The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
Adult  |  Moonsigns  |  Band Guide  |  Blogs  |  In Pictures

Giant's steps

Merce Cunningham (1919–2009)
By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  August 4, 2009

merce main

MERCE IN SOUNDDANCE Almost all contemporary dance has adopted his convictions, if not the rigor of his process.

Merce Cunningham's death on July 26 wasn't unexpected. He'd been in frail health since this past winter. He was in a wheelchair for his 90th-birthday celebration in April at Brooklyn Academy of Music. In June, the Cunningham Foundation announced plans for the future of the company and the repertory after his death. And on opening night of the company's engagement last month at Jacob's Pillow, July 22, a live video feed was set up so he could watch the performance from his home in New York. Through the week people were saying, "He's holding his own. He's sitting at the computer."

I think he wanted to go. I think working was his life — dancing, choreographing, teaching, touring, studying people and animals and technology — but steadily the physical stresses of a lifetime overcame his disciplined productivity. We can't know whether he was consciously waiting to let go until after the company's closing Pillow performance Sunday afternoon, but, gentleman that he was, it would have been like him.

merce2 main

Merce Cunningham has been a major force in the dance world for more than 50 years. Critics still feel they have to explain how he revolutionized the act of choreography and the whole notion of what constitutes a dance. This is strange when you consider that almost all contemporary dance has adopted his convictions, if not the rigor of his process. We don't have to know exactly how young choreographers create dances. Interesting explorations of movement can look pedestrian, or borrowed, or assembled from mismatching techniques, and still be dances. They don't have to be propped up with stories, musical structures, or formal stage patterns. We accept this broadened definition because of Cunningham's persistent example. His artistic creds are long-established.

Yet some theoretical audience education always seems to accompany a Cunningham performance, as if the audience wouldn't "get" the idea of all-dance dances without a logical sequence or some soothingly compatible music. It's harder to explain what really is different about the way his dancers look. They're austere, smartly placed; they make no concessions to indulgent sensuality or self-reflexivity; they concoct no suspenseful pauses or strategic build-ups to bring the audience along. They can rush around almost aimlessly, changing directions, their ultimate destinations known only to themselves.

Their movement is, well, almost peculiar. It's chopped-up, counter-intuitive, often executed with hyper-intensity. Cunningham moves are put together and sometimes totally conceived by mechanical forces — computers, random ordering devices. They can't be learned in a studio as combinations that you master over time. They're rehearsed, of course, but each dance makes different demands. In performance sometimes, you see the dancers struggling to fulfill them.

What I'm saying is that Cunningham dances produce affect in a different way from dances that adopt the same general principles but haven't been put through the methodical and boring task of disengagement. All the theory-speak that accompanies Cunningham dances may lead some people not to expect affect at all. Just the same, they move us. This is a marvelous vindication of Cunningham's contention that movement has its own integrity — and also an ironic answer to his Zen-like avoidance of all psychological overtones.

merce 3 main

CRWDSPCR (1993) is almost a textbook example of Cunningham eccentricity. When it begins, 13 dancers are evenly spaced across the stage, anchored in place as they do scattered jumps and beats of the legs. They move a little off their spots, but only after a while do you realize that the whole mass of bodies has compressed and shifted until all but four of the dancers are bunched up at the side of the stage. It's as if a forest had decided little by little to become a grove.

Three dances on this program used a large ensemble, 13, 12, and 11 dancers, assembling and dispersing, dividing into smaller units. But the space was never empty, and the energy never subsided even when the movement slowed down. In CRWDSPCR, I got a strong sense of disconnection. A dancer extends a leg, lifts an arm, twists into a new direction, then takes a step. These moves could be done all at once or in a smooth sequence, but here there are halts in between, sometimes no longer than an eye blink. But long enough to reveal the dancer's mind willing the next odd thing to happen, and the next.

CRWDSPCR is an early example of Cunningham's computer-generated dances. They didn't all come out with these hesitations, but maybe he and the dancers were learning how to internalize the instructions they got from the machine. In a post-performance talk with scholar-in-residence Maura Keefe, Robert Swinston, the company's senior dancer, pointed out how hard it was to learn a movement sequence where the leg should gesture on four counts and the arms on three. Melissa Toogood reported that after rehearsing a lot, you'd learn a path through the dance for yourself. The choreography doesn't suggest an immediate coherence, and neither did Cunningham dictate one to the dancers.

1  |  2  |   next >
  Topics: Dance , Entertainment, Science and Technology, Technology,  More more >
  • Share:
  • Share this entry with Facebook
  • Share this entry with Digg
  • Share this entry with Delicious
  • RSS feed
  • Email this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Today's Event Picks
Share this entry with Delicious

 See all articles by: MARCIA B. SIEGEL

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2009 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group