Every fall, American Ballet Theatre shakes off the rigors of canonical classics like Don Quixote and Giselle to try out something a bit more modern. Among its offerings this year, ABT is stretching to do Merce Cunningham, whose abstract works seem, at first, antithetical to the company’s stock-in-trade. It will present Duets, in which couples perform with distinct personalities (playful, say, or languid); at some point during each turn onstage, another twosome makes a brief, disruptive cameo. At the end, all six duets return to the stage in a lively traffic jam. Though Cunningham’s style bears similarities to ballet—an emphasis on clarity and boldly moving through space—key elements are different: standing in parallel (versus the turnout) and deemphasizing movement of the head and arms. “It was exciting to learn a new way to move,” dancer Thomas Forster, 25, says, “and in the beginning I think it made a lot of us ache in ways we’d never ached before.” Cunningham usually did not choreograph to a score, adding in music only during final rehersals; this piece is set to John Cage. “Back when ABT did this before,” in the eighties, “there were six cassette tapes, and before the show they’d roll a die to see which tape would go with each duet,” says dancer Devon Teuscher, 22. “I was like, ‘Are we still doing that? That’s kinda scary!’ ” It’s less perfectionistic than ballet. Forster remembers Patricia Lent, a former Cunningham dancer who staged Duets for ABT, telling the company the choreographer “had this really nice way of working: If you did something wrong, he’d say, ‘See where it leads, and go with it.’ ” As for those not onstage, Lent herself promises that Duets won’t alienate ABT’s base. “After three or four minutes have gone by, the audience can see the structure,” she says. “There’s not a sense of there being some secret the audience isn’t in on.”
ABT drops its tutus for Merce Cunningham.
American Ballet Theatre
Fall season at NY City Center.
Nov. 8 to 13.