Merce Cunningham’s relationship with the Bay Area was deep and career-spanning, so on the eve of his company’s final performances at UC Berkeley, Claudia Bauer asked several local artists to share what Merce and his work have meant to them. Naturally, the order of these excerpts was determined by chance.
Joanna G. Harris, dancer and teacher
I went to Merce’s studio way back in ’57. A colleague of mine was teaching at Antioch College, and I was teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington; she said “Come up and bring students.” We got there and my friend had told us the wrong date, so we had to stay overnight with the company in the old Quonset huts. So we all helped John Cage cook dinner, and here we are 53 years later. The original group that I knew were all of six people…and the classes I took at the old 14th Street studio, above the Living Theater, was with Remy [Charlip] and Carolyn [Brown] and Viola [Farber], Bruce [Nauman] was probably there, and one or two others.
It was a very small group, and there were very small audiences…Merce’s work was considered very weird and not very respectable, and people laughed and made fun of what he was doing. But I found it intriguing. Part of Merce’s intrigue for me was not only that he was a very kind and fascinating human being, and was right in the middle of that Fifties revolution in terms of what is modern art, and what do we think about when we think about creating new visual and dynamic space, but it was his complete devotion, his complete discipline. This is a man, as far as I could see, whose ego was thoroughly submerged in the work. In other words, very often an artist does a piece and then says, “Look at me, I did this piece.” And Merce always said, “Look at the work.”
That was a very important dimension. [It was about] how does the performance of dance work? What are the rhythms? What is the space design? What are the tensions? What is partnering as we’re used to it, coming from the ballet, and what is partnering as we might get used to it, when he challenged us to see that…there was a whole different kind of ensemble sharing, of weight and balance.
The space had multi-rhythms—no fixed points in space, as he often said. He moved the center focus from the center stage, whereas what was happening simultaneously in many parts of the stage was just as interesting. And there were no stars: Carolyn Brown was always listed above him. These sound like very ordinary things 50 years later, but they were not. People would come up to me and say, “How can you stand that stuff? It’s garbage.” And I felt very sad that they couldn’t give themselves the pleasure of letting go of what they assumed dancing was and begin to just look at what was there. And I think it has taken fifty years.
I also just enjoyed him as a human being. He was great fun to be with. I miss taking class, because over the years whenever I would go to New York, I would go straight to the studio. To this day, I begin my teaching classes with his work. And I just miss the phone calls and the fireside chats, where we would sit here [gestures to her dining chair] and talk about what did he see and who did he see, and how did he feel, and what wine was he drinking. I talk to him all the time.
Frank Shawl, co-founder of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center
I so respect and admire what he’s done and how he broke new inroads into the whole way of constructing dance and making dances. He really influenced so many people in creativity, in the method of creativity, in how to go about making dances in a new and risky way.
His association with John Cage was a perfect blend. John did in music what Merce did in music; they sparked each other. He really changed the whole mindset of people. You had to go [to a Cunningham performance] with an open mind and see something that was sometimes very chance driven but always technically impeccable.
He wasn’t an egomaniac. He had this wonderful way of knowing that he was doing what he had to do, and his path was his path. I’m sure it was not easy in the beginning, when he broke with the more traditional styles of modern dance. It was very courageous, daring and adventurous – all the way to the very end. What a wonderful thing to say about a person.
He was always delving and always curious. I think that was something very special about him—his adventuresomeness. That takes a tremendous sense of purpose, and not concern about whether you get approval or not. Just that you believe in what you’re doing; a strong belief in your ideas, and being willing to take the risk.
Even though it wasn’t my kind of method of doing things, I was fascinated by what he was doing. I love Winterbranch—the lighting was by Rauschenberg, and it was like being in the New York subway, on a train, and everything flashing by. And then I love RainForest, with the pillows. His dancers were impeccable, all the way to the end. They were beautifully trained, and there’s a certain [mind] that can take that chance way of doing things; sometimes they would change the order of a piece while the piece was going on, and they were all so adaptable to his ideas.
[Without Merce, young artists today] are at a disadvantage in a way, because watching something develop, and seeing the perseverance, is a learning process in itself, isn’t it? How someone just forges ahead, doing what they truly believe in doing, whether it’s popular or not. All the innovators in art are those people who have that conviction, that tremendous conviction, and not concern about whether they’re going to be accepted or not. They’re just committed to what they believe in doing. It’s an inspiration.
