ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Tonight in Minnesota, there is an unusual performance. Its happening at the bottom of the granite quarry. The event has required years of planning, and it involves staggering logistical obstacles. The performance features the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, plus 150 musicians, all of them 150 feet below ground level. Minnesota Public Radios Euan Kerr has the story.
EUAN KERR: Merce Cunningham is almost 90 years old, but he still admits to nerves before a show.
Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Choreographer, Merce Cunningham Dance Company): Oh, Im always terrified.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KERR: And for this show, he has every right to be. This is only the second time the work is being performed as it was intended: bleachers for the audience will surround a circular dance floor. The orchestra will surround the audience. The idea came from Cunninghams longtime partner, John Cage. Cunningham agreed, even though he didnt really know what in the round meant or how it would affect him as choreographer.
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Because ordinarily, with a conventional stage, the focus is front and center. And with something in the round, its all focus or there is no focus.
KERR: The title, Ocean, was also John Cages idea. He was commissioned to do a piece honoring James Joyce in the late 1980s, and Ocean reportedly would have been the name of Joyces next work had he lived. Cage himself died in 1992, leaving some ideas, but no music. Everything he and Merce Cunningham created together was based on chance. They worked separately, only pairing music and dance on the first night of the performance. For Ocean, Cunningham created sets of movements, and then rolled dice to decide their sequence.
Mr. ANDREW CULVER (Composer): Ive got a quarter.
KERR: And thats why, before a recent rehearsal, composer Andrew Culver was looking for a coin.
Mr. CULVER: Okay, so evens are heads and odds are tails.
KERR: Culver took up the challenge of realizing John Cages ideas. Cage specified that the music be 90 minutes long, and comprised of 19 sections.
Mr. CULVER: There is no score. Theres 150 solo parts. Everyones a soloist.
KERR: Culver developed musical phrases, and then used a computer to help him with his chance operations. He used it to choose not only what different instruments will play, but even where the musicians will sit in the huge circle surrounding the audience.
Unidentified Woman: If you are an even number, unpack your instrument. Your musics on the outer ring.
KERR: This rehearsal is at the College of St. Benedict, where Cunningham has taught many times over the years. Thats how he first learned of the quarry.
(Soundbite of music)
KERR: In the huge hall, another key element of the performance becomes clear: a digital timer. While the musicians do not have a score, they do have parts. Theyre split into time sections. And rather than moving to the sound, the dancers will follow the clock, too. When it hits 90 minutes, everything stops.
(Soundbite of beeping)
KERR: Martin Marietta Materials, which owns the quarry, agreed to close the pit for two months and clear it out for the performance. Mike Reinert, plant manager for the quarry, says they hauled out a million tons of rock and built a mile-long road to get the performers and the audience in.
Mr. MIKE REINERT (Quarry Plant Manager): I dont think any of us really realized how large a deal this was going to be until the closer we got to it. You got to understand that were not Im not versed in the arts. I mean, Im just not. And so when we were first talking about this all, well, thats pretty interesting. You know, it peeked our interest. And it puts in perspective for me if theres that many people interested in whats happening, it must really be a very large thing.
KERR: No one really knows how much this will cost in the end, but Philip Bither of the Walker Arts Center, which is co-presenting the performance, will say this.
Mr. PHILIP BITHER (The Walker Arts Center): This is the largest, most expensive, I think in some ways most artistically powerful work that we may have ever done.
KERR: Bither says given the challenging nature of Cunninghams work, everyone was a little surprised when almost 4,000 tickets quickly sold out at $50 each. Bither says some people are coming from Europe.
Mr. BITHER: I do think that people will look back in 10 or 20 years or 50 years and say were you at Ocean in the quarry when Merce Cunningham made that work in Minnesota?
KERR: For his part, Merce Cunningham is not going to rest much after Ocean. Hes already completed 40 minutes of a new piece to be presented on his 90th birthday next April.
For NPR News, Im Euan Kerr.
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