July 27, 2009

RIP Merce Cunningham

The great modern/avant-garde dance choreographer Merce Cunningham passed away today at the age of 90.  Considered one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, he was also one of the great dancers as well.  He was a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company for six years before forming his own troupe.

In my prior life as a lighting designer, I did mostly plays and musicals.  Whenever I was asked to design for a modern dance concert, though, I always lept at the chance.  The apparent lack of structure to a modern dance piece let me play with techniques I wouldn't ever try during a play, simply because I was being graded on my "formal" designs.

I put "apparent" in italics up there because in many ways, modern dance is all about structure.  Just like ballet, it is never, ever improved, though it is often hard to tell.  There's a common symbolic language for modern dance that allows a choreographer to put a piece on paper, just like a score for an orchestra.  Nowadays, it's done via computer programs, of course.

But that structure was less confining than the traditional ballet style, letting a choreographer pull off some amazing things.  Because of that, I LOVED designing for dance.  It was really the only time that I, as a designer, felt like I was one of the performers. 

Usually in a stage production (with some rare exceptions), the best lighting designs are the ones you never notice... kinda like a baseball umpire.  It may take hundreds or thousands of hours to accomplish, but the lights are there to make the actors look good, not to make themselves look good.

With modern dance, however, lighting is there to accompany the dancers on-stage, sometimes literally.  I remember one senior dance project I worked on when I was in grad school where the choreographer wanted a duet on stage: one physical dancer, and the lights were the other 'dancer'.  She came to me before she started anything and asked for my opinions and input... and I was thrilled.  It was a bear to pull off with limited resources, but we made it work.

Modern dance allows you to do things like that.  While Cunningham's style was much closer to ballet than, say, Twyla Tharp's, and not for everyone's tastes, he was still one of the great  innovators of a style of art that I love.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 08:56 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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