He was one of the truly great American artists. And so was Martha [Graham], and so were others. But they had their voices, and he had his. He was focused and directed, and that’s what it takes. He was an inspiration as a person who continues in their work, growing and growing, and always develop, and always open to new ideas, and trying his own new ideas. It was just amazing. That’s why he was who he was.
Margy Jenkins, artistic director of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company
I met him in 1963. I was a student at UCLA and he came to UCLA with his company to be in residence. I was obviously very young, and it was a major turning point for me as a young student and as a young, growing artist. After that eight weeks I got on a Greyhound bus and followed him back to New York, but my family was a little concerned that I was going to quit school. So I went back and finished school.
In New York, I studied exclusively with Merce. Two very particular things happened when I was studying him—this was about 1964—that were profoundly influential to my life as a continuing young student and artist. Merce asked me to teach for him, so I became one of the two people who started his studio in New York. Subsequent to teaching for him, he asked me to take jobs that weren’t convenient for him to take—someone asking him to teach every week in Rochester, for example. Of course I would say yes, and minutes after accepting those jobs I was able to drop all the other jobs I had and support myself completely by teaching for him.
Prior to meeting Merce, I had been training solely as a modern dancer, first in SF and then I had gone to Juilliard. I studied with Jose Limón and Martha Graham and Charles Weidman and Lucas Hoving and Louis Horst…when I got to UCLA, that had been my training, which I felt very proud of and very embraced by. But there was something disquieting going in within me in terms of feeling as if I hadn’t found the right outlet for the way in which I experienced the world and the way in which I observed things to take place. And I didn’t know what that was…I just knew it wasn’t quite fully satisfying. But I kept at it because it was what I loved. And then Merce arrived at UCLA, and it was like this lightbulb went off and my heart and my mind and my body found a place.
The technique embraced both a clarity and an abandon that felt absolutely right for my body. In those years—and you have to remember it’s not 2010, it’s 1963—the company was fill of fascinating misfits who didn’t fit into any one particular style. And I was yet another one, and I was welcomed into that club of both shape of body and quality of movement. So not only did I love the technique itself, because I loved the clarity that it demanded, but I also loved how free one felt in it. And of course, not everybody did.
I had come from a very traditional compositional background. Form and structure were based more on musical structure than anything else. When I started studying composition from Merce, and he was insisting and creating environments in which one would have to address issues around what follows what and can anything follow what and why should one thing follow another thing necessarily, and understanding chance methods as a way of pushing your mind past what it might ordinarily do, I once again felt very free to ask myself the questions about what was important to me in terms of what could follow what and why one thing should follow another thing. Not to answer Merce in some way, but only because he posed the question—the question had never been posed before.
For me, my experience was that Merce did not try to encourage anything—he only asked questions. I would be very hard-pressed to say that Merce asked the questions in order for you to X, Y or Z. he asked the questions because those were the ones he asked himself. And in responding to them, you could decide you were going to reject them all, you could decide they were really interesting and they led you somewhere, or you could decide that you wanted to do exactly what he did. I think the gift that Merce had was that he didn’t have any expectations. And he wasn’t interested in creating people who did what he did. And I think that’s why when you look at a list of people who are making work who feel that their origins were Merce, you will not find two people anywhere near alike. Meredith Monk and Tricia Brown and Lucinda Childs and Laura Dean and Margaret Jenkins and Remy Charlip—you can’t draw a line anywhere.
His aesthetic was very, very deeply informed by John Cage and by the artists that surrounded him who were also on that residency in 1963. It wasn’t just Merce who came; it was John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It was the early days, before everybody got famous, and they all hung out together. So there was this group of really interesting people posing interesting questions to each other, and everyone was answering them differently and no one was made to feel they were answering them incorrectly because there wasn’t an answer.
Not only was the practice very interesting to me, but the work blew me away. I was very taken with how the nature of the questions he was asking was being presented in the work itself. Like RainForest and Field Dances and Aeon; it’s a very different generation of dances than are being performed now, not better or worse, just different.
