Presented by Duke Performances
@Durham Performing Arts Center
Feb. 4-5

The Durham Performing Arts Center was energized Friday night with the North Carolina homecoming of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham founded the company in 1953 at Black Mountain College in western North Carolina; he died a year and a half ago, and his will outlined plans for a final two-year tour for his company, which will disband for good in December. Though turnout on Friday night was modest, those who did turn out were treated to a spectacular farewell for the storied troupe, which will perform one final time tonight.

The first dance, Duets, featured pairs of male and female dancers who took the stage in turn, moving in and out of synchrony, accompanied by a percussive score by Cunningham’s longtime companion and collaborator, John Cage. The musicians took advantage of DPAC’s elaborate sound system, sending skittery, trebly clicks and bass thumps 360 degrees around the space.

The dancing was energetic and fluid, with each duet pair moving in a distinctive style. In a noteworthy nod to chronological diversity, Director of Choreography Robert Swinston was among the dancers. He debuted with the company in 1980, the same year Duets premiered, and though his hair has thinned while his middle has thickened, he held his own among the younger troupers. His duet featured an interesting touch, when, playing against Cunningham and Cage’s well-known doctrine that dance and music may occupy the same space and time but should remain essentially independent, his partner briefly drummed a pattern on his outstretched arm in sympathy with the soundtrack. [See slideshow above for images of Friday afternoon’s dress rehearsal of Duets.]

The second number, BIPED (1999), was a show-stopper. It was commissioned by the American Dance Festival, but it had never been performed in Durham. In an intriguing blend of art and science, it used video projections of animations built from motion capture, in which ping-pong balls are affixed to a subject’s body and cameras record their movements in three dimensions (dancer Bill T. Jones’s experiment with the technique, Ghostcatching, also made its debut in 1999—see a video excerpt here).

The use of computer technology seemed to inspire a theme of the interface between man and machine: The dancers wore shiny, iridescent bodysuits and their movements were angular and precise. They performed behind a translucent scrim, competing with, and effectively walled in by the monumental projected images at the front of the stage. Shards of color, glowing orbs and threads of light that coalesced into human form would intermittently appear and dwarf their movements. Music by Gavin Bryars echoed the theme, with the organic sounds of violin and cello joined by electric guitar and manipulated into electronic-sounding drones and hums.

The third and oldest piece, 1975’s Sounddance, was the most challenging. Music by David Tudor, who was with the company at its inception and replaced John Cage as musical director upon his death in 1992, filled the hall with piercing, insectoid screeches, crashes and whirrs. The otherworldy soundscape set the stage for a dance that was like the rites of a strange tribe, with the dozen or so dancers outfitted in matching gold-colored long-sleeve shirts and gray tights.

They weaved among each other, occasionally massing in circles and lines. Swinston was again among their number; at the end of the piece, the other dancers exited the stage one by one until, left alone to make his own exit, he hurtled backward in a series of vigorous twirls, spinning out of sight through a backdrop of golden draped fabric with a final glance at the crowd. The applause at curtain was strong and sustained. Then, the stage went black.

There’s one more performance in Durham: tonight at 8 p.m., when the same program will be repeated. Tickets are available online at DPAC’s website.