It’s rare that older works of modern dance are performed in a context that vividly recalls their origins and artistic impact. But that’s what the Institute of Contemporary Art is offering in setting a series of performances right smack in the middle of the gallery showcasing it’s latest big exhibit, the impressive and ambitious “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957.”
On Saturday, Silas Riener and a remarkably talented octet of dancers from the Boston Conservatory presented a short program that highlighted the work of legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, who started his company at the famed experimental cross-disciplinary school. As they danced on a 20-by-20-foot sprung floor, with pianist Stephen Drury performing music by longtime Cunningham collaborators John Cage and Christian Wolff, they were framed by visual art from Black Mountain, from Robert Rauschenberg’s combine “Minutiae,” created for Cunningham’s ballet of the same name, to sculptures by Ruth Asawa, who claimed the choreographer’s dances influenced her sense of form.
The primary draw was a fiendishly challenging Cunningham solo called “Changeling,” which the dancer-choreographer premiered in 1957 but until now hadn’t been performed in more than 50 years. In collaboration with Jean Freebury, former Cunningham dancer Silas Riener reconstructed the solo, which was originally created using chance procedures, and gave a viscerally powerful and impeccably focused, controlled performance just inches away from seats along the stage periphery. Details, from stuttering feet and quivering fingers to the subtle change of gaze, were breathtakingly close and present. With volatile shifts in dynamics, weight, and line, clenched contortions unfolded into elegant arabesques or jumps that seemed to spring straight off the floor. Occasionally the work invoked a slightly feral quality, one moment a wild exotic creature with no arms, the next a bird, head thrusting upward, arms wingike. Cunningham called it an exploration of simultaneous containment and explosion.
Riener’s commitment to Cunningham’s aesthetic extends to his students, with whom he’s been working at the Boston Conservatory since August. He wove together small portions of several Cunningham dances (including “Minutiae,” “Dime a Dance,” “Springweather,” and “Septet,” among others) into an “event,” and his technically assured crew breezed through the challenging choreography with total commitment and impressive poise, seemingly undaunted by the tiny space. They found real ensemble cohesion amid unpredictable patterning and eclectic timing. They also displayed a thoughtful respect for stillness, especially in a riveting partnered duet and a quartet of connected off-center balances that set up a series of stunning tableaux, making it perfectly clear just how Asawa could have been so inspired.
At Institute of Contemporary Art, Saturday. Repeats through Jan. 24. Free with admission. www.icaboston.orgKaren Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.