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Cunningham and Morris world premieres in Berkeley.

BERKELEY, California--"They commissioned August Pace in 1989, and co-commissioned the new work this spring," Merce Cunningham said over the phone in his soft, elfin voice one afternoon, speaking about his upcoming April appearance at Zellerbach Hall on the University of California campus. "It's a great help and it's very nice when it comes from a place like Berkeley, with that marvelous California sunshine, although I realize it doesn't always shine."

Next month, a week after Cunningham, the Delphic oracle of modern dance, celebrates his eightieth birthday, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will stage his latest work, Biped, clocked at forty-five minutes, to live music by the British composer Gavin Bryars and his ensemble, with computer-generated decor by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar. Described solely as "complex" by its creator, it is the latest in a series of firsts from Cunningham for Cal Performances.

"My relationship with Merce began in 1978 in Buffalo, New York, at Shea's Buffalo Theater," Cal Performances' seasoned director Robert Cole, a former conductor and clarinetist, said in his office below the theater, where the window looks out on a small green hill. "When I came here, I thought, `This is an opportunity.' I feel devoted to his work. I think certainly he's on the great artists list of all time." It was Cole who rushed to Cunningham backstage in Brussels, where Ocean received its premiere in 1994, to be the first to ask for the U.S. premiere. Cunningham said yes, and two years later the smell of sweat and wet socks very nearly still hung in the air opening night at Harmon Arena, the university's basketball gymnasium where the epic dance-in-the-round took place.

Ocean is an evening-length piece, and thus the public saw no repertory that year, something the sixty-seven-year-old presenter missed. "I thought, `He's nearly eighty. We should get on it and bring him every year.'" And, so, since 1994, Cunningham indeed has come. "This year," mused Cole, "I didn't say I wanted to commission the piece. They offered the new work. No one else in the world has this relationship with Cunningham, outside the Paris Opera."

If the rapport with MCDC is stellar, Cole's ties to the Mark Morris Dance Group seem intergalactic. This month, as part of Morris's annual residency (his company has had twelve two-to-four-week Berkeley residencies since 1987), the choreographer will present another Cal Performances commission, the premiere of Dixit Dominus to George Frideric Handel's work of the same name, with full chorus and solo voices. Created, Cole said, "by the twenty-one-year-old Handel to outdo" all the music swells in Rome (Scarlatti, for example), Dixit Dominus is as ornately difficult a work of choral music as Morris could hope to find. It will be a program closer, Cole explained, something that will "get audiences to go `wow.'"

Also on the boards this month is the co-commission (with the Vienna Festival, MC93 Bobigny of Paris, and London's Barbican Centre) of the sixteenth-century kunqu opera, Peony Pavilion, directed by postmodernist director Peter Sellars with traditional dances staged and performed by opera star Madame Hua Wenyi, whom Cole calls "the greatest dancer of that tradition."

If Cole had his druthers, choreographer Maguy Marin would also be on the front line with Morris and Cunningham, but luring her 9,000 miles from the enticements of cultural life in France has proved daunting, he said. Has anyone told her that Berkeley has the some of the best levain bread and cafe au lait outside of France?
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Title Annotation:Mark Morris; Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris
Author:Murphy, Ann
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:582
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