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Austere Beauty

November 2, 2011

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company visited Stanford last night on its farewell tour under the auspices of the university's wonderful arts presenter, Stanford Lively Arts. Memorial Auditorium was packed with dance fans heavy with the knowledge that this would be the last time that they would get to see the iconic company in action before it disbands at the end of the year.

Given the momentous nature of the occasion, it was in a way surprising to see quite a few people leaving the auditorium in the middle of the Company's performance of Nearly Ninety, a restaging of the late choreographer's final work which was commissioned for his 90th birthday.

I imagine the ear-ringing industrial musical score was probably responsible in the main for the exodus. Sounding intermittently like a video game arcade, a casino full of maniacally ringing slot machines, a jackhammer breaking up a concrete sidewalk, a helicopter taking off and a the engine of an old car turning over, the music created an austere duet with the glacial beauty of Cunningham's often slow-motion dance steps.

I was personally transfixed by the movement, a collection of elongated, spacious poses that appeared to combine Cunningham's adaptations of standard ballet steps like developes, pirouettes and arabesques with Vinyasa yoga poses. The dancers' control and poise was incredible. I felt like I was watching time move incrementally. With the dancers' costumes gradually morphing from tight, charcoal body suits that showed off precise lines and clear forms to more fluid, almost amphibious-looking body suits with contours softened by the addition of flowing flaps of fabric that almost looked like fins, it seemed as if the work was visualizing the evolution of life on earth and the process of human aging.

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