Dancer Collette Stewart

Review: 16th Annual Modern Dance Festival at the Modern: Celebrating the Merce Cunningham Centennial | Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth | The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Merce Me!

Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth kicked off its Merce Cunningham celebration at the Modern Dance Festival at the Modern.

published Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Photo: John Maniaci
Dancer Collette Stewart


Fort Worth — As you prepare to journey into the world of Merce Cunningham and the 2019 Modern Dance Festival at the Modern’s tribute to his work, let’s begin with an element of chance: Before reading, flip a coin. If you reveal “heads,” continue with Part I, then Part II. If your coin lands “tails,” begin the article with Part II and circle back to Part I. Let the fun commence!


Part I

What would happen if dance and musical accompaniment existed separately? What if we used a coin flip or a roll of dice to determine the order of steps in a piece of choreography? Does dance need narrative to be successful?

These questions are just a few of many considered by the great Merce Cunningham during his performance in, creation of, and development of post-modern dance. Dancers and avant-garde artists of other disciplines know him for his contributions to post-modern dance technique, avant-garde experiments, and his collaborative creative process. Despite beginning his dance career in more traditional styles and eventually joining Martha Graham’s company in the early 1940s, his later work pushed past popular notions of concert dance—instead becoming known for producing movement “for movement’s sake.” His time in New York brought him in contact with other avant-garde artists like those of the Judson Church “Happenings” who were also pursuing new ways of thinking about movement, music, art, and design. But by far, the most influential of these meetings was composer John Cage—a visionary musician who drew similarities between Cunningham’s movement practices and his own auditory experiments from early on in their relationship.

Although he worked with these rebellious artists, he forged his own path in regard to reevaluating the technique, structure, and possibilities of modern dance—relying on chance, probability, technology, and physics rather than the Judson Church’s fascination with improvisation and Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto.” In contrast, Cunningham’s work featured entirely set choreography—his experiment was in the construction and order of this movement. Fixated on aesthetics instead of narrative, emotion, or environmental influences Cunningham’s primary focus was on the capabilities of the human body in space. Revolutionary in his time and legendary in the present, Cunningham’s work offers dancers, dance-makers, and dance-viewers a fresh, surprising, and always changing exploration of the body in relation to space.


Photo: Annie Leibovitz/Merce Cunningham Trust
Merce Cunningham

Part II

In the spirit of Merce Cunningham’s style, Kerry Kreiman of Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth (CD/FW) challenged artists to bring work that embraced his elements of chance to the 2019 Modern Dance Festival. A favorite annual event at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, The Modern Dance Festival invites performers from across the country to share their artistic endeavors with audience members and unsuspecting museum goers alike. With each program based on a specific theme, it seemed particularly fitting to celebrate Cunningham on during the year of his 100th birthday. And so, over the span of two weekends, dancers, musicians, and artists alike will gather to honor both Cunningham and musical partner John Cage in their tradition of “events” through performances, films, and lectures.

In my coverage of the first weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of work each artist brought and by the more cohesive aesthetic of the overall festival. While last year’s theme inspired by Takashi Murakami proved to be a mixed bag, this Cunningham Centennial Celebration offered a more coherent program bound by similar motifs and strategies—the most common of these was of course, the theme of chance—a Cunningham specialty. Paying homage to his performative choices, the majority of artists chose not to hear their musical accompaniment beforehand. Thus, the simultaneous merging of movement and music occurred for the first time on the museum entry’s floor. For performances like Muscle Memory Dance Theatre (July 14) and Tina Mullone  (July 12), this resulted in moments of unintentional connection.

Originally performed to a different musical score, Muscle Memory Dance Theatre paired their clenched, tense choreography with Brent Fariss of the New Music Co-op and his ethereal, ambient sounds—giving /ə’dikSH(ə)n/ a captivating combination of pedestrian walks with simple noises and swelling moments of unison rolls, melts, and stretched balances.

