'In the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is the sound-dance, and therinofter you're in the unbewised again....'

James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

The curtain goes up on a bare and silent stage – in the beginning is the void – with Mark Lancaster’s curtained drop gleaming at the back. The empty stage, and beyond, nothing. Or nothing knowable. We see this for about ten seconds, and then the utterly fabulous percussive sound score by David Tudor kicks in, and keeps on kicking, with dense patterns of sound that are layered, like flocking on fabric, dense, rich, textured.

Out of the centre of the backdrop spins a lone figure. It is a significant role, first danced by Cunningham himself: the choreographer conjuring up his dancers, and his dance. This is – and there are works that can be read just the same way in the repertories of other choreographers – a dance about dance, and about dancing. About, among other things, beginning a dance company; and beginning a dance.

It is also a dance that functions, as do so many of Cunningham’s nature studies, on both the microscopic and the macrocosmic levels. Birth of the universe? Creation of heaven and then the peopling of the earth? Cells dividing and re-dividing? For out from behind that curtain will ratchet nine more people who will mate, conjoin, polymorphously generate life in the guise of more dancing; who will tilt against the air like salmon swimming upstream. The stage teems with life, life, life – dancers caught up in constant complex lifts, spins, shifts, re-groupings, convulsive coupling and tripling. It all feels fast, but if you watch Sounddance in silence, without the driving force of the score, you will see that there is slow within fast, and fast within slow. A rapid overall arc, with modulated phrasing within.

At its end, the dance winds itself backwards, and one after another, the dancers are sucked – or ushered – back into the void from which they emerged. A lifetime that passes in 17 minutes.

Merce Cunningham
David Tudor, untitled, 1975/1994
Design & lighting design:
Mark Lancaster

UK revival premiere at Sadler’s Wells, London, 16 October 2012.

‘a mesmerising ricochet of lifts, spins and swirls.’


© Mark SeligerMerce Cunningham (1919 – 2009)

Considered one of the most important choreographers of our time and with an artistic career distinguished by constant innovation, Merce Cunningham expanded the frontiers not only of dance, but also of contemporary visual and performing arts. His collaborations with artistic innovators from every creative discipline have yielded an unparalleled body of American dance, music, and visual art.

Cunningham’s work with John Cage, his life partner from the 1940s until Cage’s death in 1992, had the greatest influence on his practice. The two made extensive use of chance procedures, abandoning not only musical forms, but narrative and other conventional elements of dance composition – such as cause and effect, climax and anticlimax. For Cunningham the subject of his dances was always dance itself.

Born in Centralia, Washington, Cunningham began his professional modern dance career at 20 with the Martha Graham Dance Company. In 1944 he presented his first solo show and in 1953 formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a forum to explore his groundbreaking ideas. Over the course of his career, he choreographed more than 150 works and over 800 “events.”

Cunningham’s lifelong passion for exploration and innovation made him a leader in applying new technologies to the arts. He began investigating dance on film in the 1970s, and choreographed using the computer program DanceForms during the latter part of his career. He explored motion capture technology to create décor for BIPED (1999), and his interest in new media led to the creation of Mondays with Merce – a never-before-seen look at Cunningham’s company and teaching technique.

Cunningham earned some of the highest honours bestowed in the arts including the National Medal of Arts (1990) and the MacArthur Fellowship (1985), the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award (2009), Japan’s Praemium Imperiale (2005), the British Laurence Olivier Award (1985), and was named Officier of the Legion d’Honneur in France (2004). Cunningham’s life and artistic vision have been the subject of four books and three major exhibitions, and his works have been presented by groups including the Ballet of the Paris Opéra, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, White Oak Dance Project, as well as Rambert.

Cunningham passed away in his New York City home on July 26, 2009, aged 90. Always forward-thinking, he developed the precedent-setting Legacy Plan prior to his death, to guide his Company and ensure the preservation of his artistic legacy.

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