REMEMBERING MERCE


MY WORK HAS ALWAYS BEEN IN PROCESS. FINISHING A DANCE HAS LEFT ME WITH THE IDEA, OFTEN SLIM IN THE BEGINNING, FOR THE NEXT ONE. IN THAT WAY, I DO NOT THINK OF EACH DANCE AS AN OBJECT, RATHER A SHORT STOP ON THE WAY.

–Merce Cunningham

1. Watching Merce
Once, after watching the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) perform, I stumbled badly out on the street, clumsy in the light after leaving the darkened interior of the theater.

Was it just that?

Or was there something about the fantastic and strange world offered up by a Cunningham dance: the loud, raucous soundscapes, often channeled through the space from different directions; the unexpected visual statements, often distorting perception; the surprising, off-kilter patterning of the body; the sheer volume of detail and shape. The overload of information could be dizzying and, either way, the post-show world felt different. You’d watch for jitters or twitches, deadpan faces or unlikely stretches, the unitard under the suit, waiting.

So convincing, so total was the universe of motion presented by Cunningham and his dancers, that the transition from audience member to civilian always seemed to come slowly. Attempting the same moves—but awkwardly!—on the way home, I found the experience to be literally moving, if not profound. And so, for all the sadness at the choreographer’s death last month at 90, the result of natural causes and the end of a well-lived life, what remains for me is the recollection of the thrilling experience of watching.

Merce Cunningham in 1981. Photo by Terry Stevenson.

Watching Cunningham remained upredictable, at once emotionally rich and mentally challenging. A consistent pleasure lay too in watching performers made by the Cunningham technique, wherein the focus required during extraordinarily difficult rhythmic and physical combinations constituted its own dramatic force. There is consolation to be had, then, by the news that the company will mount a two-year farewell tour before disbanding (with a stipulation from Cunningham that New York performances cost no more than $10); and that the Cunningham Trust will continue to license and make work available. 

2. Farewell Tour
“We’re going to try to keep this alive in whatever way we can,” says longtime MCDC dancer and assistant to the choreographer Robert Swinston; in early August, the Cunningham Foundation appointed Swinston as one of four trustees to the Cunningham Trust. “We won’t have any new work but we will preserve the work that we have. I think that’s the purpose of the dance capsules. We’re taking about 50 primary works of Merce’s and we’re organizing them into what we call a capsule, which will include the specific notes for each of the dances, videos or DVDs, the music, the production values including lighting design, costume design, and any other information related to that particular dance. So if they are licensed or reconstructed, there won’t be much digging around to do; they’ll be readily available.”

In spite of these efforts, performance is a time-based medium, and dance remains especially vulnerable to the passing of time. “I think Merce’s work will last as much as any other great choreographer,” says David Vaughan, dance historian and MCDC archivist, “which means, incidentally, that just a few works survive. If you think of the great choreographers who are Merce’s equals and contemporaries even, there aren’t that many works still performed. So the great works will survive. But I think it’s also important, and I hope it will be possible, for the teaching of the technique to survive.”

Decisions about the future of the studio at 55 Bethune Street, or elsewhere, are yet to be made, as the Cunningham Trust evolves in practice and fundraising efforts continue. But Swinston says that maintaining the studio is top of his list. For now, the focus is on company life and the continuing routine of class, rehearsal, and performance. “We’re just doing the same thing,” says Swinston. “I said to Merce a few days before he passed away, I said, ‘Merce, can’t we just continue what we’re doing?’ and he said, ‘I hope so.’ That’s what we do.”

3. Less Words, More Dance
I asked former Cunningham dancer Steve Paxton once why he didn’t show or publish the scores related to his early work; his response, paraphrased here, “So many books, so little dance.” This I take to be the gift of dance in the broadest sense, but it is especially true of Cunningham. In avoiding narrative, symbolic or otherwise literary structures for dance, he kept movement at the center of his project. In separating music from dance, either in the development of new work or as a means of structuring dance, he insisted that movement was of interest on its own terms.

Resolved that movement was meaningful, he nevertheless refused to corral its unruly potential into singular codes or one-to-one translations. Swinston remembered that there was never any kind of psychology or narrative associated with teaching a new work. “If Merce told us stories, they would be simple or humorous; about movie stars or Fred Astaire or the weather. But then we would get back to work and it was only by really observing what he did that…later, as I compiled notes and studied the work more carefully, it was only then that I would be able to get a more objective view on what he did, on the amazing variety pulled out of two arms, two legs and a torso and what he could do with all of that.”

For some, his steadfast refusal to speculate on the meanings of a given dance could seem disingenuous or suspect, whereby abstraction can be seen as a retreat from the political sphere. But Cunningham’s bite lay in his insistence on the depth and beauty of individual movement: a stance that was progressive for dance, after the achievements of Martha Graham fell victim to an overwrought theatricality; and for American culture, amid Cold War tensions that tended to see people as population: expendable masses.

Private, disciplined, and intensely engaged, Cunningham’s politics appeared in the negative; when asked, for instance, about the company receiving State Department funding for a tour of Latin America in the 1960s, he reportedly said, “As long as they are spending it on us, they are not spending it on anything worse.”

4. Modern? Postmodern? Awkward
Was Merce a modernist? For those who say yes, Merce will be remembered for his use of time structure, that is, building the dance according to a time limit, as opposed to a musical structure; and for his use of chance, such as rolling dice to make decisions about choreography. Each of these contributed to the erasure of psychology, symbol, and plot in his dance, aspects that came to influence the mainstream of choreography in the 1960s and 70s.

For others, he is a transitional figure, prefiguring the postmodern with his interdisciplinary approach, bringing movement, visual art, and sound onstage in unusual ways. Similarly, his early fusion of ballet and modern techniques has since become the standard for contemporary dance. His use of everyday life—in the staging of simultaneous and multiple points of interest on stage, as in life; or in his quotation of ordinary movement and social dance, especially in the early works—opened up for dance what had already been opened up for music by John Cage. For instance, Collage (1952), which quoted teeth brushing and social dance among other gestures, and Minutiae (1954), which quoted walking, made way for many of the inventions that would come to define Judson Dance Theater during the 1960s.

To debate historical categories is always awkward, never suited to the way artists make work and certainly ill-suited to Cunningham and his liquid connection to dancemaking. To fix Cunningham as a modernist is to mask many of his key contributions and consign his work to a past its freshness and continuing relevance belies. Here’s what Cunningham said: “When someone makes a piece which is unfamiliar, both dancer and choreographer have a chance of finding out something. The instant it gets known, it loses life. So that if you are a performer, you must try, constantly, to make it difficult for yourself. I don’t mean just technically. It is something about being awkward. That may not be the right word for it, but it’s a word I use all the time. You have to make the movement awkward for yourself, as though you didn’t know how to do it, so that when you come back to it, it can be lively again.”  

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