Unique dancing in the age of Merce; The legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company comes to Warwick Arts Centre tonight as part of its first-ever UK tour. The veteran choreographer talks to Terry Grimley.
Few words have been more comprehensively devalued in recent years than 'legend', a term which it sometimes seems has now been applied to everyone who has ever kicked a football or picked up a guitar.
But when it comes to Merce Cunningham, it's tricky to avoid. Now 85 and widely described as the world's greatest living choreographer, he celebrated 50 years of his own company last year.
Together with his teacher Martha Graham he spans the entire history of modern dance, collaborating with some of the key figures in the American avant garde such as the composer John Cage and the artist Robert Rauschenberg.
And he is still going strong. At the beginning of his company's first-ever UK tour ten days ago Londonaudiences saw his recent piece Split Sides, a collaboration with British and Icelandic art rockers Radiohead and Sigur Ros.
When both bands responded positively to an approach to supply music, Cunningham commissioned both. A roll of the dice immediately before each performance decides which goes first - along with which costumes, set design and lighting to use. In all, Split Sides can be 'mixed' in 72 different ways.
One reviewer remarked that Cunningham looked frail when rolling the dice at the Barbican, but the voice on the line from New York - where he has had to return for more work in the studio - is firm, warm and friendly.
'I'm supposed to come back for [the end of the tour in] Edinburgh, but I had to come back here for a few days,' he explains, adding on the subject of his collaboration with Radiohead: 'My feeling is that I would like to be involved in the time I live in.'
Unfortunately, Split Sides will not figure in the company's two performances at Warwick Arts Centre tonight and tomorrow, but what the Coventry audience will see will be wholly representative of the Cunningham philosophy.
Most dance companies aim to perfect a piece in rehearsal and then give the best possible performances of it on tour, but Cunningham's dancers are presenting a unique spectacle at each venue. Each one is a dip into the vast bran tub of past repertoire, but also looks forward to a new piece, Views on Stage, which will be unveiled in its entirety in Edinburgh. In Coventry, the lighting for it will be seen for the first time.
Reflecting Cunningham's preference for living in the moment, this now well-established format is what he calls an 'event'.
He explains: 'The dancers do a performance which consists of a kind of single work: there's no interval and it lasts about 75 minutes. It's comprised of things from our past, duets and trios out of pieces, so that the content is going from one thing to another. We have rehearsed things separately that we know we may be able to use. At the end, about the last third is devoted to the new work.
'We call it an event, and it came about because we were offered a performance in Vienna. They wanted us to perform very much but the only place they had was a platform in a museum, in no sense a conventional theatre.
'So we decided rather than doing three pieces we would try to do a single piece from beginning to end. The architecture was not a conventional theatre, so we could think a different way.
'At each place some elements are added that are new for that particular situation. The other night they performed in Sheffield, which was a stage, but by lifting the wings, the curtains at the side, and leaving the stage totally open, we could create a different kind of space.'
How closely is Cunningham himself involved in shaping the performance to each venue?
'Some I've seen, but we get descriptions and often photographs. I know, for example, in Brighton they will be giving the event in a concert hall, so you will think what does it have that might be useful.
'We've given them in many different places: we did one in Grand Central Station in New York City and we've done one in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. It's taking the situation for what it is and working with it. 'I think that life is taking chances. Also, it gives us the opportunity of performing in a situation where in ordinary circumstances we would say we can't do that.'
The element of randomness is the aspect of Cunningham's work that commentators most often seize on. Where for most choreographers the music and design have to be exactly matched for artistic success, in Cunningham's world - as the extreme example of Split Sides demonstrates - they are a much looser fit.
As his long-time collaborator John Cage once famously put it: 'Merce does his thing and I do my thing, and for your convenience we put them together.'
The randomness favoured in such works as Cage's notorious composition 4'33', nominally silent but actually consisting of whatever ambient sound is bracketed in its performance time, was long regarded with incomprehension, though by the 60s it proved a big influence on the Beatles. Today Cunningham feels it fits more naturally with people's general experience of life.
'I feel it's different now, and I think there are lots of reasons for that. Just in life, we live differently and we see things differently. The idea of having several different things going on at the same time was very curious to people, but now they're so used to television where there are different things happening all the time.'
He says of Cage, whose music is featured in Views on Stage: 'John, for those who knew him, was a bright spark. He was funny, with a marvellous sense of humour. He could see the contemporary situation.'
One of Cage's less likely achievements, as a 'way-out' artist, was not only to enter a quiz show on Italian television but to win it, thereby acquiring a large quantity of lire. Cunningham recalls that his company, where Cage was then music director, was a direct beneficiary.
'John was totally practical about everything he did,' he comments.
Though understandably finding his own movement more difficult these days, Cunningham continues to work with a team of understudies while the main company is away on tour, developing work which will be transferred on the company's return.
Since 1991 he has been using computers extensively. On the face of it, this seems contradictory for a choreographer whose work is rooted in the physicality of the body rather than imagery.
'Yes, but it's the image of a body moving,' he explains. 'It looks like a person and you would make this person move. You can see a sequence of movement and you can make the computer repeat it and repeat it. You can make it move in ways which are familiar to you, but it may also suggest something you would not otherwise have thought of.'
Sometimes the computer will suggest something that proves too awkward in reality, 'but then I would see something else, some other possibility.'
So in his 86th year Merce Cunningham still has no thoughts of retiring to his assured place in dance history.
'I do want to continue: I find movement just as fascinating as ever,' he says. 'There are limits - of course, you only have two feet. But I think the possibilities within this are endless.' The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs at Warwick Arts Centre tonight and tomorrow at 7.30pm (Box office: 024 7652 4524).
Merce Cunningham's dancers present a unique spectacle at each venue; Picture/TONY DOUGHERTY; Merce Cunningham Picture/MARK SELIGER