The Merce Cunningham Dance Company has disbanded following one last tour after Cunningham’s death. Yet his influence lives on, as was demonstrated at the American Dance Festival by Ballet Preljocaj, following choreographer Angelin Preljocaj‘s acceptance of the ADF/Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement. Early in his dancing life, Preljocaj had studied with Cunningham, who remained a mentor. Preljocaj has taken some key elements of Cunningham’s method and style and revivified them with his own elfin humor and humane tenderness for the heroics of the body, and although you may see this in Preljocaj’s other ballets, it is particularly clear in Empty Moves, which is set to a recording of John Cage reading.

July 11 marked the first US presentation of Empty Moves, part III (2014), and the first anywhere of the entire sequence (part I, 2004; part II, 2007). There’s nothing empty about it. It is empty the way a Zen tea bowl is empty – it holds everything. However, Empty Moves is abstract, it is an abstract of something greater. Its 90 minutes of flow illuminated onstage is not really extracted from the great flow of motion and words that goes on forever and ever, amen.

The sound score is a recording of John Cage reading his Empty Words to a liceo student audience in Milan in 1977. Cage mined Henry David Thoreau’s journals for words, phrases and spaces, which he rendered in his gravelly voice. The words don’t make sense, they make music. But the students became upset, increasingly upset and vocal, and gradually built up a storming counterpoint to Cage’s voice. Empty Moves is choreographed to correspond with shifting tempi and pacing of the audio, and to its emotional tenor.

That choreography might be called a mash-up if its different sources were not whipped into a suave mousse of motion. No stopping, all going: ballet, modern, yoga, circus, games, ballet, circus, games, modern…. There are several sets of repeating sequences and many unique ones. The dancers do amazing things individually, but much of the dance involves two or more acting on each other. They lift and carry and invert. They dive under and roll over and climb up each other. They attach or fit around each in odd ways to make four identical shapes. They use all body parts to make shapes or motions, and some of them are very funny. But sometimes they do something completely unexpected and piercingly erotic, like encircling another’s ankle for a fleet moment, or touching a face. There are no lighting cues, no costume changes, nor is there narrative in the sense of story told. There is no text, and no talking on stage. What you might have thought would be a text turns out to be a musical soundscape made out of words. The work is brilliant.

The concept is interesting, the choreography deeply satisfying – but it would have been nothing without the superb dancers. Virginie Caussin, Yurié Tsugawa, Fabrizio Clemente, and Baptiste Coissieu appeared as supple as babies, if there were babies capable of a perfect ronde de jamb en l’air, or arabesque derriere, and the elegant execution of geometry with the body. They could put those legs any where, and they did put them all those possible places with unerring aim. Their lines were lovely, their ensemble synchronization exact, and their casual insouciance captivating. They could also launch themselves through the air from a standstill. They danced without stopping for an hour and a half, moving with the river of sound, the part changes marked only by a brief passing around of a water bottle. The dance looked as free and unplanned as river water, and as designed as architecture reflecting river water. After one’s own mind comes down a little from the endorphins generated by the dance, the dancing, and their paradoxes, what one wonders most is – how do they remember all that? Another miracle of live performance.

This show repeats tonight only. It is a rare opportunity to see this magnificent troupe. See the sidebar for details.