- Merce Cunningham 1919–2009
I bumped into Merce for the first time, literally, rounding the corner of the gym at the Connecticut College Dance Festival in 1967. What I remember vividly about that encounter was the bemused curiosity that animated his face and gaze. What body was this? What moves were we both making? Over the years I met Merce irregularly and infrequently. There are many who were far closer to him, and have and will, I hope, recount their memories of him. Here, I will, instead, draw back from the close physical encounter with the person and hope to provide some perspective on his distinguished career and extraordinary artistic achievements.
Cunningham danced his way through three careers, one as a performer and two as a choreographer, making profound contributions to our understanding of dance in all three. He first distinguished himself as a performer, most notably in the works of Martha Graham, where the uniqueness of his physicality and his alert, taut focus imbued movement with the kind of emotional tension crucial to Graham’s aesthetic project. Subsequently, as a performer in his own work, these same qualities—the long torso, the particular articulateness of limbs, the crisp, piquant potentiality in his body, as if it was always ready to move in any and all directions—imbued his dancing with a unique quirkiness and an eerie magnetism. Cunningham’s technical prowess, mastering an unusual combination of ballet and modern dance vocabularies, also imparted an arresting individuality to his performance.
Cunningham’s bricolage of ballet and modern elements, for he did not work to synthesize aesthetic principles from each genre so much as to collect an assortment of their features, formed the basis of his technique. This program of study, which became a major vehicle for introducing and explaining his embodiment of modernist aesthetics, rivaled Graham’s and Humphrey/Limón’s, and, like them, influenced generations of dancers worldwide. The technique brought together a barre-like set of introductory exercises for warming up and activating parts of the body, performed in the center of the room without the assistance of a barre; followed by lengthier phrases performed in place and then traveling across the room. The exercises, executed in both parallel and turned-out positions, featured unusual pairings of arm, leg, and spine movements, almost as if the dancer were conducting an inventory of possibilities. Rather than implement a French nomenclature as in the names of ballet steps, Cunningham instituted practical, anatomical labels for movements—leg bends and lifts, spine curves and twists, and so forth—all emphasizing the concreteness of anatomical structure and range of motion.
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This matter-of-factness found equal expression in his vision of dance-making as it began to take shape over the 1950s and ’60s. Cunningham did not await inspiration from a muse, from [End Page 7] beauty, or from some deep inner psychic turmoil. He did not give birth to dances; he made them. Disencumbering movement from those layers of meaning, he examined the vitality of the bent knee, the dynamism of running in an arc, the ease of walking to a place and standing still. For today’s dancers and viewers, this focus on movement’s matter-of-factness might be difficult to fathom, accustomed as we are to movement’s polyvalent references and its commodified thingness. Cunningham, however, imbued movement with a kind of materiality it had never before hosted. He extracted it from the status of ephemeral vehicle for psychic expression, so that it could appear as an event on its own. At the same time, he resisted cultivating it as a carrier or signifier of diverse and multiple meanings, as subsequent generations of choreographers would do.
Cunningham constructed this meaningful materiality for movement through his elaboration of a technique for dancing, and equally effectively, through his radical approach to dance composition. Rather than follow a logic established by an emotional progression, a narrative, or a musical structure, Cunningham, inspired in part by his life-long companion John Cage, created...