The ripple effect of Merce Cunningham and John Cage—I can’t really separate their influence, because I think that they were in a very profound partnership as artists—the nature of the things that they embraced had a kind of optimism and humanity about it. You always felt, at the end of seeing either one of them, that anything was possible, you never, ever felt that anything was not possible. And along with that kind of extraordinary capacity to embrace what lay ahead was this wonderful openness about anything truly was art, and anything could follow anything.
Where I may not in my own work feel that, because I feel very committed to all kinds of ideas of what can follow what, and I never work with chance methods, and I always commission composers to make work for what I’m working on—all of that is very “not Merce and John”—that’s exactly what he wanted to encourage, I think, in each of us, that we figure out who we were. He just wasn’t interested in you if what you knew was what he knew. What would be the point of that?
Mary Armentrout, choreographer
If you look at the history of modern dance, you have these innovators in the beginning—Duncan, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey—in a way, they all come from nothing, making their own thing, listening to their voices to tell them what their technique should be, and the temptation then is to follow along in their footsteps. Merce Cunningham really, for me, says very clearly, “Nope. If you want to be a contemporary artist in this dance form, you have to do what they did. You have to make your own voice, listen to your own way of doing it, and allow that to become your way.” And since he is such an incredible example of taking what Martha Graham did, for example, and turning it upside down, chopping it inside out, and spewing it in little bits all over Australia as his art form, it’s so clear that he didn’t just take what she did and do it in his own way, he made his own way, and that is what I think is so powerful and why he is so important to me.
In the early days they would tour in gyms because either he couldn’t get into proscenium spaces or he didn’t care to. And they would do these total chance things, where they didn’t know what they were going to do until they got there, and he would throw the dice and they would do it. And you would see them cracking up because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do. Cunningham dancers cracking up is very rare to see! But I saw it in the gym at Penn State.
I grew up when he was “the big thing.” We were studying with all these Cunningham people when I was in college, so it kind of felt like the soup of what I was in. Everybody liked Cunningham for different reasons. A lot of people just like that way of moving because it’s so kind of inorganic, this inorganic combination ballet and Graham and all of these twists and turns of articulating the body in four directions at once that is so hard to do. There were a bunch of people also who saw a great beauty in the performance quality that he espoused—I’m not really performing for you, in a very presentational manner, I’m just being here in front of you. This very tricky thing of being present while executing this incredibly elaborate set of commands to your body. I think that there’s something really beautiful about that.
At the time, when his work was kind of the pinnacle of modern dance, because it was so odd, his work was odd, you notice less that he always used the most technical dancers he could find. Now, he’s been integrated into the map of what the possibilities are. You have more of the Judson everyday movement, and he looks very formalistic, he looks very bound, he looks very balletic. I have moved in some ways beyond that. [Yet] for me it’s an incredibly beautiful formalism that’s never as dry as balletic formalism can be because it has such a huge number of more sets of possibilities. It was certainly not only about doing the steps.
June Watanabe, choreographer/dancer
I had the good fortune to be able to study with him in master classes in the late Fifties, when he used to visit L.A., and then I went to the American Dance Festival and then in New York. Merce was a teacher of few words; it was only about the essence of what we were working on. He was kind but demanding. And in technique class once he was telling me to keep my weight between both legs as I was taking a tendu to the side, and I said, “I can’t do that.” And he looked me straight in the eye and said sternly, “Yes, you can.” I was sort of stunned because he’d always been very quiet. It made me try a little harder.
And in 1961, I was taking his advanced technique class, and on several occasions during class he came by and he would whisper how beautifully I may have danced or performed. Those are moments for me of having something personal come from Merce.
In a way, he was able to get at something without saying what it is that was lacking, but through a physical experience he was able to help me find an inner strength, which is so in keeping with his more Zen inner…working from a more inner place. Technique was there for me, but I think the inner workings were probably not there. And that was such a beautiful way to get at something without telling you to work on it.
I had such great admiration for him. He and John Cage did so much to affect our perceptions about art and life. I remember at the ADF, watching this very Dada-istic scene. The absurd was going on along with the technically beautiful dance work. It was beautiful to see—astonishing, actually, at that time—to see this kind of approach to looking at dance.
