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Yes He Can!

September 15, 2009
by Katherine Luce

Merce Cunningham has a long history of creating works for places that don’t fit most people’s definition of a “stage.” This predilection goes back to the “happenings” he, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and others created in the 1950s. Indeed, on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company website, scheduled upcoming performances are still called “events.”

This summer, the company performed dances created specifically for the space at DIA:Beacon, the Hudson Valley, New York, art gallery, and the dancers will return there in December. Down at the bottom of a quarry in Minneapolis this September, they performed “Ocean,” which had its U.S. premiere in Berkeley’s own Harmon Gym before its demolition. And in November, during a brief residency with Cal Performances, they will perform, only twice, Craneway Event at a former Ford auto plant and World War II tank factory in Richmond.

The Craneway space is as full of history as you could want. Built in 1930 to a design by industrial architect Albert Kahn, the factory originally produced Ford Model A’s but was adapted to wartime uses during WWII. It’s slated to be the site of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park visitor center and museum, because Rosies did actually rivet here. They produced 60,000 tanks, plus other combat vehicles such as scout cars and bomb lift trucks. Until it was purchased by the Richmond Redevelopment Agency in 1975, a small portion of the building, 5 to 10 percent, served as a book repository for Berkeley.

Its history, however, is emphatically not why Cunningham calls it a “superb” setting for the Craneway Event. The huge, empty industrial space itself, filled with natural light and sitting right next to the Bay, is the draw. There are thousands of windows—the 517,000 square-foot building has 60,000 of them, along with 6,000 skylights. It juts out into the Bay, facing the tiny Brooks Island wildlife sanctuary, with a great view and strong winds blowing. Two huge metal struts (the eponymous craneways) bisect the enormous space—room is definitely not the word—with the hoisting hooks still visible. The struts now help support the building in case of earthquakes.

After many years of neglect, the entire assembly plant, now called Ford Point, is being restored by the development company of Cal alum J.R. “Eddie” Orton ’76, J.D. ’79. Orton Development bought the building from Richmond Redevelopment Agency in late 2004 after losing out twice to other developers who were unable to make anything of the property. Most of the space has been built out for tenants; the last 10 percent is the Craneway Pavilion, which will be kept open as an event center and where the dance will take place.

The tenants are very much of the present, looking toward the future: Title Nine sports attire for women, Mountain Hardwear, Vetrazzo recycled glass countertops, and solar panel manufacturer SunPower. Ford Point is in the process of going solar using SunPower’s panels. It’s quite a building, and Orton’s approach of reusing and recycling what he can looks to be successful—while many of the nearby buildings display To Lease signs, it’s hard to find a parking space near Ford Point.

Merce Cunningham’s project here is to develop a dance during a two-week residency at Cal Performances this November, which will also include four different programs at Zellerbach Hall, films, a colloquium, and so on. The Craneway Event performances will take place in daylight, with the audience moving among three platforms where the company are dancing. The dance will combine bits of old and new choreography (here we are, reusing and recycling again). The live music by the Company’s music director Takehisa Kosugi, John King, David Behrman, and Christian Wolff will include improvised and composed elements. Even before the audience is invited in, award-winning British artist and filmmaker Tacita Dean will record the dance’s development, in preparation for the celebrations surrounding Cunningham’s 90th birthday next year.

Cal Performances director Robert Cole describes the Craneway Event as “once in a lifetime.” He points out that very large, empty industrial spaces are hard to come by. This is true, of course; and Cunningham, at 89 still looking to make dance new, is a rare and precious resource himself.

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