In Memoriam

Prince of Lightness: Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

Merce Cunningham’s early admirers singled out two things about him that are seldom remarked on now: his light touch and his latent dramatic qualities. After his first independent concerts, in the mid-1940s, critic Edwin Denby noted that he didn’t create “different objective characters, but rather lyric variations of his own character.” In 1957 James Waring, a leading teacher-choreographer during the countercultural tidal wave that was rising in Downtown New York, described Cunningham’s dances as being like the aftereffects of stories that took place offstage, “not the event itself in explicit flesh. The art is one of feeling, not of meaning.” And a few years later, when his choreographic approach and his company had taken shape, Village Voice dance critic Jill Johnston said that in his dance, “emotion is created by motion rather than the reverse.” It wasn’t until the ’70s that Cunningham, along with the young Turks eventually called postmodern dancers, began to be talked about in the austere rhetoric of formalism.

Emotion, feelings, drama were modern dance’s meat and potatoes at mid-century. By then the choreographic pioneers, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and their followers, had made their breakthroughs and become established—dried up in the eyes of younger observers. Cunningham was filling “the vacuum left by exhausted forms,” said Johnston in 1960. Modern dance had set out to embody personal styles, thoughts, feelings, and moralities. Whether framed as character study, music visualization, or plotless metaphor, the dances represented the individual choreographer’s drives and visions. To some, this was the great strength of modern dance; to avatars of ballet, like Lincoln Kirstein, it was a fatal limitation.

As essentialized in later histories, modern dance was based on storytelling and personal anguish. This construct overlooks what really set modern dance apart from ballet in the postwar period. Modern dancers took themselves seriously as artists. They were concerned with humanist ideals and dedicated to resisting the escapist temptations of popular dancing and ballet. They were determined to clean up the decadent reputation of the female dancer, to portray male dancers as unthreateningly heterosexual, and to create an art dance that middle class audi- ences could recognize. These long-internalized aspirations for ennobling the profession cast an aura of high-mindedness over the entire modern dance enterprise in the ’50s. After decades of parsimonious production values, tragic but sympathetic archetypes, stern portraits of social ills, and militant calls to action, the altruism was subsiding but the weightiness persisted. The centers of artistic power and resistance were shifting. As Americans settled into a postwar culture of complacent acquisitiveness and nebulous political anxiety, the modern dancers were losing ground, shoved aside by a resurgent interest in ballet.

Unlike other offspring of the modern dance companies, Merce Cunningham was a dissident, not a disciple. He gave his first solo concerts while he was still dancing with Martha Graham, but whatever Graham and the rest of the modern dancers were doing, he was going to be different. He was different. Like John Cage, with whom he shared these first of a lifetime’s adventures, he was making a kind of anti-dance, as Cage was making anti-music. Not something that dismissed dance altogether but something that pulled the garment inside out and found it wearable. As he was trying out things, gradually divesting himself of modern dance’s imprint, his personal style and attitudes came through. He later acknowledged the thematic presence of fear, satire, humor, tranquility, and Eros in his early dances.

They certainly looked odd, even challenging, to the modern dance constituency. He had a hard time getting started and was rejected for years by the festivals and New York presenters who sustained the field. It was Cunningham’s lightness that shocked them. Modern dancers didn’t jump a lot in those days; his physicality favored the airborne, the frictionless. His distorted, eccentric moves might mean he was making fun of something; his air of impassivity might be covering for derision. But he wasn’t leveling criticism so much as encouraging lightness of thought, thereby lifting the burden of conscience from the viewer’s shoulders. Those who were receptive saw with a kind of relief that he wasn’t trying to prove anything or project any social agenda. He was asking the audience to concentrate on nothing more than dancing.

Cunningham’s dancing had always been extraordinary. Even those who disapproved could agree on that. But how was he to keep going without repeating and eventually stereotyping himself? By 1951, as he began to collect a small cadre of other dancers, he was searching for ways to avoid imprinting them with his own mannerisms and preferences. John Cage had already started exploring alternatives to the egocentric rules of Western music composition. The notion of chance liberated both of them from traditional rules and expectations.