His passion and commitment and his need to dance—the dancing was every breath that he took. For me, he wasn’t quite human; he was almost like a magnificent creature. He seemed so matter-of-fact in his demeanor, in his teaching; “this is just the material.” But there was such life that was really untouchable—it wasn’t obvious physically, but it was so strikingly strong from the inside. All his quirky little things he did, every gesture, all had this magnificence, because he was working from this internal place.
People so often look at and imitate the outer form without looking at what was creating that internally. So often it’s the outer form we emulate in our own work. And it’s not getting at the depth, what is at the basis of the work. These are difficult things to tap. Although some of his pieces directly communicated; others were so subtle, it wasn’t a thing he danced about, it was just a presence that was ever there.
He made us look at dance, and he continues to make us look at dance, in a new way. He was always searching for another way of thinking about, looking at or feeling about dance. I think he was always in constant search.
As much as Merce says that his work is not specifically expressive of ideas and feelings, his work, for me, really communicated. And of course I may be reading into the works as I saw them. But to me, they spoke of great feelings from him about the kind of things he might have been going through at the time. Because his works have changed emotionally for me as time has gone on. And particularly his last work spoke so beautifully about possibly looking at the end coming. But always in a very understated, kind of ethereal way.
[Nearly Ninety] was probably one of the most formed and developed dances I have ever seen, where there was an ongoing-ness of one thing leading to another to a beautiful ending that really opened up and glowed. There was a sense of diminishing and growing at the same time, which he was able to capture in the movement and the mood. Just the dimensions of the colors gave you a feeling of life or death.
Hope Mohr, artistic director of Hope Mohr Dance Company
I moved to New York to study at the Cunningham Company in 1997 and was granted a scholarship. I studied there intensively for a year and a half. Merce taught Monday mornings, so I took class with Merce for about a year. And it was really the closest thing to church that I have ever experienced. It was really a practice, a focus; it was a lesson in dedication and discipline, and just showing up and immersing yourself in that aesthetic. It was the most important physical training that I’ve done in my career. I went through SF Ballet School, and it was a very different kind of muscular training that was absolutely formative for me in becoming a professional modern dancer.
And just being around all of those exceptional dancers was so inspiring. And Merce definitely had an aura about him. When he taught, his sense of rhythm was so strong and compelling, so even though he wasn’t able at that point physically to execute the steps in a super-clear way, you could still hear the embodiment of the rhythm in his voice. He would sing the exercises, and so you would hear how strongly it lived in his body through his voice.
Merce really deconstructed the body, so that within his universe, anything was possible. And the permutations—there were so many permutations of each step. It was very surprising. In ballet there’s kind of a codified use of the language; in Cunningham, it was all very unexpected. There was no canon, or established way that the steps would be delivered. It was always different because of the use of chance. Because Merce relied on chance as a compositional logic, anything was possible at any minute, and the dancers in his company had to build up an incredible strength and flexibility to be able to accommodate those steps within the body, and those combinations. Your upper body might be doing ten different things and your lower body would be doing something that was completely unrelated from an anatomical or organic perspective. It was put together because that was the combination of events that happened to be put together.
Merce’s use of chance has inspired me to rely on outside source materials in coming up with spatial and time structures. His sense of rhythm, juxtaposing rhythms against each other, the internal rhythm of a phrase—the importance of that—and the strength of that. And compositionally, learning from his work Ocean, learning about having any given front—there no fixed points in space—the idea that there’s no front, and the idea of getting away from the oppression of the frontalness of ballet.
But I think mostly his intellectual curiosity and the rigor and the intensity and the passion he brought to what he did. The adventuresomeness of it. And just being in that studio that really embodied him…it was such a source of passion and inspiration that has carried me, even when I feel isolated as a choreographer, I can go back to the elation that I felt just taking class every day, going up to that studio and looking out the windows at New York, and being surrounded by similarly-minded people. It was like a meditation practice. Just showing up. Just that dedication was truly a wonderful thing to experience.
His influence is so ambient at this point. He was one of the first people to propose dance as pure movement, dance that doesn’t tell a story, dance that is just about form and use of space and use of time. At first when audiences saw that, it was very unpopular, but now, it’s become very ambient—that’s an acceptable dance form. It doesn’t have to tell a story; it can be very architectural. And when people see Cunningham, still, if they’re not a regular dancegoer, they’ll say I don’t get it, what is it about. He was one of the first people to make a dance that wasn’t explicitly about anything than what it actually is.
