Last but not least

Merce Cunningham's final, memorable Nearly 90(2)

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Looking at the last piece by the greatest choreographer of the second half of the 20th century seemed a daunting prospect. What if it was less than good? Could I see it as something that stood on its own terms regardless of the context?

My concerns evaporated the minute the curtain opened on Merce Cunningham's Nearly 90(2), the traveling version of Nearly Ninety, which premiered on Cunningham's 90th birthday, on April 19, 2009. (The superscript for the road show is surely a final twinkle from those pale blue Cunningham eyes.) The elaborate set is gone; the musicians (John King and Takeshisa Kusogi), performing former Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones's score, are now in the pit. What remains the same, one has to assume, is the choreography, still performed by a cast trained by Cunningham himself. Nearly 90(2) is an exquisite piece of and about dance making; it is perhaps the most intimate work of his extraordinary career.

Throughout his life, Cunningham resisted narrative readings, but in Nearly 90(2) I couldn't help feeling the choreographer's presence; he seemed to be looking at the dancers one by one as they walked in from opposite sides of the wings, as if on call. He paired this one with that one, tried to see what could be done with trios, and finally took a close look at some individuals. Watching the piece felt like observing the process of shape-giving.

The pacing was slow and deliberate; the clarity with which each torque, each angled limb, and each crossover step was given time to reach the fullness of its expression encouraged close watching. But it was not just the audience that was seeing through Cunningham's eyes: the dancers, too, participated in this process of looking. They'd finish a phrase and then sit to see where the section would spin to with someone else. At one point, a trio — looking uncannily like a Henry Moore sculpture — implacably watched another trio and then returned to its own work.

With its multiple points of view, Cunningham's choreography often looks structurally unfocused. Nearly 90(2) was formally transparent. The choreographer, one more time, contemplated a set of questions and, here, set them out in front of us like a diorama of possibilities. What could be done with, let's say, that most basic of building stones, the duet? Are two dancers, physically apart, a duet? At what point do two duets become a quartet or four soloists? But Cunningham doesn't care about the answers; he is interested in the questions.

When Andrea Weber and Rashaun Mitchell, the first of five couples, stretched, cantilevered, and folded their limbs, they were off-balance yet in equilibrium with each other. When all five duets engaged in similar encounters, you couldn't miss the individuality of the combinations. No wonder fleet-footed Julie Cunningham and newcomer Jamie Scott smiled at each other in passing.

Before looking at each dancer individually, Cunningham explored trios that were more grounded than the often precarious duets, supported on two legs while the other two had landed somewhere in space. Here Cunningham's dancers explored volume and weight. They first grew and contracted like a bellows, never letting go of each other even as Weber pulled herself across the stage like a plow horse. Later, the partners were knitted together through small, intricate exchanges, but they didn't touch.

The solos finally looked like little bouquets that Cunningham wanted to pass to individual dancers: John Hinrichs's push-up flipped open like a book, Melissa Toogood shone in sparkling footwork, and Mitchell's hip rotations on top of a deep plié rolled across the stage like an earthquake.

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