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Originally published Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 7:11 PM

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Cornish stages a tribute to Centralia-born dance legend Merce Cunningham

Cornish College of the Arts' Merce Cunningham minEvent is anchored by a splendid exhibit, "Cunningham in the Northwest," surveying the choreographer's career.

Seattle Times arts writer

Exhibit review

'Cunningham in the Northwest'

Noon-5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays, through Oct. 22, Cornish Main Gallery, 1000 Lenora St., first floor, Seattle; free (206-726-5142 or www.cornish.edu/merce).

Silver balloons, courtesy of Andy Warhol, drift around the gallery. Multilayered trombones, courtesy of Seattle's Stuart Dempster, float on the air. And photographs, drawings, dance programs, newspaper profiles and musical scores ring the room.

The exhibit is "Cunningham in the Northwest," a dandy tribute to Centralia-born dance legend Merce Cunningham. It's the key component in Cornish College of the Arts' Merce Cunningham minEvent, which also includes lectures and performances scheduled through next spring. The show is well worth a trek down into the bowels of Cornish's Lenora Street campus, where the Cornish Main Gallery is located.

Cunningham (1919-2009) was widely acknowledged as one of the three most influential American dance makers of the 20th century, alongside George Balanchine and Martha Graham — choreographers whose work he both amplified and rejected. His contribution: the radical notion that movement could be presented on stage divorced from characterization, representation or music.

He and his aesthetic partner in crime, composer John Cage, often relied on "chance procedures" in creating dances and dance scores: a rolling of the dice, consultations of the I-Ching. (At Cornish Main Gallery, Cage's scores for Cunningham dances play in rotation with Dempster's, adding to the atmosphere.)

Curators Jess Van Nostrand and Bridget Nowlin say they've used similar chance methods to stage "an exhibition that viewers could experience in the way they might experience a Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance."

They've succeeded to a startling degree, with a show that lobs all sorts of goodies and surprises at you, in random yet satisfying order.

Dance photographer Barbara Morgan's glorious "Merce Cunningham, Totem Ancestor" (1942), documenting an early solo work, is there in one corner — while three smaller images of the dance dot a wall on the other side of the room. Photographs of Cunningham performing at Cornish in 1939 also crop up here and there, giving a vivid flavor of his work.

James Klosty's terrific shots of later Cunningham pieces are on show, too, including one from "RainForest," the 1968 work that featured Warhol's "Silver Clouds" (those helium-filled Mylar balloons). The last decades of Cunningham's career are represented, in part, by colorful scores and sketches that Seattle's Trimpin composed for Cunningham's "Installations" in 1996.

Those wanting evidence of Cunningham's charisma right from the start will enjoy a shot of the 9-year-old youngster and his two brothers dressed up for Centralia's Pioneer Days in 1928. For gallery visitors wanting to see Cunningham's dancers in action, there's a silent, black-and-white video of a 1977 Meany Hall performance of Cunningham's "Torse," presented in split-screen so you can view the movement from two angles.

Best of all are some of the quotations by and about Cunningham, prominently arrayed around the room — including dancer Carolyn Brown's unforgettable quip, "I'd never seen anyone move like Merce: he was a strange disturbing mixture of Greek god, panther and madman."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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