MERCE CUNNINGHAM (1919–2009)

Portrait of Merce Cunningham. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

I remember an article about Merce I saved from a magazine back in the 60s, long before I moved to NYC, called “The Quality of Merce is Not Strained.” I just loved that play with Willy Shakes. Even after he no longer could demonstrate movement to us, Merce had this ability to make movement phrases that were, though difficult and out of the ordinary, absolutely danceable. I attributed it to his instincts for rhythm, to his never losing that kinetic understanding even after he couldn’t try the moves out, or create them, on his own body.  Not everyone who teaches his technique really has that gift! They can perhaps count their movement phrases but they are not inherently rhythmic, as Merce’s always were. His rhythmic gift, as well as the rhythmic challenge of his movement, certainly are some of what drew me to his technique when I moved here in 1968 and kept me there all these years.

Pat Catterson, dancer/choreographer; dancer and rehearsal director for Yvonne Rainer; guest faculty, Marymount Manhattan college; student of Cunningham technique, 1968 to date

Merce Cunningham and Meg Harper in Rainforest. Photo by James Klosty.

Merce said: “To train, you repeat but you don’t think of it that way.” One day at the studio, between class and rehearsal, as we munched sandwiches, I asked him what to do about not enjoying dancing. As if having anticipated the question, he offered that once you are dedicated to something, you keep at it even when pleasure is absent, and talked on about Margot Fonteyn’s continuing beyond her desire in order to pay her husband’s medical bills. This from the man whose appetite for the daily practice of dancing seemed never to flag, and never forced. His mysterious ability to appear each morning even fresher and more eager than I, 24 years his junior, led me finally to restate for myself Einstein’s famous formula: E = mc2 became MC = E2.

Douglas Dunn, dancer/choreographer;
Cunningham dancer, 1969-1973

We brought Merce into a motion capture studio in San Francisco in 1997, I think it was. And these were very primitive times in the field: the concrete floor, for example; there was no dance floor. And the equipment there could only capture, I think, at most 20 seconds of motion, and besides all this there were garish video game posters everywhere. So this was like the least friendly kind of template that you could imagine and it imposed tremendous limitations on him. We had proposed not to, even conceptually, record a preexisting work or new complete work but rather to capture what we called a motion alphabet with him and then we would recombine that on the computer. He took all this in very good cheer; he said, “Oh, limitations are what make art work. Concrete floors? I just won’t leap too much. Fifteen seconds? I’ll make 8, 10, 12 second phrases.” He did this very cheerfully and made, I don’t know, about 72 of them. It was incredible to watch him be so comfortable with the limitations that we were so apologetic about.

Paul Kaiser, digital artist, writer, and
creator with Shelley Eshkar of the Virtual
Dance Installation Hand-Drawn Spaces
(1998) by Merce Cunningham; and the visual décor for Biped (1999); see www.openendedgroup.com

First, thank you for demonstrating something original and difficult: committed life! Please forgive me for making you a landmark in the landscape—a fine, singular, curiously shaped tree perhaps. Yes, you are the landmark many of us use to get our bearings, measure ourselves against, or sometimes, to take refuge under. Thank you for your personal aloofness and the generosity of your output, as dependable as sun or rain in a world where seasons are evermore unpredictable. Your dance making was so legible and recognizable that many of us who came after you could only define ourselves in how much we adhered to or rejected your example. Long ago you decided on a restricted palette, a rigorous and exclusive path of investigation. Yours is not a social statement. One could say it is a highly aloof and alienated point of view that does not speak, but provides an exquisite opportunity for looking and reflection. I thank you for your prodigious output and the simple truth, which could be a question, a text message from you to me, which asks: What will you do now? What is worth doing now?

from a blog entry at www.billtjones.org
entitled “A Letter to Merce” by Bill T. Jones,
dancer/choreographer; Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company 

I drove my motorcycle out to San Francisco in 1973 and took a workshop taught by Merce and Sandra Neels that summer. I wanted to take it because of the specificity of the training: it’s all about excavating body parts, not unlike ballet; you know, you’re dealing with how you initiate motion and how that initiation of motion peculiar to that part of the body does not disrupt the rest of the body but serves as an initiator for a series of formal and classical techniques. But he used these isolations in spatially melodic and rhythmic ways, initially “making eccentric” the body’s potential movements—not in space, particularly—but against the body itself: asking, for instance, “what can it (the body) alone do,” separate from traveling through space? He was able to mechanize the function of the body in ways that I thought were really profound.

I valued his rigor and intellect and, of course, in terms of the manifestation of my own ideas, was very influenced by John Cage as well. Their questions and the way they looked out into the world without prejudice or sentimentality: I patterned my methodology after theirs, even though the results of our work couldn’t be farther apart. Everyone who came close to Merce got seared forever by his lightning quick brain and fluid connection to what dance was to him in this world.

Elizabeth Streb, dancer/choreographer

First of all, Merce was a dancer. His passion for choreography came from his passion for dance and the reason why he made choreography originally was so that he could dance. After that, he had a very workman-like attitude towards it. It was a daily ritual for him, it was work. It took time, and a great deal of patience, especially to create the incredibly complex things that he eventually worked on. Everyone makes a lot of the chance, everyone makes a lot of the different structures, but in the end he came in and he gave us steps.

Robert Swinston, MCDC dancer 1980 to date; assistant to Merce Cunningham; member of the Merce Cunningham Trust.

If I can say it, Merce was a friend. I started working for him when he opened the studio in December 1959. And I was the whole staff at that time, so obviously we worked together a lot and on the world tour and ever since then. I’m not saying I was very close to him. Merce was a private person in many ways but I saw a lot of him, I talked to him a lot, and I think he enjoyed my company and I certainly enjoyed his. He was always a very entertaining person to be with. He liked gossip, and jokes, and talking about other things than dance, but also talking about dance too.

David Vaughan, MCDC archivist; writer and dance historian

We all adored him. Merce and I were transports from the West Coast and shared a connection through our roots in the Pacific Northwest. Our houses were accustomed to speaking old Chinook jargon, a dialect of the Indian sea traders in Washington. It’s based largely on Nootka which is used as a lingua franca from Alaska to Oregon. For me, Merce will always be a “tillicum,” which translates as “old friend.”

Trisha Brown, dancer/choreographer

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