Remembering Merce Cunningham

A dancer who knew Cunningham reflects on what made him "the greatest of dance modernists" in the past 50 years
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Merce Cunningham

A dancer who knew Cunningham reflects on what made him "the greatest of dance modernists" in the past 50 years

It was April, 2001 at the University of Washington's Meany Hall and as I walked downstairs towards the restrooms before the concert I passed the small atrium next to the artist'ꀙs Green Room. For some reason I turned around and from my limited line of vision noticed only a few grey tufts of hair seemingly suspended in space. That was all but it was enough, and instantly I knew it was him and said to my wife, 'ꀜThat'ꀙs Merce.'ꀝ I backed up and looked again, and there he was alone sitting on a bench in repose. On our return I looked again. He was gone.

Merce Cunningham died July 26, at age 90. He was born in Centralia, Washington, went to the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts) for two years where he met his long-time collaborator and life partner, the iconic composer-philosopher John Cage. He left Seattle to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1939, and formed his own dance company in 1953.

He was a man who made a life from movement, yet I was always struck by his quietness, as if he were on the outside looking in, observing the moment. In "Rainforest," one of his signature works from 1968, the set was Andy Warhol'ꀙs evocative silver pillows of varied sizes floating around stage. The dancers would run into them every now and then, knocking them aside as if they were not present, while others gently swayed, moved by the tailwinds from the performers flowing past.

"Rainforest" contained one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced on stage, or in life. Merce and his elegant dance partner and muse Carolyn Brown are on a diagonal, and across the stage and for only a split second they glance at each other, but in that glance there was something deep and profound. I went to the concert at Meany to find that moment again, but of course it was not there. Not even close.

'ꀜNot there'ꀝ was part of the beauty of Merce. Dance was there to be constantly rediscovered each time it was performed. Steps were not set to the counts of the music; indeed the dancers never heard the 'ꀜscore'ꀝ before it was performed. Choreography was to be arranged and rearranged at each performance usually by throwing of dice or other elements of chance. There was no theme, no narrative, no characters, no stage 'ꀜfront.'ꀝ The only there was there.

Yet for all his reliance on high concepts to enlighten his work, they all complemented and coexisted with his remarkable output of movement. His distinctive style combines the technical demands of upright positions, leg extensions, and arm placement that have parallels in ballet, with floor work that may have been influenced by his stint with Graham. These were blended with marvelously idiosyncratic gestures and wonderfully original partnering. The amount of sheer movement invention expressed in Cunningham dances is extraordinary.

I always liked the guide to the perplexed that Cunningham was said to offer those who sought 'ꀜmeaning'ꀝ in his work. He suggested that his choreography was like walking a street in Manhattan. There are multiple sights, sounds, smells, and feels, but no one is there to tell you what it all means or how to look at it. That is up to you as the 'ꀜviewer.'ꀝ This vision of art made Cunningham the greatest of dance modernists in the dynamic world of the second half of the 20th century.

I was living in New York and a scholarship student at the Cunningham Dance Studio in 1971. The school and company had recently moved to their beautiful new quarters on the top floor in the former Bell Telephone Laboratories building on West Street along the Hudson River in downtown Manhattan. The former studios had been in a condemned building whose one virtue for dancers had been a very bouncy floor, due to its decrepitude, and if you timed your jumps right it allowed you to fly a little higher into the air from the trampoline effect.

Cunningham loved the new studio and staff made sure that no one was allowed on the dance floor with shoes on. That is everyone but Merce, who liked to work in jazz shoes, leaving long black streaks from the heels on an otherwise pristine floor.

Being a scholarship student meant that you swept the floors after class. I chose Saturday as classes ended early and I could enjoy the spectacular views over the Hudson in daylight. Merce would come out of his office and putter around his still new digs, and after awhile we got to talking. He tried to show me the best way to sweep, but I resisted, saying that I wanted to do it my way, and he offered nothing but respect for my methods, incorrect as they were. We began to have some long conversations about art and life. I wish to this day that I understood what he was talking about, but it was as if his on-going interior dialogue was momentarily switched over to the spoken word, but continued in his mind unabated when I left.

Cunningham'ꀙs pure dance, his collaborations with New York'ꀙs leading music and visual art modernists made every concert that he gave in New York of 40 years ago a celebration of creativity, an exciting social and artistic event. When a new work was premiered we young dancers couldn'ꀙt wait to see what he and his merry band of pranksters would come up with — dandy dancing, silver floating balloons, big fans blowing on stage, sails that were wheeled around, or grating music.

Cunningham'ꀙs dance theater could be challenging in its mysteries, especially to audiences used to more accessible work. I remember going to a performance that included the piece, "Winterbranch," which had an especially abrasive soundscore with some pretty spare movement. Halfway through the piece a man stomps up the center aisle and as he exits he shouts, 'ꀜwait till I get my hands on Clive Barnes!'ꀝ Barnes was at the time the dance critic for The New York Times. I guess you should never believe what you read in the newspaper.

After I left New York to try my luck in California, I saw the Cunningham company only a few times more over the years, and felt distanced from the work, finding it formalistic and repetitive. All that changed with the last two viewings. The first was that concert at Meany, and the big surprise was not the reprise of "Rainforest," but a much more recent work, "Biped," from 1999.

Always a fan of new technology, Cunningham had created a masterpiece merging wondrous movement with video animation. In 2007, at Pacific Northwest Ballet'ꀙs Celebrate Seattle festival, PNB performed Cunnigham'ꀙs "Inlets 2" (1983). Gentle fluttery movements combined with an evocative score by Cage gave allusions to the aquatic world of the Pacific Northwest, Cunnigham'ꀙs early home. It reminded me that though non-literal and non-linear, Merce'ꀙs work could still give a sense of time and place.

I only saw Cunningham perform in his middle age, but he was a marvelous dancer, even though he had by then lost his fabulous jumping ability. Even more though, he was a quirky performer, and he often made me laugh, whether he meant to or not. Critic Deborah Jowitt has called him a 'ꀜvaudevillian'ꀝ and however abstract we might think his work, he was first and foremost a man of the theater.

In the day, a young dancer once said, 'ꀜthere is God and then there is Merce Cunningham.'ꀝ To that I can only say, amen. But I know that there will be no rest in peace. Only more dances to be made.


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