When I was taking company class with him, the days when I would receive a correction from Merce were thrilling. Because if he corrected you, you knew that he had been watching you. And just to be receiving his attention was absolutely thrilling, because he had such an eagle eye, and it was like you were getting a correction from the god of dance. It was a thrilling moment to receive a correction from him. And I probably received just a handful of them, not very many, but they stayed with me and encouraged me to work harder. It was truly inspiration to be in his presence.
Joe Goode, artistic director of Joe Goode Performance Group
I was inspired in the early Seventies because I saw some happenings with Rauschenberg and Cunningham, and I just thought, this is what art really could be and should be. Something that’s interactive and fun and unexpected and not framed by any of the rules of the stage. And so when I went to New York after college, I went straight to the Cunningham studio to be a scholarship student, and started studying Cunningham technique, and was lucky enough to see many events that happened in his space in New York, which I really enjoyed. You know, collisions between Meredith Monk and the company, or John Cage and the company, or Gordon Mumma, or Rauschenberg. There were these wonderful artists, and the conceit of the events was that they were spontaneous, all of the different parts had not talked to each other until the moment of the happening, and that was very exciting to me.
But I have to say that I became very disenchanted with the work as it grew, and I felt that it was a little too balletic for me and a little too adherent to the unspoken rules of dancing, in terms of how men always partner women, and those kind of unspoken age-old traditions. Women had their legs in space doing slow promenades and men were dashing around energetically, and that was being somehow perpetuated in the work. I was really looking for something different, and I was also looking for something that was, I think, more emotional, and not denying or erasing the history of the dancer, but kind of using it somehow.
And so I moved very far away from Merce, and thought about him a lot, thought about him as something to push against, as something that I was trying to get away from. I understand what he’s doing, and I certainly appreciate that he did it; it was very important for me that he did it, in many ways, especially the chance aspect, that’s totally incorporated into my own work, it’s very much a part of my process, and so I nod to him a lot when I do that.
I thought I had moved very far away. And when he died, I was working on Traveling Light, which was a piece that happened simultaneously in many different spaces at once, and it was sometimes about very precise movement and other times about language or story, character. And it just really occurred to me, I really sat down and had a moment where I thought, I would not be doing this work if it were not for Merce Cunningham. He changed the rules for all of us, and allowed me to go into this sort of installation type of work, work outside the proscenium, work that’s arrived at through chance processes, work that disobeys the rules of time and space, in that things happen at the same time, and people at the same event can have very different experiences, and acknowledges that and works with that.
All of those things came from Merce. None of those things had been done before him. I just felt an enormous debt of gratitude and a kind of lineage that I think I had been trying to deny before. “Oh no, my work is emotional, I’m going in a different direction. I’m different.” And of course I am, but I think there is a strong heritage and a real lineage that comes directly from him. That’s where I’m at today with Merce Cunningham.
I admire that he had the wisdom and his company had the wisdom to say, “We’re going to end it now. We’re not going to just keep doing these same pieces in perpetuity and watch them get kind of stale and out of date, or far removed from the source, from the impetus that keeps them alive.” I think that’s very wise. And I hope that I have the wisdom to do the same thing. Because the work really was about a kind of immediacy; at its best, it was about, “I’m encountering this thing in a new way, and the audience is getting to be a participant in that exciting encounter.” And that’s where I think the work, for me, succeeded the most. Not so much as a museum repertory kind of thing.
He was the first person to say yes there can be simultaneous events in the room, and I’m not gonna direct the viewer, I’m not gonna put a spotlight on this action and declare that it’s primary and this other action is secondary. I’m gonna make the audience decide, I’m gonna make them have their own experience—claim their own experience and move toward that thing that they want to see. And that is so revolutionary in the theater, and those of us who went through it and internalized it, it totally changed the way we thought about our work. And I think it’s a very important principle that runs through all of my work these days. I really want to make that experience volitional for the viewer. I want them to have to participate…That makes the experience personal. It makes it yours. It gives you ownership. I think that’s really important, and I totally got that from Merce. I don’t know that he would talk about it in that way, but that’s what I turned it into, and that’s very important to me.
He changed the field. So we’re all making the work that we’re making as a result of what he did and what he thought about.
