A career that spans Warhol and Radiohead

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Merce Cunningham has been pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance for more than 50 years by combining ordinary movements like walking, running, and jumping into elegant stage works.

He's a rebel choreographer who believes in movement for its own sake, rather than to tell a story or evoke emotions, à la Martha Graham.

So it's no surprise that he has chosen experimental rock bands, Radiohead from Britain and Iceland's Sigur Rós, to co-create the score for his next work, "Split Sides," premièring in October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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"There might be people coming to the theater who haven't heard of Merce Cunningham, but not very many who don't know Radiohead, as far as I can tell. They are like the Beatles," says Mr. Cunningham.

Each band will compose 20-minute segments - and, true to Cunningham tradition, won't get to see the choreography ahead of time. That also holds true for the stage designers. The ingredients come together for the first time at dress rehearsal. This equal-opportunity theatrical interaction dates back to the 1940s, when Cunningham began his long partnership with composer John Cage. He added such cutting-edge contemporary visual artists - such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella - who provided designs for the works.

"I don't know how it will all work out [with Radiohead and Sigur Rós]. I've never asked the musicians if they've worked with dancers before," says Cunningham.

Another aspect of Cunningham's risk- taking involves the element of chance. For "Split Sides," a public toss of a coin will determine the order of two sections of dance and music, and which of the pairs of designs, costumes, and lighting plots will be used for each performance.

This artistic trail-blazing has brought Cunningham a host of honors - perhaps making up for the evenings when members of the audience walked out in dismay. He will be awarded the MacDowell Medal this Sunday, in a public ceremony at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. The 44th recipient of the award, he is the first artist to be recognized in the category of interdisciplinary arts.

"Throughout his 50-year-plus career, Merce has been - and at 84 continues to be - radical, eradicating differences between disciplines," says Dan Hurlin, the performance artist who chaired the medal selection committee.

Although principally a choreographer, he started his professional career as a performer with Graham in 1939 and later started his own company in 1953.

Cunningham long has been interested in video as a tool for creating dances. In 1991, he began to employ computer technology to choreograph the gestures, postures, and movements for his works. And he's a visual artist himself, having exhibited both his dance notations and the tiny drawings he makes for his own amusement. Last year, Aperture published a book of his sketches, "Other Animals: Drawings and Journals."

"I draw every day," he says. "It came about by accident 20 years ago. We were on tour in Los Angeles. I was sitting in my room, waiting for a bus.... I looked out the window and saw a beautiful tree. I picked up a pencil and began to draw."

While on tour with his company at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., in late July, he used the environment outside the theater for one surprising visual effect. The rear door of the stage slid open so the audience could glimpse the dancers against a group of Warhol-designed silver pillows, floating mysteriously among the lighted trees. That same night, musicians Takehisa Kosugi and Andy Russ were placed at the rear of the theater, where they could not see the dancers as they produced a score of dissonant sound and music.

True to form, on at least one evening, viewers left before it ended. "[The spectator] has choices to make," he has said. "He could get up and leave, and often did."

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