Cage’s first book of lectures and anecdotes, Silence, was published in 1961, and I read it with astonishment for the first time around 1964. I was new to dance and a little daunted by Cunningham’s powerful, cryptic pieces. He was doing Night Wandering then, a mysterious duet with Carolyn Brown where they wore tunics made of animal skins and moved like a pair of big cats. Winterbranch infuriated the audience with aggressively loud sound, and lighting that jolted from glare to obscurity, and dancers in black who fell and rolled on the floor and vanished in the gloom. There was Story, where dancers came and went, wearing regular clothes in outlandish ways. And Antic Meet, a comedy in the zany spirit of the silent movies. Aeon, which I only knew from its intimidating reputation, was a very long company piece that gave no clues or tracking information.

Silence explained a lot of this for me without going into specifics, but far more important, it taught me a whole new way to think about art. Published during a brief period of experimental bookmaking, it was designed so that every chapter was laid out differently, the entries set in different typefaces and sizes, sometimes three or four fonts to a single page. At first you couldn’t make sense of the text; then you’d see that the design imposed a visual logic onto the words. I didn’t know anything about Apollinaire or the Dadaists, collage or Cubism. What Cage had to say was provocative, aphoristic, often amusing, and, it seemed to me, totally original.

What struck me first, of course, was the assumption that art did not have to depend on the artist’s intuition or await the arrival of some benevolent Muse. Composing by chance was a more workaday activity. Music could be thought of as a group of sounds to which you assigned variables like duration, pitch, and sequence. For each sound you tossed a coin or drew a card to give a value to each variable. The dense, quasi-mathematical diagram that resulted became the score. In return for handing over control of decision-making to an impartial process, you gained resources beyond your own imagination. You’d have to extricate yourself from your own habits and from what you’d been taught about the rules and the history of your art form, because, as Cage says, learning to play Bach wouldn’t make you a composer, only an imitator of Bach.

Letting go, a Zen-inspired discipline that Cage advocated, has enormous implications for the artist and the audience. Once the compositional process is shorn of its old dependence on things like form, memory, and mimesis, everyone’s engagement with the work becomes more immediate. The audience experiences a continuum of events of equal value that leads us onward through the piece, rather than drawing us back into previous related parts of the piece. There’s no clinging to familiar themes, no splurging on special embellishments, no flattering invitation to reflect on our own experience. Everything will be unfamiliar; everything will be remarkable.

For Cunningham, the uses of chance were probably less philosophical and more pragmatic than for Cage. He was convinced that turning some of the choreographic work over to disinterested forces would give him a much broader scope than anything his personal choices or limitations would allow. According to Carolyn Brown, whose 1968 Ballet Review article “On Chance” is still the most lucid account of the subject, “If the artist’s impulse is to search for truth, then he was not coming close, he felt, by concerning himself only with the known.” Instead of inventing, composing, editing, and directing all the movement himself, he subjected certain aspects of a dance to random selection procedures. This could involve consulting the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Changes) to devise a complex charting system. Implementation could be as simple as rolling dice to determine how many times a phrase is repeated, or as playful as using the defects in a sheet of paper to determine locations on the stage.

Cunningham was a riveting performer and a consistent adventurer in creative work, but he understood the value of giving himself limits. James Waring once observed that his dancing revealed a “fierce vitality held in restraint.” The only time I remember seeing him dancing in a rage was at the end of his 1966 work Place. Frenzied, manic, he writhed and thrashed along the floor until he disappeared from view. But even this moment of excess was contained by an enormous plastic bag that he was either pulling up around himself or trying to slither out of, or both.

Chance was a way of damping down personal revelation, defeating the interfering ego, enlisting powerful but disinterested collaborators to drive the creative engine, and cultivating a stance of neutrality. Musicians and designers worked separately, with only sketchy outlines of the dance under construction to guide them. The completed work would incorporate whatever they contributed. Sometimes things meshed beautifully, like the airy, unpredictable dancing speeds; the open, almost incidental sounds (Morton Feldman); and the overall pointillist backdrop and costumes (Robert Rauschenberg) in Summerspace (1958). Sometimes the other elements threatened to drown out the dance, like the barrage of mixed media and electronics in Variations V (1965). Sometimes they demanded a share of the dancing space, like Neil Jenney’s rakish, wheeled aluminum structures for Objects (1970) or Andy Warhol’s floating silver pillows for RainForest (1968). Cunningham and the dancers simply got on with their performance.

Sometimes the chance-based operations came up with a dance so hard to perform they couldn’t have imposed any drama if they tried. Yet the dances were often thrilling. The technically rigorous choreography was made doubly difficult because the parts of the body could be plotted non-sequentially, or aimed in opposing directions, or working in several counter-rhythms at a time. Their performing gave off a high-intensity charge. “What makes a performer interesting,” Cunningham says during Mondays with Merce, an online series of videos inaugurated in the past year, “is that he or she knows exactly what they’re doing, and at the same time they’re free.” Zen again, the concept of freedom within discipline.

