Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Barbican Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Companies that have been founded by choreographers can fade when their creator dies, losing momentum and confidence. Merce Cunningham, the iconic American choreographer who died last year, made a will for his troupe: they'll tour for two years, then stop. The tour ends in 2011; worldwide, there is a dwindling number of chances to catch one of the great companies of dance.

Nearly Ninety is Cunningham's last work, created for his 90th birthday. It shows him in characteristic form, from the abrasive music to the bold invention of the choreography. The dancing is superbly performed.

Cunningham's dancers take everything he throws at them: the sculptural lines, the intricate footwork, the complex tilts of the upper body. Standing on one leg, a woman tips right off balance – except that she stays there, in an impossible position, as poised and unlikely as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The mood keeps changing. Cunningham's dances can look like wildlife films, the dancers as creatures caught going about their business. A man runs through a series of jumps, bounding gleefully into the air. At the height of each leap, he tips his head and shoulders back, adding a burst of energy to an already exuberant dance.

Solos and group dances overlap and merge. Three dancers leave the stage in long, slow steps, as another three dash on: from the serene to the skittish. In a pair of duets, women fall backwards or sideways, to be caught by their partners at the last second. They land in coolly elegant poses, an inch off the ground.

Nearly Ninety isn't Cunningham's most accessible dance. The music, by John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi and Sonic Youth, can be hard work. The musicians, perched on a set by architect Benedetta Tagliabue, belt out everything, from rather pretty tingling sounds to digeridoo howls and free jazz screeching.





To 30 October (0845 120 7553; www.danceumbrella.co.uk)

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