In the realm of performing arts, where greatness is often fleeting, few companies have stood the test of time quite like the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. With its final performance rapidly approaching, this could be the dance world’s equivalent to the “Friends” series finale.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.
Power Center
From $20

This weekend, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform at the University in its last Midwest appearance ever. The show is part of the company’s two year Legacy Tour, which will end with a farewell performance in New York City on Dec. 31st, after which the company will permanently disband.

Known throughout his 70-year career as one of America’s most influential and avant-garde choreographers, the late Merce Cunningham collaborated with dancers, composers and visual artists to create what many consider the most cutting-edge works of his time.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company made its University Musical Society debut in 1971 with a performance of “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” at Hill Auditorium. Since then, UMS has maintained a long and friendly relationship with the company, which has held five previous performances at the University.

This weekend’s program includes the 1976 piece “Squaregame” and 2003’s “Split Sides.” The time gap between the two pieces allows audiences to see the consistent innovation in Cunningham’s choreography.

UMS Programming Manager Mark Jacobson is confident that anyone who attends will be drawn in by the daring nature of the choreography, as well as the music — some of which was composed by Radiohead and Sigur Rós exclusively for the company.

Jacobson attended the “Split Sides” premiere in New York and was blown away by the piece’s unusual setup, which incorporates elements of chance.

“What’s really fascinating is that there’s five dice roles that determine every design element — including choreography — that has been created in two parts,” he said. “If you roll the dice for each choreographic piece, there’s two dances, two pieces of music, two stage decors, two different costumes and two different lighting designs. Basically, there’s 32 possible combinations of seeing this piece.”

In keeping with this sense of spontaneity, Cunningham’s choreography is characterized by a separation from whatever music it is set to.

“Merce choreographed independently of the music; he choreographed to time,” Jacobson said. “When Radiohead was approached, he just said we want X amount of music, and Merce choreographed the dance without ever hearing the music. The premiere may have even been the first time the dancers heard it. The moment or chance determines the experience.”

When Cunningham died in 2009, he made one final request to the company: to continue showcasing his work through one final Legacy Tour before honoring his wish to disband at the end of the year.

“It’s really the last chance for a Michigan audience to ever see the company,” Jacobson said. “With Merce, it’s almost like everyone has their own narrative and experiences the work differently, and I think so many students are gonna groove on the music ’cause it’s so great.”

In addition to the performances, the company is participating in a week-long residency, which will include heavy interaction with the University Dance Department and a class at the Ross School of Business, film screenings and other events.

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