At Jacob's Pillow, a great American master in a great American house of dance

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BECKET — In a recent New Yorker article titled "Must the Show Go On?" Joan Acocella discusses the now-familiar topic of legacy within the modern dance world. In the case of Merce Cunningham, whose centenary is being honored in various ways around the world this year, the answer is yes, of course.

The company that bore Cunningham's name no longer exists, per his own instructions. But he allowed his dances to live on, provided they'd be authoritatively staged. Enter Robert Swinston, a longtime Cunningham dancer and now the director of Compagnie CNDC-Angers, which is performing a program of three Cunningham works this week at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. The dancers are terrific, the setting ideal, the timing glorious: This great American master (as Pillow director Pamela Tatge said in her curtain speech), presented in this great American house of dance, this particular week.

The program begins with a short film that illustrates the Pillow's long affair with Cunningham and his dancers, who first appeared at the Festival in 1955. There's Cunningham himself, in archival footage, bounding about the stage. If one of the valid concerns about legacy is whether a choreographer's style can be properly maintained through future generations, Cunningham's own inimitable manner — at once satyric and impish, earthy and airy — refocuses the argument. It's not a matter of today's dancers copying yesterday's, but rather, understanding the spirit of the techniques and works of the various masters, and carrying them forward.

Presenting the famously-iconoclastic Cunningham style, however, is complex. Cunningham and composer/musician John Cage — his longtime creative and life partner — made works in which the dance and music were meant to stand on their own, rather than hold each other up. (All the works on this week's program are set to Cage compositions.) Cunningham's choreography, though largely based in the ballet vocabulary, is rarely "lyrical." At once expansive and minimalist, the movements are stripped of the flourishes that may make the dance more traditionally palatable: like the Romantic ballet choreographer August Bournonville, Cunningham used port de bras sparingly; his dancers don't bend with swooning luxury, but with nimble proficiency. They don't sweep across the stage with melting gracefulness, but with a kind of fey majesty, creaturely and athletic all at once.

On Cage's end, his scores rarely consisted of easily-heard meters or phrasing; indeed, they were often a seemingly random cacophony of sound that could be as jarring as it was fascinating. Or whimsical: One dance, the 1983 "Inlets 2," is accompanied by several water-filled conch shells which the musicians tip and turn or blow into; "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run" is accompanied by a series of stories by Cage, read aloud, onstage, in one-minute intervals.

However, in "Suite for Five," the earliest dance on the program, the dance is accompanied by one of Cage's more straightforward compositions, a compellingly spare piece for prepared piano performed live by Adam Tendler. Originally a suite of solos performed by Cunningham, the work was adapted to incorporate four more dancers but nonetheless maintains a sense of solitariness. As in many of Cunningham's pieces, at times "Suite" consists of a series of phrases performed at different times by dancers who sometimes seem to accidentally find themselves on the same stage. Catarina Pernao and Carlo Schiavo, the featured soloists, are particularly excellent, Pernao reaching her limbs with rock-solid precision into beautifully hovering extensions, Schiavo traveling across the stage with a whispery muscularity.

The program's closer, the 1965 "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run" is as drolly entertaining as its title suggests; those one-minute vignettes are often sharply funny — also random, but there are curious threads involving mushrooms, Buddhists, and the driving habits of "Mrs. Cunningham" — and read with witty succinctness by Laura Kuhn and Tendler (they, along with Swinston making a "cameo" appearance, are also in "Inlets 2"s conch band). As ever, the cast of eight's movement phrases, as well as exits and entrances, have nothing to do with the stories, but the incongruity here is hilarious. (And the usually-straight-faced Cunningham indulged in a few comedically agitated sequences.) Though several of the dancers have by now been working very hard throughout the program, balancing on one or another leg, for long moments, they maintain the calm strength that tells us everything about their commitment to Cunningham, and of Swinston's commitment to his dancers.

Cunningham didn't seem overly concerned with showing us how the parts added up; famously, he often arranged sequences through "chance procedures." Mostly, this unpredictability makes for a bracing viewing experience — in "Suite," the parts do add up in a deeply satisfying way — but very occasionally the arbitrariness can tiptoe into tedium, as in moments of the otherwise lovely "Inlets 2." These challenges can mean that the appreciation of Cunningham dances requires practice. In the 10 years since Cunningham's erstwhile company visited the Pillow — and since this American master passed away — I find myself craving his vision. Interesting how, sometimes, the thought of losing something makes it all the more delicious.

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A version of this review first appeared in The Boston Globe. Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com.

Dance review

What: Compagnie CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston

Who: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festval

Where: Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket

When: Through Sunday. Evenings — Tonight and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2

Tickets $45-78.

Reservations/Information: 413-243-0745; jacobspillow.org


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