When Robert Swinston was a young dancer starting out with Merce Cunningham Dance Company 30 years ago, the great man himself was still performing.
"Merce was still the lead dancer at 61 years old," Swinston says. "He was a dynamic teacher. We were his sweaty soldiers. He would say, 'jump,' and we would fly."
Cunningham was still dancing at 61—and he was still choreographing at 90. Known for pushing modern dance into the avant-garde, the legendary dancer and choreographer created some 200 works from 1944 on. For his last birthday in April 2009, he premiered "Nearly Ninety." He died three months later.
"He was wheelchair-bound, but his mind was bubbling," says Swinston, now director of choreography for the troupe.
The company comes to Centennial Hall Saturday for a performance. Part of a two-year, worldwide Legacy Tour, the concert will offer three Cunningham works that range over nearly 50 years of his long career: "Crises" from 1960; "BIPED" from 1999; and "XOVER" from 2007.
"XOVER," pronounced "crossover," is a work for 12 dancers. It's "pure dance," Swinston says, "as all Merce's dances are."
Created near the end of Cunningham's life, it's considered the last of his many collaborations with composer John Cage, his life partner, and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg. Cage died in 1992, but the music ("Aria" and "Fontana Mix") is his, Swinston says, and the costumes and "décor come from a painting by Rauschenberg," who died in 2008.
"BIPED," a 45-minute work, showcases Cunningham's innovative use of technology. Its motion-capture technology projects images onto a transparent scrim. Thirteen live dancers perform behind the scrim, and their metallic costumes catch the light.
"The dance," Cunningham once wrote, "gives me the feeling of switching channels on the TV."
The earliest piece on the program, 1960's "Crises," is a dance for four women and one man; Cunningham himself used to dance the male role. The sound, by Conlon Nancarrow, is not exactly music: It consists of the sounds of holes being punched into a roll of paper for a player piano. Rauschenberg gets credit for the costumes.
The dance is "very loose, but there are cues, like signposts." Despite their seeming randomness, Cunningham's works are choreographed. "There's no improvisation, except when people make mistakes," Swinston jokes.
Cunningham left instructions that his company be shut down after the Legacy Tour, but his works will survive. The Cunningham Trust owns the dances, and a "small group will be formed, to have dancers who have firsthand knowledge of his work training others," Swinston says. "Dance will be transferred person to person."
Meantime, the company is touring the world intensively, performing the 16 dances that are in active repertory right now. In January, the dancers were in Hong Kong, and later this month, they'll have a mini-season in New York, with a series of concerts at the Joyce Theater. After that, dates are scheduled in France, Germany, Russia, New England, Brazil and Mexico.
The traveling is tiring, Swinston concedes, but "we're a dance company. That's what we do." Plus, the concerts are giving "the public the opportunity to see Merce's work, performed by the last dancers who were trained by him."
While a master of modern dance is being lionized at the west end of campus, Tucson's professional ballet company will reprise the work of a master of classical dance at the east end.
Ballet Tucson's annual Dance and Dessert concerts, presented five times over the weekend, revive a work by acclaimed Danish choreographer August Bournonville.
His "Flower Festival in Genzano Pas de Deux," from 1858, was the "first pas de deux I did as a principal dancer with the Cleveland Ballet, and it's close to my heart," says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana.
Bournonville's work was known primarily in his native Denmark until the mid-20th century, when the Royal Danish Ballet introduced his work to the outside world. Ever since, he's been celebrated for his elegant, light style, which provides a distinct contrast to the more overwrought romantic ballets typical of his time.
In "Flower Festival," Megan Terry and Derek Lauer will dance the parts of two peasants who fall in love.
"It's been a nice experience teaching them the Bournonville style," Cabana says. "It's very buoyant."
As old as the work is, it's a premiere for Ballet Tucson. And the first half of the concert is devoted to a true premiere, a brand-new ballet by principal dancer Daniel Precup.
Precup has choreographed a "Carmen" based on the opera of the same name by Georges Bizet. He recently choreographed the dance scenes in The Tempest at the Rogue Theatre, and he's previously done short pieces for Ballet Tucson.
"We saw that he had choreographic talent," Cabana says. "It's exciting."
The full company of 30 dances his neoclassical ballet dressed in minimalist, almost-contemporary costumes. A hefty 45 minutes long, the ballet recounts the passionate story of the loves of a young woman who works in a tobacco factory. Jenna Johnson is Carmen; Stuart Lauer is Don José; and Precup himself dances the part of the Toreador.
The concert closer is also a premiere, as well as a full-company piece. "Suite From Pineapple Poll," by Mark Schneider, is danced to music by Gilbert and Sullivan.
"It's very musical, with great energy and a slight military feel," Cabana says.
In between "Carmen" and "Pineapple Poll," Dance and Dessert features what Cabana calls an "eclectic smorgasbord" of small dances. The metaphor is apt, since the concert is followed by a banquet of desserts donated by local restaurants.
Several of the small works are comical and contemporary, including a work by UA dance professor Sam Watson.
"Sam is hysterical," Cabana says. "There are not a lot of choreographers who have that bent and that talent."
His "Wired," co-choreographed by Kenneth Comstock, is a frenzied look at overcharged modern life. The piece for two dancers features César Rubio in every performance, but Daniel Salvador and Deanna Doncsecz rotate the second role, which can be danced by either a woman or a man.
Assistant artistic director Chieko Imada also brings back an older comic piece. Her "Here We Are" is a contemporary duet about a couple's daily routine, danced to music by the Buena Vista Social Club. And her "Bossa Nova Ville" is set to 1960s lounge music. An exploration of relationships, it puts five dancers in a nightclub.
Cabana herself is staying in the traditional ballet camp. Besides reviving the Bournonville work, she's staging a piece that Asaf Messerer choreographed for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1949. "Spring Waters" is a pas de deux danced to music by Rachmaninoff.
Benjamin Tucker dances the male lead, and Emily Baker, Hadley Jalbert and Michelle Sigl alternate the female part.
Says Cabana, "It's short but dramatic."