Some of this sense of freedom also came from the built-in element of indeterminacy. When John Cage spoke of the expanded possibilities that become available when one rids oneself of preconceptions, he also recognized and even encouraged the accident, as a potential element of an artwork. His scores often incorporated natural sounds (musique concrète), ambient sounds (the building’s air conditioning system, the approaching and receding wail of a fire truck outside), and specific time intervals to be filled in ad lib by the members of the orchestra.

The idea of indeterminacy fueled decades of open-form dances based on game structures, tasks, environments, and experimental predicaments, but Cunningham’s dances were never improvised. Some choices might be turned over to the dancers, or he’d build in elements guaranteed to take them by surprise. Dances were set and rehearsed, but he might change the order of the sections before each performance. The music and scenery might not materialize until the final rehearsal. In any case, he feared that if his dancers rehearsed by putting the movement together with a piece of music, their performance would become automatic. Cage’s antipathy to musical tradition led him from his early prepared piano pieces to experiments with amplified natural sounds, electronic distortion, radio static, sampling, and other digitized manipulations of pre-taped material. All of these sonic maneuvers took place during performances; neither the musicians nor the dancers could know in advance exactly what they would hear. Dancing in this milieu of both rehearsed and unexpected demands required alertness, high concentration, and an exceptional sensitivity to everyone else on the stage as well as oneself.

The chance procedures became more and more elaborate, even mechanical. Cunningham published Changes, a book of notes and notations, in 1968. A kind of scrapbook in the form of a palimpsest, it layered fragments of information, photographs, programs, and complicated choreographic charts in seemingly random order. Once you studied it, though, you realized that the information gathered on any given page applied to the same dance, and usually somewhere on the page you’d even find the title of the dance. (I immediately wrote in page numbers and indexed the whole book.) Besides the plotting and charting of every move in a dance—I suspect he enjoyed this task a little bit, even before he stopped dancing—he spent many hours working in the studio to adapt the steps he’d produced by chance, to make them physically possible to execute.

In the 1970s, spurred by his never-quenched curiosity about new ways to make dances, he investigated film for the first time, and with a succession of film- and video-makers, principally Charles Atlas and Elliot Caplan, he made dance film into a new adventure, countering the long-held belief that dance on screen could never be more than a pathetic token of itself. Though he probably did document the stage repertory with in-house videotape, for public and television release he abandoned the standard practice of filming a dance straight on, beginning to end, as a record of the choreography. What the camera could do became part of the choreography. He danced in gravityless space against assorted backgrounds produced by television’s Chroma-key process (Blue Studio, 1975). He used moving cameras to track the dancers (Locale, 1980), cut and pasted shots of the same dance being done in different environments and even different eras (Changing Steps, 1989), and transformed the dancers into giant animated trace-forms via Motion-Capture software (BIPED, 1999). Some of these films were translated from existing stage dances. Others were choreographed for the screen and later adapted as stage dances. Around the beginning of the 1990s, his own movement limited by age and arthritis, the computer program Life Forms allowed him to create movement on screen.

One of the great mysteries about Cunningham to me has always been what it was, for him, that made one dance different from another. By the time he died on July 26, he’d choreographed about 175 works. He may have had as much invested, creatively, in the chance-work as he did in mounting the results on the dancers. When he had to describe a dance, he spoke enthusiastically and in great detail about the chance procedures by which he’d arrived at it, and barely hinted at what it might mean or how it should look.

If I try to remember a work of his, I realize that often what has stayed with me is a scenic or auditory image, or a memory of how the dancers coped with some imposed awkwardness, but not very much about the actual dancing. I can visualize the way Cunningham dancers dance, but not the dancing in a given Cunningham piece. I see them creating moving minimalist paintings by pushing around Frank Stella’s frames with the brightly colored banners stretched across them (Scramble, 1967). I remember John Cage, sometimes with David Vaughan, drinking champagne and reading droll stories at the side of the stage (How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run, 1965). I remember how different the 1975 Sounddance felt after Mark Lancaster replaced his original bulky tentlike set in 1994 with an extravagant panel of silky draperies. Aside from props and incidents, I wonder, what is a Cunningham dance?