Alternatively, Tina Mullone’s Point and Line to Time was reminiscent of Cunningham’s quirkier choreography—spongey knee bounces and playful wiggles existed alongside the airy notes of Meg Griffith’s flute—producing complimentary atmospheres rubbing against one another.

Another fun experiment resided in Wisconsin-based artist Collette Stewart’s Toccato/Dissolution performed both Friday and Sunday—but with a twist. Stewart’s first version featured Griffith’s accompaniment and a set organization of choreography. Her rippling upper body, sharp elbows, and oppositional pulls were mesmerizing in their own right, due to her stunning fluidity and accented dynamic changes. However, these qualities gleamed even brighter in her Sunday performance dictated by chance. Stewart offered audience members a playing card coinciding with a particular chunk of movement in order to determine the order of the choreography. Despite the familiar hand gestures, soft floorwork, and deliberate focus, Dissolution took on an entirely new organic tone in the altered, silent version.

Alluding to Cunningham and his company members’ involvement with the Judson Church movement, Jordan Fuchs’ Quartet Rolling gave viewers a taste of a different kind of experiment within the post-modern dance tradition. In a tight embrace, four dancers pushed and rolled throughout the space—even venturing into audience areas as they spiraled their legs with spidery twists in between breathy pauses. Another bonus was Andy Russ’ (former Supervisor for Cunningham’s company in the 1990s) accompaniment.

Speaking of music…with accompaniment from artists like TCU’s John Hopkins, the Texas New Music Ensemble, and Tammy Gomez of Sound Culture, both shows captured Cage’s ground breaking experimental sounds through traditional instruments like drums and vocals and every-day objects like paper and buckets.

The most entertaining musical performance award goes to David Bacon in his collaborations with dancer Jessica Thomas. As Thomas ran, skipped, hopped, and shook, Bacon cracked glowsticks, ripped paper, and even bounced on a mini trampoline for their collaborations in Chance Divided by 2 - #1 and Chance Divided by 2- #2. Their whimsical partnership provoked a bundle of comedic exchanges and lighthearted play.

To close both shows, CD/FW invited a heightened level of audience participation by distributing timers and instructions for viewers and performers to enter the space for four minutes and thirty three seconds of “non-performance”—a tribute to Cage’s controversial 4’33’’ in which he directed his performers to avoid playing their instruments. Each event invited confusion, giggles, and alternative noise for an unconventional finish that surely would’ve pleased both Cage and Cunningham.


The Modern Dance Festival at the Modern continues with the following performances and events:


Friday, July 19, 2019

6:30 p.m., Grand Lobby

Performance of Dance and Music

Special guest Tamsin Carlson will perform the Merce Cunningham solos she learned for the Los Angeles performance of the Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event [See description near top of press release].  Both opening and closing the program, she'll perform the solos two different ways, with chance elements determining how they are performed. Additional performances will include choreography by Kali Taft Johnson (Kaliopi Movement Collective), Kerry Kreiman (CD/FW), and Jessica Thomas (Celina, TX).  Special musical guests from Austin’s New Music Co-Op:  composers Andrew Stoltz and Travis Weller will perform on “The Owl” (an instrument created by Weller).


Saturday, July 20, 2019 

12:30 p.m., Museum Auditorium 

“Viola Farber and the Cunningham Legacy” 

Screening of “Brazos River” and discussion with guest Jeff Slayton

A rare glimpse into The Modern’s archive, “Brazos River” (60 minutes) features the Viola Farber Dance Company in a special project which originated in Fort Worth.  Shot in December 1976, this collaborative video features choreography by Viola Farber, music by David Tudor, and costumes/set by Robert Rauschenberg. The project was conceived by the Fort Worth Art Museum's Performing Arts Director, Anne Livet, in conjunction with their Texas Bicentennial program, and was co-produced by KERA-TV Channel 13, Dallas-Fort Worth.  According to the Rauschenberg Foundation, this project marked Rauschenberg's first use of video, and he spent time working with studio technicians to understand what colors could be best transmitted on television.  Funding for the initial project included support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Texas Commission on the Arts & Humanities, the Fort Worth Art Museum, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Directed by Dan Parr.  Dancers featured: Jumay Chu, Larry Clark, Viola Farber, Willi Feuer, June Finch, Anne Koren, Susan Matheke, Andé Peck, and Jeff Slayton.  Guest speaker Jeff Slayton will introduce the video and lead a Q&A with the audience.  Farber and Slayton were members of the Cunningham company for many years, and this project is a perfect example of how Cunningham's work impacted the work of dancers who came out of his company.  Special thanks to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for contributing this work from their archives.

