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Austin audiences have last chance to see company before it disbands

The Legacy Tour will be the last for the company founded by modern dance genius Merce Cunningham.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Dance is ephemeral an art form of the here and now, not easily recorded by a script or score.

No modern choreographer captured that fleeting spirit better than the late Merce Cunningham, who liberated dance from its reliance on music, often used chance to determine the sequence of movements, and insisted his dancers be themselves, not play a character or role.

Cunningham forever changed dance with his unorthodox methods.

Yet no dance-maker has ultimately designed a more grounded plan for what would happen to his work after his death.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company — the troupe that gave life to the choreographer's work for 58 years — will disband after a final performance in New York on New Year's Eve. Cunningham's work — preserved in video and written documents — will then be licensed to other dance companies via the Merce Cunningham Trust.

On Tuesday at the Bass Concert Hall, Austin audiences will have a last chance to witness Cunningham's company as part of its international two-year "Legacy Tour."

Austin is one of just 40 cities — and the only one in Texas — selected for the tour. The University of Texas' Bass Hall is a venue that the company had visited many times.

Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, said that in the weeks before the choreographer's death in July 2009, Cunningham, who suffered in his later years from rheumatoid arthritis, greeted a constant stream of friends, creative cohorts and dancers.

"We had hundreds of people passing through the house in the weeks before Merce died," says Carlson by phone recently. "People were given the opportunity to say 'thank you' and 'goodbye' to Merce, and Merce said the same to them as well. I think what we're doing with the 'Legacy Tour' is we're out saying 'thank you' and 'goodbye' to the communities that have supported Merce's work over the decades."

The "Legacy Tour" and the plan to dissolve the dance company are under close observation by the dance world, a community challenged by the art form's resistance to becoming a fixed object or solidly reproducible thing that future generations can experience.

Tuesday's program at the Bass offers a condensed yet extremely crystallized survey of Cunningham's genre-changing dances.

Each of the pieces presented is accompanied by the music of Cunningham's most frequent collaborator and longtime life partner, composer John Cage. (The two had been together nearly 50 years at the time of Cage's death in 1992.)

Together, Cunningham and Cage forever changed the relationship between dance and music, positing that the two forms may take place at the same time but need not be meted out together.

"Antic Meet" from 1958 features costumes and props (of a sort) by the constantly innovating artist Robert Rauschenberg — a perfect example of Cunningham's role in the nexus of the postwar American avant-garde. Rauschenberg crafted exuberant costumes (fur coats, dresses made of parachutes) for the comedic dance, which famously included instructions to strap a chair on one dancer's back. (Cunningham, who danced with his company until he was 70, originally had the role of chair-wearer.)

Likewise, "Second Hand," from 1970 with costumes by renowned artist Jasper Johns, represents Cunningham's role as one of the most important creative collaborators of the 20th century. Johns ordered that each dancer be outfitted in a single color except for a portion of an arm or leg, where another color enters. Johns asked that the dancers line up at the curtain call in a certain order so that the colors form a spectrum. Over the decades, artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, among many others, collaborated with Cunningham.

Never interested in telling stories or exploring psychological states, Cunningham instead infused his dances with the drama and intensity of physical movement itself.

"I'd rather find out something than repeat what I know," Cunningham once said. "I prefer adventure to something that's fixed."

Plotless, seemingly casual, infused as much with everyday movement as utterly unique steps, Cunningham's dances brought a clarity and coolness to modern dance theretofore unseen. They also challenged both dancer and audience to let go and pay attention to the present moment.

After all, dance, as Cunningham famously said, "gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you are alive."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Bass Concert Hall, UT campus, East 23rd Street and Robert Dedman Drive

Cost: $26-$38

Information: 477-6060, www.texas performingarts.org