- Dancing Among Schoolchildren
We’d been at it all day, every day, for the past five days. It was a summer intensive, after all; being pushed was part of the deal. Still, we were grateful for the rest. While a small, dedicated group took the afternoon’s break as a chance to review one or another tricky passage or complicated bit of partnering, most of us welcomed the chance to towel off, sip some water, chat, catch our breath. Within ten minutes we’d be back on the floor, refreshed and ready for the next challenge. At least, that was the theory — and for nearly all of the dancers that was the practice, too. For me, the proverbial gap between theory and practice had never before felt quite so real — or so wide.
As it had for many years, the Merce Cunningham summer dance intensive was held in the company’s eleventh floor studios in New York’s legendary Westbeth Center for the Arts. That much, at least, had not changed. Otherwise, nothing was as it had been. For Cunningham had died the year before at the age of ninety, leaving behind a technique, a repertoire, and a Legacy Plan that, among other things, called for the dissolution of his company following a final world tour. By July 2010 that Legacy Tour had entered its sixth month. The troupe’s final bow at the New York Armory was more than a year away, and there would be one last summer intensive at Westbeth, but an elegiacal mood was already in the air. On a small desk at the back of the main studio a votive candle burned near a tremendous potted plant from which hung a pair of dice, one of the tools used by Cunningham in his lifelong exploration of chance procedures in dance making. Next to the plant lay a copy of Corita Kent’s “Ten Rules for Students and Teachers,” a primer for creativity popularized by John Cage, Cunningham’s partner in life and art who had died seventeen years earlier (“Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment”). Handmade, witty, and elegant, it was a memorial perfectly attuned to its subject. Even so, it was a memorial — a tribute to a vanished time, a reminder of what was lost.
In accordance with its founder’s wishes, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company would disband, but the dances themselves would live [End Page 657] on, available for performance by other troupes whose members were up to the works’ formidable technical challenges. So it was not surprising that the 2010 summer intensive drew a full complement of students: undergraduate dance majors from Juilliard and Purchase, junior professionals from countries as distant as Singapore and Finland. And then there was me, the middle-aged English professor. As William Butler Yeats had long before, I found myself among schoolchildren, young people preparing themselves “in the best modern way” for whatever artistic challenge the future might hold for them.
Obviously, my purpose was not the same as theirs. Like them, I was there to learn, but as a scholar, not a performer. This commitment to fortifying archival discovery with studio insight grows from my own dance practice, and this was not my first summer intensive. When, on returning to the United States from its sojourn in Brussels, the Mark Morris Dance Group offered an intensive in Boston, I’d quickly signed on, happily throwing myself into passages from Gloria and Grand Duo in what would turn out to be the last childless summer of my life. But that was years ago. And while I had never stopped dancing, like Yeats, I was not “of Ledaean kind.” Still, neither was I an “old scarecrow” — at least, not yet. Though no Odette, I was a dancer. Just not a young one.
The focus that summer in Westbeth was a section of Cunningham’s 1992 work Change of Address. My role was small. The week had begun well, but even as I relished the return to the rhythm of morning class and afternoon rehearsal, I was having trouble keeping up. On the one hand, this in itself was no big deal. I...