Impure Movement: Cunningham, O'Connor and the Task of Saying Something by MJ Thompson

Merce Cunningham’s Dance Company performs Ocean, July 12-16 at 8 p.m. in the Rose Theater, as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2005. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Two dances, back to back, and the temptation to connect the dots seems at first driven by circumstance. On a Tuesday, I see Merce Cunningham’s much anticipated Ocean (July, Rose Theater), a revival of the 1996 production, marking the choreographer’s last collaboration with his life-long collaborator and partner John Cage. Then, on Wednesday, I see Tere O’Connor’s Frozen Mommy (July, Dance Theater Workshop), which premiered last spring at the Kitchen and employs a rich use of everyday movement. Cunningham and O’Connor may seem disparate, with little in common. The former, an institution of the New York and international avant-garde and defined by an elite technique, is one of the most iconic and complex choreographers in contemporary dance. Cunningham’s work draws a coterie of fans of so-called “pure movement.” The latter, meanwhile, is part of the post-Cunningham generation, appearing on the downtown scene two decades after Judson Dance Theater reframed ordinary movement as dance. Wielding pastiche, puns, and mundane moves cribbed from everyday life, O’Connor’s work is as grounded in theatrical conventions as in dance. Though I’d never thought of the two choreographers in the same breath, the accidental combination of seeing both Ocean and Frozen Mommy in the same week offered insight on the history of expression in dance.

Cunningham’s work is often seen as “pure” movement, and its emotional register is one of “postmodern” cool. The work is not driven by character or plot, and the focus is entirely on the movement. The movement does not “mean” anything, per se but is meaningful in and of itself, which remains radical given the history of dance. But as Cunningham’s work becomes part of the modern dance canon, the revolutionary nature of the work can be lost. Today, it is common to find journalists and historians alike attributing the pervasive blank face, the cold stare, even abstraction in modern and postmodern dance to Cunningham. And if it seems that there is very little else to be said about the work, it may be because it continues to stand so radically apart from the storytelling and psychology inherent to theater and daily life.

How do you talk about Cunningham?

Much has been made of Ocean as the conceptual spawn of a conversation between Cage and the popular anthropologist Joseph Campbell, who speculated that James Joyce would have followed Finnegan’s Wake with a work about the ocean. The anecdote is useful because it reminds us of how central Campbell was as an intellectual resource for many figures of the avant-garde in the mid-20th century, Martha Graham and Maya Deren among them. But the word “ocean” connotes movement and Cunningham’s choreography embodies this fact with its shifts in direction and speed, the ebb and flow, and the ultimately thrilling rhythmic energy that this choreography brings to life.

Ocean is an exchange of energy: the vertiginous, off-kilter fun of a company so fierce it makes a lumpen self like me want to jump up, work the spine, make strange geometry, dance in the living room. I loved watching company newcomers—there are four members with a year or so under their belts—whose lingering stylistic idiosyncrasies are as compelling to watch as the precision of the veterans. They remind us that dancers are humans working, and the best dance happens in the space between perfection and so-called failure. Meanwhile, veterans such as Holley Farmer and Jonah Bokaer demonstrate a habit of technique—the rigor internalized, made natural—that begins to look easy and underscores how this work may move us.

Improv artist and former company member Steve Paxton has said that, in the absence of dramatic characterization and conventional performance quality, what stands in as expression in the Merce Cunningham Company is the absolute focus of the dancers. Why do we watch Farmer and Bokaer with such wonder? Perhaps it’s to study attention in an age of distraction, to witness the drama of the individual amidst collective concentration, to see will materialized, to experience individual identity rendered through hard, creative and physical work.

It wasn’t a stretch, then, to see Tere O’Connor’s fabulous company the next night, even if Frozen Mommy left me wanting more. With Cunningham still on the mind, I tuned in more readily to O’Connor’s witty referencing of dance history, specifically the use of ordinary movement associated with Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s and prefigured by Cunningham’s own usage in the 1950s. For instance, as Frozen Mommy opens to a recorded soundtrack of footsteps, a company of five dancers performs all manner of walks, punctuated by physical gatherings and verbal exchanges. But the emotional moments here contrast the belief that ordinary movement is neutral, unrehearsed, and unrelated to the heady, emotional context of everyday life.

As Frozen Mommy continues, dancers move, speak and dance the extremes of human emotion: they laugh, they cry, but at no point does it become a part of them or us. In one scene, a dancer orders the others to “detach”—in what is a meta-statement on the function of emotion in driving this particular dance—and a manifesto recalling the 1960s critique of theatricality. If Cunningham suggested that dance might only be movement, O’Connor seems to be saying that expression is only performance. As such, Frozen Mommy is a kind of meditation on the performative nature of all emotion—we learn to gasp and cry from watching others, and we seek audiences so that our own gasps and cries become meaningful. But if emotion is only performance, what then?

As I followed the mock emotional extremes of these actors/dancers, I started tuning out. While the everyday movement remained fascinating—O’Connor has an amazing eye for gestural detail—the more “dancerly” elements were less so. In spite of the compelling presence and committed performance of company members Hilary Clark, Erin Gerken, Heather Olson, Matthew Rogers and Christopher Williams, I wanted more information about what, in fact, these people did care about. In the end, wit and irony are only as deep as the shadow world they aim to conjure. If one wants to make the point that our shared emotional registers are generally actorly in nature, a very rich alternative exists in dance—which eschews language and invokes responses from some other place.

mj thompson is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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