While Merce always determined where he was going, he was simultaneously alert and responsive to the material at hand: a freighter gliding by on the Hudson, a headline he’d glanced at in that morning’s New York Times, a dancer stretching her leg up the wall. It seemed, from the dancer’s vantage, that Merce saw and heard and made marvelous (his favorite adjective) use of everything—no matter how seemingly small or insignificant. If this makes him sound like some sort of wizard, he was. But to pull off his particular brand of magic he needed dancers with special powers, dancers who possessed not only an impressive, often stunning technical range, but also the ability to think with their feet, to imbue his choreography with intelligence and personality.
Merce’s technique—some maintain it was more of a style—was rooted in his body. Yet it is so transparent and physically logical that when executed by a gifted dancer it has the effect of being made solely for that person. Maybe that’s one of the reasons dancing for him was so all-consuming. A lucky dancer might have had a part made just for her, or she might have inherited a role from a dancer a generation or more before hers, someone perhaps quite unlike her in build or strengths. But bespoke or hand-me-down, it didn’t take long for the recipient to make that part her own.
This process of laying claim wasn’t simply about the repetition of steps, or the marking of space. Merce encouraged his dancers to actively find their way into a dance. And he did this by example—emphasizing, for those fortunate enough to see him dancing, rhythm over all else. If the rhythm was clear, then line and scale, and all else that goes into movement, would come. He assumed that his dancers were engaged enough in the dancing to find a way in and—stopwatch always in hand—he enjoyed watching the drama they went through, time and again, to try and make it work. Usually too slow, rarely too fast.
He said not much about “how” to approach his choreography, never supplying a narrative and rarely hinting at the best way to grasp a particularly challenging phrase. “Could you try this?” he would ask, with the flat tone of someone asking you to pass the salt—then indicate with a few gestures that you should be hanging upside down, one leg wrapped around your partner’s waist, the other extended toward New Jersey. And you would try. And do.
Lise Friedman danced for Merce Cunningham from 1977 to 1984, and is the author of two Children's Book of the Month Club selections (First Lessons in Ballet and Break a Leg! The Kids? Guide to Acting and Stagecraft); Alvin Ailey Dance Moves!; and co-author of Letters to Juliet.