be practical because of architecture. I always create a continuity of movement that reflects the circumstances of the space."
In the case of "eyeSpace," which premiered at the Joyce Theater in New York last fall, Cunningham essentially created a variation on one of his favorite themes: variation. The work has two choreographic versions -- one shorter than the other, both filled with balancing and twisting movements -- and four musical versions, including a wildly eclectic score by composer Mikel Rouse called "International Cloud Atlas." Designed to be listened to in iPod's shuffle mode, Rouse's music contains rock vocals, bossa nova rhythms, street noises and more.