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Monday, July 27, 2009

Merce Cunningham Dies, and White Bird Remembers Him

Posted by Stephen Marc Beaudoin on Mon, Jul 27, 2009 at 11:44 AM

Today's sad sad sad news came early: the unspeakably moving modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham passed away last night, at age 90.

There is a Portland connection here: Cunningham's company was presented twice by White Bird, our city's very own intrepid dance presenters. In an email message to the Mercury, White Bird co-founder Walter Jaffe lamented Cunningham's loss and relayed some amazing stories about Cunningham's two trips to Portland. Jaffe's e-mail is after the jump.

Like many dancers and dancemakers, Cunningham created til the end: just this past April he premiered a new work, "Nearly Ninety," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Here he is at age 89, rehearsing his Merce Cunningham Dance Company, only months ago:

"There seem to me three ways to go through space, cross space. Either down, or straight across, or up... But just remembering that at the same time, with these limits, there is an endless variety of ways of using them."

(Jaffe's remembrances of Cunningham's visits to Portland are after the jump...)

What follows is an e-mail from White Bird Dance co-founder Walter Jaffe to the Mercury:

Yes, we brought Merce twice, and it was fantastic. The first time was May 2, 2001 (at the Schnitzer)—The program included the classic “Summerspace” (1958), “Pond Way” (1998), and “Rainforest” (1968). The last piece was memorable for the silver mylar balloons designed by Andy Warhol that filled the stage. Merce was present, and he received a huge ovation when he appeared at the end.

We spent considerable time with him. The company rehearsed at the BodyVox studio above the Bridgeport Brewery, and he was thrilled with the idea of rehearsing dance in the same building as a brewery.

Merce got to meet Barney (the White Bird) and fell in love with him. We remember him sitting in his wheelchair and holding Barney—he asked all the dancers to come see Barney and, as Paul remembers it, Merce said, pointing to Barney “See—-this is what dance is all about.” Very moving.

The second time we brought Merce we hosted a large celebration of the company during its 50th anniversary—in January-February 2004. We asked Robert Rauschenberg to design the poster—we actually visited his studio in NYC and we looked at photos of Merce’s company that Rauschenberg took in the 1950’s, rarely seen before. We were very excited that he agreed to design the poster using three of the photos (we have the original design in our office). We had an exhibit in the rotunda of PCPA with the huge backdrop designed by Rauschenberg for the Events—hanging in the atrium—and on the walls we arranged for an exhibit of Merce’s animal drawings, Rauschenberg’s photos of Merce, and John Cage’s smoke drawings—they hung for a month in the rotunda.

In addition, we invited Paul Kaiser to create an installation of his motion-capture work with Merce and other choreographers at PNCA. Paul came to speak there as well in late January.

We had a fascinating symposium on Merce at Reed, involving artists from the area talking about Merce (including Robert Rauschenberg's son Chris). PICA offered their resource room to exhibit texts and videos of Merce.

And then the performance on February 1 at the Schnitzer—“Interscape” (2000), with a stunning set by Rauschenberg, and “Fluid Canvas” (2002), featuring Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar’s motion capture technology.
Sadly Merce could not attend this performance because he suddenly became ill in San Francisco where the company had been performing. But this was a fantastic celebration—one of the major highlights of White Bird’s 12 years.

We had been hoping to bring the company back this coming season but it did not work out. Paul and I had the privilege of visiting Merce’s studio in New York and seeing him observe rehearsal. It was a great privilege to get to know him and present his amazing work. We can’t believe he’s gone.

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