Nina Haft, artistic director of Nina Haft & Company
I started dancing in high school with a Graham teacher, and when I got to college I encountered Cunningham technique, which to me was sort of like ancient Sanskrit; it just did not make intuitive sense to my body, my way of moving. The Cunningham work was hard for me to figure out; it really eluded me and was really difficult and challenging. And when I finally was able to crack the code, I felt like it was the technique, of the choreographer-based techniques that I got, that really transformed the way I moved, perhaps because it was so in contrast to my movement signature, but I think also because it was such a systematic and rigorous, strength-building, incredibly specific technique. And it felt like all of my major breakthroughs in my technique training happened as a result of that encounter.
One time in high school—I grew up in New York City—I think it was St. Mark’s Church, it was something that was incredibly pedestrian and very repetitive, I don’t remember there being much sound, and it was really monotonous. And I remember thinking, I really want to get up and leave, which I don’t do, never have done. But I remember thinking, I just want to leave, this just feels like I’m trapped in some sort of hell, but I was too shy to do that. And I looked around and there were people getting up and leaving. And what the people onstage were doing was, they were primarily walking at these right angles. They would walk in one direction, turn at a right angle and the walk in another direction. And that was a lot of what was going on on the stage.
And people who got up to leave the show because they hated it so much were getting up, walking in a straight line down the pews, turning at a right angle and walking in another straight line. And I remember having this moment where I thought, Oh! That’s what’s going on.
Dana Lawton, artistic director of Dana Lawton Dances
I admire him tremendously. I love his work. I think he is, just like many people, a brilliant, brilliant choreographer. I think how he’s impacted me the most is just through my own lineage of dance; my main teacher was Janice Garrett, who danced with Dan Wagner, who danced with Merce Cunningham. I incorporate Merce mostly in my teaching, and that is where I feel the closest to his stuff.
The other thing that I think about him is, even though I don’t do a lot of chance work in my own choreographic process, the fact that he did and made it so successful, and made these beautiful works like Rune and Ocean out of it, I feel like I have in the back of my mind, or in my tool bag, that if I want to use it, it’s OK. That there’s a permission because he has done it and it’s been very successful.
I think that there’s a freedom, rather than following a formula, there’s a freedom that I understand in all of his readings and in interviews and in watching his work that I could try putting things [together] that would normally maybe not seem like they would go next to one another, or overlay mapping patterns, gesture work, next to each other just to see. Like tell one dancer to do one thing and tell another dancer to do another, and see what happens. And just knowing that he created that groundwork gives me the courage to try something like that.
I tend to follow a lot of the same structure that I believe that he taught, in terms that it’s very structured in terms of technique, in terms of the set series of exercises that you would do. Similar to Martha Graham, similar to a lot of those people; you would come and you would learn a particular combination and then that would be the warm-up component. And the music would start, and everyone would know it. So you would have this opportunity to check in to your body and find out where you were as opposed to yesterday and how it felt.
So I do that, I do opening curves, which is something that Merce did. I do a lot of back exercises with the torso being in either an upper-back curve, while the legs are doing one thing the torso is doing another. So I would say that I base the structure of my class on this lineage that I’ve learned from. So it’s a little bit like [a game of] telephone, I suppose. If he wasn’t doing that in the very beginning, I wouldn’t be doing it that way.
The other thing that I’ve always appreciated about him is the grandeur of his ideas. If I think about the piece he did at Berkeley when he was in the gymnasium, and it was exactly 90 minutes long, or 89 minutes and 12 seconds or something—I’m forgetting the name of the piece—and the orchestra was all the way around in the bleachers up at the very, very top, and the dancers just entered and exited the basketball court. And you were free to get up and move; if you didn’t like whatever angle you were at, you could go and get up and move up and down in the space. You couldn’t go on the basketball court, but you could move around it.
There was something that when I would watch his work in those types of environments, or if I were at Zellerbach, that he had this tremendous consideration for the space, and the way that the space could be viewed, that I really appreciated that integrity…that’s something that I also think about when I’m making dances. I know that if I put it at CounterPULSE, which is very different than if I’m performing at ODC, which is very different than I do it at a park. And I think he also was a master at that. So I feel like every time I go see his work, it was almost as if someone had invited me to dinner, and when they put the plate down in front of me I could tell that what they were serving me, they had given a lot of consideration to, where certain things were gonna be placed, and what things would smell like, and the temperature and all of that.
