DANCE / All the right moves: Merce Cunningham is the Grand Old Man of modern dance, but he's still creating fresh, original work. He spoke to Judith Mackrell

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It's 50 years since Merce Cunningham showed his first piece of choreography in America, 28 years since his dancers first performed in Britain. With companies around the world jostling to acquire his works, and with his technique acknowledged as one of the great teaching systems, Cunningham is, at 73, the Grand Old Man of modern dance.

Yet like his long-time partner John Cage, who died this year, Cunningham has not graduated into the league of Venerable Artist. He doesn't smack of dignity or glamour. On the contrary, the works he makes can still, in their unapologetic demands on your stamina and wits, cause downright irritation and offence.

They can also ravish. For out of Cunningham's long belief that dance can simply be about itself, and that it can transmute any kind of movement into art, his best choreography has developed into an inexhaustible lexicon of dance activity - displaying intricate combinations and variations of movement that make most other choreographers look dyslexic. Unslakeably curious about his own discipline, he's still experimenting with new ideas - using computer technology to generate fresh information and forms. He's still choreographing at full stretch and, he's also, despite the ravages of arthritis, continuing to perform. He's scheduled to dance when his company appears at the Queen Elizabeth Hall this month as part of Dance Umbrella. But London won't be seeing him in straight repertoire - rather, in a series of Events where extracts from several works are danced back to back in one continuous performance, their order determined by the limits of the stage and by Cunningham's choices that day.

The Event is a quintessentially Cunningham invention, devised to allow his company to perform in spaces like gyms. Yet it also reflects his determination to make the world new - to find fresh things in the familiar, even the awkward. When I finally spoke to him on the phone in the middle of his European tour it was after days of botched arrangements. The company's lorry had been stolen in France and every bit of set, costume and musical equipment had disappeared. While everyone else was screaming about cancelled performances, Merce was getting his dancers to go through their luggage and see what they could wear on stage - his mind already checking the possibilities.

The Event form is endlessly versatile, the choice of material determined by each venue. Some choreography just doesn't 'look good on some stages', some involves too many dancers, some have entrances and exits that are too complicated. Cunningham likes in any case to keep the content of any Event fluid: 'It goes on from day to day, some things repeat, some things change, you never see the same performance twice. Events are actually about a way of looking, and not thinking that what you're seeing should be something else. They're a bit like watching people in the street.'

What Cunningham particularly likes about Events is that they keep the repertory alive for him. 'Some of the material we use goes all the way back to the Fifties and there wouldn't be any other way to keep that work going. I always look very closely at the things from the past. When I first made them, they seemed very complex, the nature of their construction was alien to us all, we had to learn how to do them. But compared to what I'm making now they don't seem complex at all, they seem very clear.'

We move on to how much his choreography has grown in sophistication and intricacy; and Cunningham stresses that his dancers have also become more technically accomplished over the years. This has influenced him profoundly. 'It's always been a sharing, even if it might not always have seemed that way to them. Even if they do something, you know, odd, I try not to look at it as something wrong, but to see if there's something interesting to learn from it.'

Cunningham's company has spawned an astonishing number of talented dancers and choreographers - even in Britain his influence has been immense. In the early Seventies when our first radical choreographers were reacting against the expressionist burden of Graham-based dance, it was to Cunningham and his New York heirs that they looked. Even those choreographers who haven't particularly followed his artistic practices have found in his distinctive technique a fund of clarity and physical wisdom.

Cunningham is shy of laying claim to greatness or world influence - 'I don't think like that, I'm always just thinking, when I give a performance, that I hope we'll manage. I'm that way suspicious, I suppose.' He will, though, be drawn on the idea that a new generation of dancers and choreographers is less under his spell and that a hunger for meaning and for physical immediacy has drawn many to the visceral and psychological extremes of European dance theatre. After hedging gently, he puts an oblique boot into those choreographers for whom sensation and emotion comes before the logic of the movement. 'In some of the things I've seen, what's missing to my eye is that the movement is not clear. It's as if to have the idea is sufficient. It doesn't look real to me. It's like a postcard of the movement.

'On the other hand, the kinds of energy these people have are very interesting to me.' And interesting is Cunningham's favourite word. While maintaining an exquisite rigour and decisiveness over the shape of his own art he seems uniquely unfettered by prejudice or habit when viewing the world. At 73 he's as absorbed by its vicissitudes as a two-year-old. His gift to his audience is that his choreography is so rich in physical information and surprise that it instructs us in exactly the same process of discovery and revelation.

(Photograph omitted)

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