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Making Dances in the Shadow of Merce Cunningham

Since then, she’s experimented with gestures and shows of emotion that diverge from Cunningham’s example. But it can be difficult for her to separate what’s his from what’s hers. Making a dance and adding music later makes sense to her, she said, because she grew up in a rural environment, dancing to the sounds of nature. Part of her new dance, when two different trio sections happen at once, is “definitely an homage to Merce.”

When Mr. Bokaer joined the company in 2000, at 18, he was the youngest person ever to do so. He was also, to his knowledge, the only person of Middle Eastern origin. In the years since he left the company, in 2007, he said, it’s the second distinction that has loomed larger, as his work as a choreographer, including what he has planned for the festival, has grown to stress identity in ways that Cunningham never did.

Mr. Bokaer, 37, drew a stark contrast between Cunningham’s mentorship and that of the experimental theater director Robert Wilson, with whom he’s worked closely since 2006. Where Cunningham was “monastic and reserved at best,” Mr. Wilson gives “an overabundance of communication and clarity”: copious notes, shoptalk at all hours, warmth.

“But what I appreciated about Merce’s way,” Mr. Bokaer said, “was that it opened up a whole plane of animalistic intuition that was very intense.” Sometimes, Mr. Bokaer’s dancers remark on the space and freedom in his work. “I would like to think that’s something I received from Merce,” he said.

Mr. Crossman, 34, was among the last dancers to be hired by Cunningham, joining the company a month before Cunningham’s death and staying through the farewell tour. Yet for two years before he joined, he was one of four helpers working with Cunningham, who was nearly 90, every day as he continued to choreograph.

“I think we had a more fun, storytelling, grandfatherly version of Merce than maybe other people did,” Mr. Crossman said. “We had more input, because it made it easier for him. Our asking questions accelerated the process.”

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