That’s why I always love his work, whether they looked like big washes of modern art passing through and I got to have my eyes fog over and just kind of space out, or I really focused on technology or whatever he wanted me to look at, I felt like he had a great, great sense of what we were all—we were all just supposed to be ourselves when we were in the space with him and his art, and that was very rich for me as well.
I don’t know if he ever cared if people got it or didn’t get it. I always felt like his dances were a big Rorschach test. I knew exactly what kind of head space I was in, or the person I was sitting next to, I pretty much knew, because his work had so many levels and layers to it, it wasn’t necessarily always linear, that you really did get to just sit there and let it happen to you and evoke images or stories or emotions or sleep or drooling or whatever happened. When I take students…it was always really interesting to have these young freshmen who’d never seen any dance and take them to something like that, and they’re like, “What? I don’t get it.”
A question I had a student ask me, that I still think of, which I think is a really good question, she’s like, “How do you know if his work is good or bad?” We can all look at Paul Taylor’s work or Martha Graham’s work, and say, “Oh, yeah, that definitely is one of the more successful pieces…that’s a less successful piece,” and we have these reasons why. But you look at this; it’s kind of like your child’s finger painting. How do you say this one is better than this one? And I just thought that was another good question to ask yourself. I said I think it’s up to the individual, and if you had dinner or a glass of wine before the show or after the show, or if this is the fourth time you’ve seen it or the first time you’ve seen it. I said I think it’s really up to you; [with] this particular artist, it’s really up to you.
I remember the first time I saw [Rune], I was like, What the hell is this? And I’ve seen it probably six or seven times now, and every single time I see it, it’s almost…if you just are patient and can be with it for an extended period of time, that beauty and that craft and those subtleties will start to come through, and you will start to connect the dots.
Sonya Delwaide, choreographer and Mills College professor
We had a guest artist who came to York University, Douglas Dunn, who worked with Merce. It was my first taste of the Cunningham approach, which at that time I was a bit shocked when I saw Douglas Dunn perform, like, “Wow, this is so different.” My expectations were blown away. It was in the Eighties, like 1980.
He created a piece with one of his dancers, and he used two or three of the York University students, and I was one of them. So I really got to understand the approach. That was my first taste. And then I decided to apply to go study Cunningham after I got so curious about the whole technique. I got a grant from the Canada Council to go study at the Cunningham studio, which in those days they were offering student visas. It was a place where you had students from Europe, from everywhere. So it was definitely exciting to be there, and it was one of the most beautiful studios in New York. It’s such a pleasure to go take class there.
I just loved the technique, and it was fitting the way I was naturally attracted to move. And I think what attracted me the most was the clarity, the use of the space, the technique was challenging, and it was also very challenging intellectually. They really threw long combinations, and it was challenging at all levels. I always thought it was a very challenging technique to do; it’s like ballet. There is a very strong discipline, and the movement is not flow-y, it’s not release. It’s very challenging and demanding technically. I like that aspect of it.
And then you learn about the whole philosophy of Merce, and how he used chance, and what he believed, and really the body being the tool and being neutral. So it’s not a woman dancing and it’s not a man dancing; it was really about the power of movement, which I thought was very interesting. And I think now that I teach, I don’t teach true Cunningham, I still use a lot of the exercises of Cunningham. You go to class and basically the teacher says, “And,” and you just do it, because basically everybody knows them. So I still use a lot of those basic exercises, but transformed with my own style.
But what I keep saying to the students is that this is a place for you to be neutral. Try to get rid of all your habits or personal use of hands…we all have these mannerisms that we develop or idiosyncrasies that we have, and I find that Cunningham clears that. You can use it as a neutral technique, and it’s so about using the space, the use of the torso, how you combine twists on top of pure lines. And I think it’s a great way to train. Because that way you can work with anybody and then you can add all those idiosyncrasies. But you know, if they’re not asked for, you can go back to that neutral place and still deliver what’s asked.
My work is very theatrical, so it’s interesting that Cunningham is so close to me, because it is the opposite of theatricality for me, the movement. And I still believe that if I can develop even a character through the movement—so I don’t try to act the character in the combination—through the movement that the character will come out, that’s where I find the source of Cunningham, is that it’s always through the movement.
