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May 16, 2009, 2:30 PM

Diaghilev/Cunningham: 1909/2009

Participants: Joan Acocella, Jonah Bokaer, Roger Copeland, Valda Setterfield

This roundtable is designed to mark two auspicious—and nearly simultaneous—occasions. On April 16 of this year, Merce Cunningham celebrated his 90th birthday (and his latest evening-length dance premiered that night at The Brooklyn Academy of Music). May 19, 2009, will mark the 100th anniversary of the first performances of Sergei Diaghilev's legendary Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Diaghilev presided over some of the most glamourous collaborations among leading choreographers, composers, and visual artists the world had ever seen: Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Picasso, Satie, Balanchine, and de Chirico all worked for The Ballets Russes in Paris. Similarly, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company has routinely commissioned musical scores, costumes, and decor from composers and visual artists, including John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. This roundtable will explore the similarities and differences between Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and The Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Joan Acocella is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she writes primarily about books and dance. Her own books include Mark Morris (a critical biography of the choreographer), Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, and Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. She also edited the first unexpurgated English-language edition of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. Her most recent book, a collection of essays entitled Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, was published in paperback in 2008.

Jonah Bokaer is an award-winning dancer, choreographer and media artist. He has performed with Merce Cunningham (2000-2007), John Jasperse (2004-2005), David Gordon (2005-2006), and with many other leading dance artists. He recently collaborated with Robert Wilson on "Kool—Dancing In My Mind" at the Guggenheim. Jonah is one of the founders of Chez Bushwick, a Brooklyn performance space dedicated to pioneering new models of producing and commissioning in the midst of the current funding and real estate crisis.

Roger Copeland (moderator) is Professor of Theater and Dance at Oberlin College. His books include What Is Dance? and Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. His essays about dance and theater have appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, American Theatre, Partisan Review, The Drama Review, Performing Arts Journal, and many other publications. He wrote and directed The Unrecovered, a feature-length narrative film about 9/11, which was recently screened at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan.

Valda Setterfield is a dancer and actor who performed with Merce Cunningham's company between 1964 and 1974. Before moving to America from her native England, she studied with Marie Rambert and Tamara Karsavina, both of whom had ties to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Along with David Gordon, she is a founding member of The Pick Up Performance Company; and she co-starred with Mikhail Baryshnikov in David Gordon's "Made in USA," which was broadcast on PBS's Great Performances series in 1987. She has appeared in dance and theater pieces created by Yvonne Rainer, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and JoAnne Akalaitis. She is the recipient of two New York Dance and Performance Awards (The "Bessie" Award) including their 2006 citation for outstanding achievement. She has appeared in films directed by Yvonne Rainer, Brian de Palma, and Woody Allen.


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