Merce Cunningham was one of the three most influential choreographers of the 20th century. (The other two were George Balanchine and Martha Graham.) He choreographed nearly 200 works of modern dance between 1944 and his death, in 2009, fundamentally redefining the genre of modern dance for the second half of the century. This year marks the centennial of his birth, and classic Cunningham dances are being performed all over the world. One performance stands out: the double bill of Beach Birds and Biped at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., which will run from October 3 to 5.
Beach Birds is indisputably classic Cunningham, but Biped belongs in a celestial category all its own. I’ve come to regard it as Cunningham’s last masterwork and, given its premiere in 1999, the last great work of modern dance created in the 20th century. It’s also the most luminous example of Cunningham’s career-long fascination with the intersection of dance and advanced technologies. Not only was Biped choreographed on a computer, but onstage the living bodies of the dancers are often juxtaposed with ghostly, “motion captured” images of their virtual selves.