And so what is the movement telling? Because I love to be totally true to the movement. I mean, integrity is a big thing for me. So even in the partnering, if you’re supposed to give your weight, then really give your weight, see how much the partner can take, and then let’s talk about it, like, let’s figure it out. But to make it work just so that it flows nicely, doesn’t work for me. It has to be true. It’s not about the aesthetic of it. And I find that Cunningham really helps with that. I always find that—it’s like the roots, and you go back because I find that it’s so pure. You try to find, where does the movement come from, and that’s it. And then move through the space. And that’s also what I like so much, I was so attracted—I love to move big. And when you think Cunningham, you think big.
Part of it, I really do think, is that he was so fortunate to have such a great studio. It was huge. And there were no columns; every other studio in New York, you have all these columns in the middle, and so again—I know it sound ridiculous, it’s a practical point of view—but as a dancer taking class, I didn’t have to worry about the columns. I still had to worry about the people around me; the classes were packed. But you could move across the floor—big. So it really was what the technique was about. People go into all these philosophical things, but there is also such a practical point of view that affects somebody’s way of being. So that was another incredible experience. It was exhilarating. There were tons of wonderful dancers in the studio.
He really influenced me in how I think of work. A lot of times I go with the flow, and then I go, What if I do this instead? And I try to take risks in my own work, because basically I feel that he was taking risks all the time. And as a choreographer, it’s easy if you go into a formula…and I think with Cunningham he never did that. He was always taking a new risk with a new piece. Even though it always looks like Cunningham. But there was always this element of, “Is it going to work? I don’t know.”
Charles Moulton, choreographer
For me what has always stuck out about Merce Cunningham was, one, he was extremely generous to me as a 19-year-old joining his company. He and John went out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. And the second thing I think about Merce is, Merce worked harder than any other artist I’ve ever known, and his work ethic was extraordinary.
Every day he woke up at six in the morning and he did his yoga and he had breakfast and he went to the studio, and then he taught company class, and then he did rehearsal, and most of the time he taught open class at 4:30. And then he did the whole thing again. And for all the time that I was with the company, I was aware that wherever I was in the world, and wherever Merce was in the world, he was getting up at six in the morning and doing yoga and going to the studio. Always the solution was work and the studio. So beyond his aesthetic, [and he was] probably one of the truly great artists of the 20th century—in any field—beyond that, as a young man, he taught me that work is the answer to everything.
Merce had an extraordinary speculative mind in which it was possible to reenvisage the aesthetic structures of our culture and represent them through choreography. In addition to being an incredible artist, he was also a really good choreographer. But he had, I think, a deep structural understanding of how the world moves, in a very pure and elemental way, and his works open these windows into a level of understanding of the essential ideas of how life works.
Though I was really young, John Cage spoke with me, he took my ideas seriously, he listened to what I had to say. They were curious about all of the people around them in the world. They were both very humane and generous people.
I see [Merce and John’s] influence more in my life as a person than I do in my work. I have huge respect for every piece of art either of them ever made, but I think it was just an extraordinary gift for me as a teenager to be able to spend time with them and to understand what it meant to be an artist.
I don’t think that Merce’s technique particularly worked on my body, and it never felt organic. I think what was wonderful about the company was being able to see Merce’s mind work. That was a huge takeaway for me. All of the pieces—all of the events were extraordinary…He would scramble things, take bits and pieces of all of his works and put them together and create a new fantastic experience. And he did that all the time. It was living, breathing, generative, powerful, both to be in and to see.
Merce was also a great teacher, and Merce’s teaching affected me very deeply. Merce taught me a lot, and I learned a lot while I was working with him, and I grew a lot. And I think that I was certainly a work in progress when I walked into that company.
It was a huge honor for me to have known the man and to have been a very small part of his work and of John’s work. It meant the world to me, and I am forever grateful for the contact I had with them. They showed me what it is to be an artist. This is what it is: It’s work. It’s focus. It’s discipline. They were relentless, wonderful, humorous. It was an unbelievable experience for this teenage kid from Minnesota.
For me, it seems enough that dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form, and that what is seen is what it is. —Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs at Zellerbach Hall Thursday–Saturday, March 3–5, at 8pm $22–$56. www.CalPerformance.org.
This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of In Dance.