Santa Barbara News-Press
“Elfin” is not a word one would ordinarily associate with one of the giants of modern dance. In person, you would not guess that Merce Cunningham has been called one of the great American choreographers. Instead he brings to mind a gentle elf, a leprechaun, a Zen monk with a twinkle in his eye.
Even Cunningham’s soft speech accentuates his Puckish demeanor: it is punctuated with appreciative chuckles, which pop up regularly at things in this world that strike him as highly whimsical. “Interest” is his favorite word, as in, “Dancing interests me.”
Martha Graham once said of Cunningham, “Merce was made for the air.” One can well imagine the spry, airborne Cunningham of an earlier time, which is still suggested by his tall, erect bearing and alert countenance. This month, Cunningham will turn 68, and though his age shows on his long frame, he continues to enjoy performing and to project great performances.
Asked how he sees himself onstage, Cunningham replied, with genuine appreciation for the double meaning: “I never look at myself. I don’t really imagine anything. I just go out and do what I can do, try to do the steps.” Understatement is clearly another of the dancer-choreographer’s qualities.
For 40 years Merce Cunningham has been at the forefront of modern dance. He was a leading dancer with the Martha Graham Company from 1939 to 1945, before striking out on his own. It was then that his collaboration with avant-garde composer John Cage began, a collaboration that continues to the present.
Though the personnel in his company have changed over the years, the company has remained a constant much of his life since he founded it almost 35 years ago. He has created over 100 works for his dancers, and since the death of choreographer George Balanchine, Cunningham has emerged as an even more dominant force in American dance.
From the very beginning, Merce Cunningham has seen dance differently, challenging conventional notions about the form. In the beginning of a work he has always worked independent of both composer and designer. He said he preferred not telling another artist what to do. As a result, in a Cunningham dance, choreographer, composer and designer are rarely aware of each other’s intentions before they begin a new work. It is only at the last minute that all the “ingredients” are assembled and the piece comes together.
“Sometimes they want information ahead of time and sometimes they don’t,” he says. “Sometimes Cage will ask me the structure of the dance, that is, the structure in terms of time. That’s about all he asks. Oh, sometimes he asks me how many people are in it. Sometimes I may know what he’s doing in terms of sound and sometimes I never hear it. I’m willing to—it’s not that. It’s just that he’s working on it—which I’m sure he does up until the day of the performance.”
Cunningham has always thrived in the company of other artists, at the same time maintaining that dance is an independent art form that can stand on its own, apart from either music or visual effects.
At one time or another he has worked closely with Jaspar Johns and Mark Lancaster, who all served as company designers, as well as artists Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, David Hare, and Morris Graves.
In spite of the random way a piece is assembled, he claimed that his dances always manage to work in the end.
“What’s amazing to us is how often we have done something like this and then everyone insists, not knowing our working process, that, ‘Oh yes, that music goes so marvelously with the dance.”
When the dust settles and everything comes together, the type of dance that emerges is non-narrative and non-linear. Cunningham doesn’t tell a story in the conventional sense and his dancers often seem to move through space without any predictable logic. As a result, there is a certain unrehearsed quality to the choreography. One might be tempted t think that much of it is improvised, and Cunningham is pleased that it has this effect.
“To many people it doesn’t look formal in the sense that they think of formal dances. Nor does it tell stories, so what else can it be other than improvised? Yet, we rehearse as much or more than anyone else. The dancers are simply organized in a way that most people don’t recognize.” Despite this kind of methodology, Cunningham is the last person to describe his work as abstract.
“I don’t think movement is abstract. Somebody moving is doing something; he’s not being abstract. Anyway, I always thought it was the other way around: that they abstracted the story from what was really happening.” He chuckles as he says this.
“We don’t pretend to refer to something in particular. We just make a dance out of movement.”
His movement vocabulary, the so-called Cunningham “technique,” is often said to be influenced by classical ballet. Indeed, Cunningham has choreographed for companies other than his own, including the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. But he said his work really isn’t about ballet. “It looks that way to lots of people, but then when I give it to ballet dancers, they have trouble doing it. We have to train them to do it. I remember once, years ago, we gave a performance in a New England college. And a woman there had been a classical ballet dancer said, ‘Your work is all ballet.’ A Chinese man standing next to her said, ‘Oh, no, it looks very Chinese to me.’ The point is, if you are classically trained, you think that way and see those things in my work. So a lot of people see ballet in my work because that’s what they’re accustomed to seeing in a dance.”
Cunningham dance movements juxtapose the body’s natural movements with much more technical ones—an idea that has since been borrowed by younger choreographers.
“My idea about movement has always been that anything that somebody could do I thought would be interesting to try. I’m not doing something for some aesthetic reason. I try to use as much movement as possible, anything I can think up.”
This philosophy has made it possible for Cunningham, as he approaches his seventh decade, to appear in his own dances without looking out of place, without looking like an older dancer pretending for the sake of the limelight to be younger. Still, there is speculation on why Cunningham continues to perform when the conventional retirement age for dancers would have grounded him 30 years ago.
“We’re all so amazing that way,” he laughed. “We’re always asking about how old someone is and when are you going to do something else. Dancing is what I do. I don’t do as much now as I used to do, naturally, but to me, the idea of retiring doesn’t occur. Dancing interests me, it always has, so I just continue.”
It hasn’t always been this simple, however. Experimental dance has never been popular dance. Audiences have walked out on his work, simply because it didn’t look the way dance should look. It doesn’t tell a story, and many times the dancers are doing entirely different things at the same time. And Cage’s electronic, often high-decibel scores are not exactly sing-able.
Nevertheless, Cunningham has become an almost mainstream figure, the “grand old man” of modern dance. It isn’t because he’s compromised his principles. He admits that he never set out to be popular, but if he does appeal to people, it is because “we’ve been around for a long time and people have just gotten used to us.”
“The elements that were unconventional 20 years ago still exist in our work, it’s just that I think that it’s easier for people to see them and hear them,” he said. “They’re not quite so put off by the sound as they once were. The idea of different things going on at the same time is part of everybody’s consciousness. We live in a complex world, so people can accept it on stage.”
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company tours regularly on the West Coast. In its Santa Barbara stop, the company will perform a 90-minute “Event,” which consists of fragments of previous works, performed end-to-end or simultaneously. Cunningham described it as “continuous dancing with no intermission [chuckle], moving from one thing to another.”
In conjunction with the performance, UCSB will be sponsoring a two-day residency, which will include a master class for students of the dance department, and a free public lecture, including a screening of one of Cunningham’s “video dances.” Cunningham’s most recent area of exploration poses the question, “What happens to bodies moving in space when they become images flattened by a camera?”
“The camera changes everything,” he said, “—space, time, movement, and the effects the dancers make. At first, most dancers I talked to didn’t like it for that reason. But I thought that was the interesting thing.”
Such a statement is typical of Cunningham’s delight and wonder at dancing, a joy he would like his audiences to share with him. He worried that this work sometimes sounds cerebral and “difficult.” Asked how he would like people to view his dances, he said: “I think one of the best answers is—I don’t know who said it—‘Come and bring your faculties to play.’
“I’ve always thought the theater should be an adventure. Someplace where you go and you don’t quite know what’s going on. Where you can see and hear something that you’ve never known before. I’ve never had any problem with that myself. But I think, in general, someone should come…. [chuckle]…like a tourist.”