Slayton will also introduce a screening of Farber’s “January” (26 minutes) – Directed by Kevin Crooks in 1984, the Viola Farber Dance Company collaborated with TSW LTD to record her group work “January" at Dartington Hall in Devon, UK.


2:45 p.m., Museum Auditorium

Introduction to the “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event” screenings

Guest speakers Tamsin Carlson (featured performer from the Los Angeles location), Jeffrey Slayton (L.A. dance critic and former Cunningham company member), and Ken Tabachnik (executive director of the Merce Cunningham Trust), will give introductory remarks, background, and context regarding this special Event in honor of Merce Cunningham’s 100th birthday.  In addition, all three will be available for audience Q&A immediately following the screening of the Los Angeles performance.


Photo: Reed Hutchinson/CAP UCLA
Tamsin Carlson performs in Night of 100 Solos:  A Centennial Event at UCLA\'s Royce Hall

3 to 4:30 p.m., three museum locations

“Night of 100 Solos” screenings

Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event– With the original performances taking place on April 16th in New York City, Los Angeles, and London, the edited versions of this largest Cunningham Event ever will be displayed simultaneously in three locations:

Museum Auditorium — Los Angeles

Grand Lobby New York City

Gallery 14 London


Thursday, July 25, & Friday, July 26, 2019

8 p.m., Grand Lobby

Performance of Dance and Music

Composer/choreographer collaborative premieres featured will include:

Lynn Lane and Jennifer Mabus of The Transitory Sound and Movement Collective (Houston) will perform "An Echo of Nothing." The title is taken from the John Cage quote, "Every something is an echo of nothing."

“Blind Collaboration” a collaboration between composer German Lopez (Dallas) and choreographer Anna Preston (Preston Contemporary Dance Theatre, South Florida).  Through a chance drawing it was determined that the new group work will be 7:35 in length.

Muscle Memory Dance Theatre (Dallas) will perform artistic director Lesley Snelson’s quartet “Unveil Me” to a new sound score entitled "Heuristic Manifestations" by Fort Worth composer John Hopkins.  Decisions about the harmonic and melodic content, a free parameter and a textual prompt will be extracted from an I Ching reading. The yins and yangs will be assembled into the free parameter number and a code that will select one of 8 songs popular in the year of Merce Cunningham’s birth, 1919. Audience members who arrive early may have the opportunity to influence the outcome of the music for the dance by participating in the I Ching reading with the composer. 

“I’m tired of talking about race” - a new duet by Mel Mobley and Tina Mullone of M2 (Monroe, LA) based on a mesostic generated in a similar fashion to John Cage’s mesostics. Using names to create spine words and then chance procedures to populate the poetry read across, the music and dance that surround and accompany the poetry were built on the same chance procedures and the resulting text choices. Though most of the poem is read throughout the performance of the work, certain lines are left unspoken in homage to John Cage’s predilection for silence.

Choreographer Claudia Orcasitas (Fort Worth) is paired with composer Andrew Stoltz (Austin’s New Music Co-Op) for the premiere of her work “In transit" based on various combinations of solos determined through chance procedures.  Immediately prior to the performance, the dancers will use a chance drawing to determine which solo they will perform within the work. Inspired by Cunningham’s unconventional ways to make dances, Orcasitas is using chance elements to explore the endless possibilities of human connections within a specific place and time frame. While Cunningham's work emphasized abstracted movement without character or story line, Orcasitas is interested in seeing how the chance elements might create their own “story” in the viewer’s mind. 