To get past your initial reaction, you really have to look at a dance a few times, especially a Cunningham dance, which asks you to set aside the mind’s instinctive longing for coherence. Paradox is a favorite device of Cagean discourse, and maybe we should be able to entertain both the idea that a dance is no more than a momentary experience and the idea that the same dance is a product of immense, collective creativity and hard work. The Cunningham company has kept a small selection of old dances in repertory, but in recent years my dance-going has largely been confined to Boston and Jacob’s Pillow. Cunningham hasn’t played Boston since 1978. So except for the few dances that have been filmed in their entirety and are available for study, I can’t fully explore what distinguishes one from another choreographically.

This is probably my preservationist temperament, still arguing with his determination to move on. The dissolving of one dance into another in memory speaks for the success of his determination to make each dance experience a new one, to make sure we looked forward to new works and didn’t miss the old ones. But now there will be no new ones. Last June, after he had celebrated his 90th birthday with a new dance, the Cunningham company announced a plan for the future, anticipating the time when the leader would no longer be present. The organi- zation wanted to avoid the years of litigation and the long-unsettled condition that encumbered Martha Graham’s company after her death in 1991. Historically, independent choreographer-directors have been careless or merely casual about the succession of their work. If they have led their own companies, they’ve either disbanded them when their creative energies waned or their interests led them elsewhere, or they assumed that the remaining dancers would figure out how to go on. Only the Alvin Ailey and José Limón companies have outlived their founders for any length of time and remained artistically viable.

There are two big issues to consider here—the fate of the dance company itself with its related activities, and the future of the repertory. The Cunningham company will book a two-year schedule and then disband, according to the plan. Initially no one was named as artistic director to run the company during what will inevitably be seen as a “farewell tour.” Performing and the rest of the company activities are expected to continue much as before, under Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Cunningham Foundation, and Cunningham’s assistant, Robert Swinston. The Cunningham Trust will manage licensing of the dances under a plan that seems based on a model established a few years ago by Twyla Tharp. Dances that have been documented in various ways—film, notation, teaching tapes, designs—will be set on other dance companies by former dancers who are familiar with the work. In Cunningham’s case, the dancers Robert Swinston and Patricia Lent will share Trust responsibilities with Carlson, attorney Allan Sperling, and Laura Kuhn, who also runs the John Cage Trust. In the initial announcements, no provision was made for the CunninghamSchool, which runs an extensive program of public and company classes at its New York studio.

Understandably, operating details of the plan still needed to be worked out as the summer was ending. Although Cunningham was said to endorse this scheme, if his energies had permitted he might have preferred a more open-ended option. His dances were more than usually ephemeral. They depended so much on the dancers who performed them, and on the mutable nature of the scores, sets, and lighting, that even when being given night after night they weren’t meant to become fixed. Cunningham dancers were trained specifically for his choreography and its unique world-view. When the company is no longer in existence, even if the Cunningham technique continues to be taught, something else will be missing: that nexus of information exchange, correction, practice, and discovery that takes place among company dancers in the studio. This is where the real creation and preservation of dances takes place.

Much of Merce Cunningham’s approach depended on instilling an attitude in the dancers: letting go, paying attention to the moment, hearing the movement’s phrasing, being able to call on any part of the body to move independently of the other parts. “To train you repeat, but you don’t think of it that way,” he told the dancers. “You can always do something of what it is,” and, “Instead of saying no, you say yes.” It’s hard to see how the Cunningham repertory will evolve now, as it’s bound to do. If it’s not fixed choreography and it’s not a cultivated style, will it be subsumed into conventional ballet? Much as I loved the dances and want to see them survive, they may lose their character as balleticized novelties. It’s possible they’ll eventually become more like templates on which people will build new dances, or objects that get recycled by way of new chance procedures. Maybe dancers will form new companies to choreograph in their own ways, using his invigorating ideas.

Merce Cunningham, when you met him, was a very quiet, calm, and private person. He gave hundreds of interviews, answering questions graciously and dodging them adroitly. He never gossiped or passed judgment; he never interpreted dances in any but the most objective terms. For a dancer of such gifted and absorbing physical energies, his words could also be gripping, momentous. A whole shelf of books and articles preserves his thought. He wasn’t dictatorial or dogmatic, but what he said left you with a challenge or a new way to look at yourself. Someone reported to me what may have been his last words. After looking at a new video of one of his dances, he was asked what he thought of it. He said: “I would like to change some things.”