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Merce Cunningham film to open at the Uptown; Poland’s Atom String Quartet at the Dakota

The original Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Robert Rutledge/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
The original Merce Cunningham Dance Company in a scene from “Cunningham,” a Magnolia Pictures release.

Outside of New York, Minneapolis has had the longest love affair with choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). It began in 1948, five years before the founding of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, when Cunningham wrote to the Walker about a possible tour stop in Minneapolis. The Walker first presented him in 1963 and again the following year.

In 1969, Cunningham had his first artist residency here; he would return in that role eight more times. In 1994, the Walker produced the final performance of Cunningham’s “Ocean” in a granite quarry in central Minnesota. In 2013, the Walker acquired the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s archive of sets and costumes (some 4,300 items); in 2017, “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” the largest survey of his work yet mounted, opened in multiple galleries, accompanied by a massive catalog.

Given our history with the iconic artist, it’s no surprise that a producer of the new film “Cunningham,” which opens tonight (Friday, Jan. 3) at the Uptown Theatre, is based in Minneapolis. Kelly Gilpatrick will be at the Uptown tonight for a Q&A following the 7:30 p.m. screening.

Dance is such an important part of the arts in the Twin Cities, of our cultural fabric, there should be a line out the door and down Lagoon tonight to see this film. And for days after. Everyone who makes dance or watches dance should go. Anyone who is mildly curious about dance should see it, because it’s so beautiful, so joyous, enlightening and approachable. The language of dance can be daunting. “Cunningham” shows, not tells, why dance matters. And why Merce Cunningham was such a big deal.

Russian director Alla Kovgan’s film is more narrative than documentary. There are no talking heads in empty rooms. The story of Cunningham’s approach to art, rise to prominence, company, tours, challenges and successes is told in filmed excerpts from performances and rehearsals, restaged excerpts, and visual collages of ephemera: letters, programs, photographs and sentences that write themselves on the screen. We see short and long, archival and contemporary segments of 25 dances Cunningham created from 1942-72. In frame-within-a-frame segments, Cunningham dances alongside contemporary performances of his work. He was a brilliant dancer.

Throughout, his philosophy is revealed in his own voice and words. Asked to describe himself, he responds, “I’m a dancer. That is sufficient for me.” And “Dancing does not refer. It is what it is.” And “We don’t interpret something. We do something. Interpretation is left up to the audience.” And “Any movement is possible for dancing, ranging all the way from nothing to the most extended kind of movement.”

John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg in “Cunningham,” a Magnolia Pictures release.
Douglas Jeffrey/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg in “Cunningham,” a Magnolia Pictures release.
Today Cunningham would be called a disrupter. For him, dance was not about interpreting music. Movement and music were two separate things that met in performance as equals. Sets and costumes were also independent. Surely this was a reason so many musicians and artists wanted to work with him: John Cage (who became his life partner), Morton Feldman, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol. They (and Cunningham’s dancers) got to be themselves. Cunningham choreographed with a stopwatch, with coin tosses, with the I Ching, open to randomness. He took risks just to see what would happen. His dancers responded with “a carte blanche trust.”

The new sequences in “Cunningham,” including the restagings of “Summerspace” (with Rauschenberg’s spotted costumes and pointillistic backdrops), “Rainforest” (with Warhol’s helium-filled Mylar balloons) and the surprisingly violent “Winterbranch,” were filmed in 3D. The Uptown is showing the 2D version. Don’t let that stop you from seeing this film. And if it returns in 3D, see it again.

FMI including trailer, times and tickets.

The picks

Opens tonight (Friday, Jan. 3) at the Gremlin Theatre: “Becky Shaw.” Gina Gionfriddo’s “ferociously funny” comedy opened off Broadway in January 2009, amid the doom and gloom of theater closings. It was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play turns on what happens when a newlywed couple arranges a meeting between two friends, snarky Max and sexy Becky. Ellen Fenster directs a cast that includes Kevin Fanshaw, Jodi Kellogg, Chelsie Newhard, Logan Verdoorn and Olivia Wilusz. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($28; under 30, pay half your age). Closes Jan. 26.

Sunday (Jan. 5) in MacPhail’s Antonello Hall: The Bakken Trio: Triptych featuring Hanna HyunJung Kim. Joined by pianist Kim, a newcomer to Minnesota, the Bakken – Stephanie Arado, violin; Hyobi Sim, viola; Pitnarry Shin, cello – will perform a lovely late-afternoon program of Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, written for Clara Schumann; Austro-Hungarian composer Hans Gál’s Divertimento for Violin and Cello; and two works by contemporary Russian polymath Lera Auerbach, Piano Trio No. 2 and “Triptych: This Mirror Has Two Faces.” 4 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25 adults). Children and students free; call 612-54-1967 for availability.

Real Bulls JT Bates and Dave King
Courtesy of Icehouse
Real Bulls JT Bates and Dave King
Monday at Icehouse: JC Sanford’s Monday Night Jazz residency begins. In late 2018, after drummer JT Bates stepped back from curating his longtime Monday-night JT’s Jazz Implosion series at Icehouse (and before then, the Clown Lounge), Icehouse owner Brian Liebeck tried a new plan: asking individual artists to curate shows a month at a time. We’ll always miss JT, but we saw a lot of good music in 2019. Including, most recently, December’s “Great Black Music Mondays” series curated by Mankwe Ndosi, which diversified audiences and broadened minds. We expect great things from trombonist, composer and conductor Sanford, who recently took over as director of the JazzMN Orchestra. Monday’s show will include two sets: Sanford’s Triocracy, with Brandon Wozniak and Bruce Thornton, and Real Bulls, with Dave King and Bates battling it out on drums, sometimes with antlers. 8 p.m. FMI. $10 cover at the door.

The Atom String Quartet
Photo by Ivon Wolak
The Atom String Quartet was formed in Warsaw in 2010; all four members graduated from the Frederic Chopin University of Music.
Tuesday (Jan. 7) at the Dakota: Atom String Quartet. Think “jazz” and “string quartet” probably won’t pop into your head. Though Turtle Island Quartet plays jazz, and the Harlem String Quartet, and Kronos has played it, most string quartets are classical. The Atom String Quartet plays mainly jazz. That’s one surprising thing about them. Another? They’re Polish. In March 2019, the Polish-American Cultural Institute of Minnesota (PACIM) brought them here for a performance in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium. They’re now on their second American tour, with stops in San Francisco and Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Atom was formed in Warsaw in 2010; all four members graduated from the Frederic Chopin University of Music. They have since played with top orchestras – and with artists including Branford Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin. Catch them in our part of the world. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($45-35).

Tuesday at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ: “Something New, Something Borrowed: An Evening of Chamber Music.” A specialist in new music, composer, violinist and pianist Brian Krinke grew up in Minnesota, earned degrees at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute, and teaches in Colorado. His many performances in the U.S. and South America have included appearances with the SPCO and the Plymouth Music Series. He’ll be here to play his own compositions, including a world premiere, with Minnesota Orchestra oboist Kathy Greenbank and cellist Laura Sewell. The concert will also include solo and chamber works by Bach, Ravel and more. 7:30 p.m. Free admission; suggested donation $15 adults, $5 seniors and students.

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