Metro Weekly

Kennedy Center celebrates late, gay modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham

"Merce Cunningham at 100" runs through Saturday, Oct. 5 at the Kennedy Center

Merce Cunningham at 100: Biped. Robert Swinston Compagnie Centre National de Danse Comtemporaine Avengers — Photo: Jef Rabillon

It’s not every day you can play with balloons at the Kennedy Center. Of course, we’re not talking your basic party inflatables, but rather the large, helium-filled, mylar pillows famously created by Andy Warhol. “We are using about 100 of these Silver Cloud balloons to create a playground in Studio J [with] fans that blow the balloons around,” says the Kennedy Center’s Alicia Adams. “People can come in and have fun. They can bat them around, they can just enjoy the space and have an experience of movement and creativity and invention.”

The free, pop-up playground in the new REACH complex is part of the “Merce Cunningham at 100” series of events this weekend that celebrates the late, gay modern dance pioneer, who died a decade ago. “Merce is one of the pillars of the modern dance world,” says Adams, vice president of dance and international programming. “Martha Graham is considered the mother of American modern dance, and he performed with her company [and] is one of the most celebrated of her disciples.

“There are so many dancers and choreographers working today in postmodern and contemporary styles that have been influenced by Merce’s work,” Adams continues. “It took the world quite a while to catch up to him and sort of understand what he was doing.” Two Cunningham masterworks, Beach Birds and BIPED, will be performed Thursday, Oct. 3, through Saturday, Oct. 5, by a French contemporary dance company led by Robert Swinston. The longtime Cunningham dancer and protégé is, says Adams, “maybe the best interpreter or gatekeeper of Cunningham’s work.” Swinston will also participate in a Cunningham-focused “Let’s Talk Dance” discussion on Saturday, Oct. 5, in the REACH Justice Forum.

“I wanted to try to give as holistic a picture of Merce and his work as possible, by not only having the performances but also including some other elements [that show his] forward-thinking,” says Adams. One of the first choreographers to truly embrace and experiment with technology, Cunningham took to using video and film as a way to both expand his repertoire as well as advance his legacy. Examples of his work in film screen for free on Friday, Oct. 4, and Saturday, Oct. 5, on the outdoor Video Wall in REACH Plaza. Also on view this weekend: A recording of RainForest, a signature 1968 piece that Cunningham created in collaboration with Warhol, using the artist’s Silver Clouds.

The “Merce Cunningham at 100” series runs through Saturday, Oct. 5, at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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