BECKET — In a recent New Yorker article titled “Must the Show Go On?” Joan Acocella discusses the now familiar topic of legacy within the modern dance world. In the case of Merce Cunningham, whose centenary is being honored in various ways around the world this year, the answer is yes, of course.
The company that bore Cunningham’s name no longer exists, per his own instructions. But he allowed his dances to live on, provided they’d be authoritatively staged. Enter Robert Swinston, a longtime Cunningham dancer and now the director of Compagnie CNDC-Angers, which is performing a program of three Cunningham works this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The dancers are terrific, the setting ideal, the timing glorious: this great American master (as Pillow director Pamela Tatge said in her curtain speech) presented in this great American house of dance this particular week.
Presenting the famously iconoclastic Cunningham style is complex. He and composer/musician John Cage — his longtime creative and life partner — made works in which the dance and music were meant to stand on their own, rather than hold each other up. (All the works on this week’s program are set to Cage compositions.) Cunningham’s choreography, though largely based on ballet vocabulary, is rarely “lyrical.” At once expansive and minimalist, the movements are stripped of the flourishes that may make the dance more traditionally palatable. His dancers don’t bend with swooning luxury, but with nimble proficiency. They don’t sweep across the stage with melting gracefulness, but with a kind of fey majesty, creaturely and athletic all at once.
On Cage’s end, his scores rarely consisted of easily heard meters or with conventional instruments. One dance, the 1983 “Inlets 2,” is accompanied by several water-filled conch shells that the musicians tip and turn or blow into; “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” is accompanied by a series of stories written by Cage, read aloud onstage.
However, in “Suite for Five,” the earliest dance on the program, the dance is accompanied by one of Cage’s more straightforward compositions, a compellingly spare piece for prepared piano performed live by Adam Tendler. Originally a suite of solos performed by Cunningham, the work was adapted to incorporate four more dancers but maintains a sense of solitariness. Carlo Schiavo and Catarina Pernão, the featured soloists, are particularly excellent, Schiavo traveling across the stage with a whispery muscularity and Pernão reaching her limbs with rock-solid precision into beautifully hovering extensions.
The program’s closer, the 1965 “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run,” is as drolly entertaining as its title suggests. One-minute vignettes are read with witty succinctness by Laura Kuhn and Tendler. As ever, the movement phrases have nothing to do with the stories, but the incongruity here is hilarious. And the dancers maintain the calm strength that tells us everything about their commitment to Cunningham, and of Swinston’s commitment to his dancers.
Cunningham didn’t seem overly concerned with showing us how the parts added up; famously, he often arranged sequences through “chance procedures.” Mostly, this unpredictability makes for a bracing viewing experience — in “Suite,” the parts do add up in a deeply satisfying way — but occasionally the arbitrariness can tiptoe into tedium, as in moments of the otherwise lovely “Inlets 2.” These challenges can mean that the appreciation of Cunningham dances requires practice. In the 10 years since Cunningham’s erstwhile company visited the Pillow — and since this American master passed away — I find myself craving his vision. Interesting how, sometimes, the thought of losing something makes it all the more delicious.
COMPAGNIE CNDC-ANGERS/ROBERT SWINSTON
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets $45-$78. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org