Additional works include a group structure by Kerry Kreiman (CD/FW) in collaboration with the performers:  Cher Anabo, Courtney Mulcahy, Tina Mullone, Claudia Orcasitas, and Jessica Thomas.


Saturday, July 27, 2019

1:30 p.m., Museum Auditorium

Subject vs. Object:  Can Dance Be Abstract?

Lecture-performance and discussion exploring questions at the heart of the development of modern and contemporary dance.  Attendees are invited to bring their questions and observations to a conversation led by CD/FW artistic director Kerry Kreiman.  Experiments in trying to see human beings “abstractly” on the stage will be conducted in honor of the twentieth century dance maverick Daniel Nagrin, using some of the techniques he used to teach choreography and performance.


2:30 p.m., Grand Lobby

“Found, 1972, an Open Audience Pedestrian Dance” designed by performance artist Laney Yarber. Inspired by source materials from NYC-based post-modern choreographers of the 1960’s and 70’s, Yarber’s performance structure pays homage to aesthetics established by former Cunningham company members such as Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, along with cultural and aesthetic influences from Taoist master Mantak Chia, Dutch sound artist Jaap Blonk, and Russian director/actor/producer Vsevolod Meyerhold’s actor training system of “biomechanics” (which was a precursor to much of the “physical theatre” of the 20th Century).  In the post-modern tradition, the purpose and boundaries of all art forms were tested to their limits, including what may or may not constitute a “dance.”  Performers include: Clancy Manuel (sound creation), Tim King, Brian Patrick McCarthy, Katrina Perez-Titze, Jeffrey Pulis, Susan V. Taylor, and Laney Yarber.  Volunteers from the audience will be invited to participate in a follow-the-leader fashion led by the performers.


3 to 4:30 p.m., three Museum locations

 “Night of 100 Solos” screenings

Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event– With the original performances taking place on April 16th in New York City, Los Angeles, and London, the edited versions of this largest Cunningham Event ever will be displayed simultaneously in three locations:

Museum Auditorium -- London

Grand Lobby -- Los Angeles

Gallery 14 -- New York City Thanks For Reading

View the Article Slideshow
Click or Swipe to close
Merce Me!
Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth kicked off its Merce Cunningham celebration at the Modern Dance Festival at the Modern.
by Emily Sese

Share this article on Facebook
Tweet this article
Share this article on Google+
Share this article via email
Click or Swipe to close
Click or Swipe to close
views on theater, dance, classical music, opera and comedy performances
news & notes
reports from the local performing arts scene
features & interviews
who and what are moving and shaking in the performing arts scene
season announcements
keep up with the arts groups' upcoming seasons
listen to interviews with people in the local performing arts scene
media reviews
reviews and stories on performing arts-related film, TV, recordings and books
arts organizations
learn more about the local producing and presenting arts groups
performance venues
learn more about the theaters and spaces where the arts happen
keep up with fabulous ticket giveaways and other promotions
connect to local arts crowdfunding campaigns
post or view auditions and performing arts-related classes, services, jobs and more
about us
info on TheaterJones, our staff, what we do and how to contact us
Click or Swipe to close
First Name:
Last Name:
Date of Birth:
ZIP Code:
Your Email Address:
Click or Swipe to close
Join TheaterJones Around the Web

Follow Us on Twitter

Subscribe to our Youtube Channel

Click or Swipe to close
Search the TheaterJones Archives
Use any or all of the options below to search through all of reviews, interviews, features and special sections. If you are looking for a an event, use the calendar section of this website. This search will not search through the calendar.
Article Title Search:

Description Search:
TheaterJones Contributor:

TheaterJones Section:

Showing on or after:      Showing on or before:  
Click or Swipe to close
We welcome your comments

I am discussing:  

Your Name:
Your Email Adress:

please enter the text below and then click or tap SUBMIT :