Merce Cunningham, with photography from James Klosty

At the piano at Westbeth


He was a man with a mind which was constantly alert to almost everything around him. Very–sharp tongued is wrong–but very bright. He worked constantly….Constantly composing or doing art work or answering letters, or writing books. It was simply what he did. And he may have said things that sounded as though he didn’t do anything, but he was constantly at something. Patient? Not entirely. No.

Playing chess in Belgrade, 1972


Mostly he was, I guess, patient–patiently he would listen to people–and make some remarks. Sometimes those were very funny. He liked talking with people who were interesting. It didn’t make any difference whether they were osteopaths or whatever, it didn’t make a difference. If it’s someone who had an interesting mind, he’d want to know what that person’s mind was like. I think he was just open, wasn’t so much learning as absorbing.



Mere Cunningham in the “small studio” at Westbeth



“I look forward to change. If I can make something that I’ve always done one way and then suddenly, for some reason, by accident or whatever it becomes something different, I’m delighted. It gives one a different experience.”   



OCEAN, a conversation with Merce Cunningham


“Could you make a dance in the round?” John Cage asked Merce Cunningham before the James Joyce/John Cage Festival in Zurich, in June 1991. Cage had in mind a dance performed in the middle of a circular space, surrounded by the audience and then musicians, in concentric circles. There being no suitable venue at the Swiss event, Cage’s idea was set aside, and a little more than a year later, he died, quite unexpectedly.

Photo credit: Cameron Wittig. Courtesy of Walker Art Center.

Cunningham, as ever persevering, finally realized their grand scheme in Brussels on May 18, 1994, at the vertiginous theater-in-the-round called the Cirque Royal. There, for the first time, 112 orchestra musicians played a complicated 2,403-page score, “Ocean 1-95,” by Andrew Culver, elaborating on Cage’s initial plans; at the same time, David Tudor introduced his live electronic soundscape, “Soundings: Ocean Diary,” comprised of eerily reprocessed underwater noise. Marsha Skinner’s sea-inspired leotards and filmy dresses painted the dancers in purples, turquoises, oranges, mauves, violets — the colors of the sun, the sky, the untroubled sea. The dance itself was an amazement: 90 teeming minutes of movement, perfectly without front, back, or sides.

The dance was revived thrice, the last time for a fantastic run in the Rainbow Granite Quarry in Minnesota, in 2008. There, Charles Atlas, Cunningham’s long time collaborator in filmmaking, captured the dance. Although you can’t see him in the film, the choreographer is there — just off the circle of the stage, near the ramp by which the second dancer in the piece enters, bundled in a winter coat and hat and scarf against the damp and bitter night air.

At the time of that revival, in July 2008, I asked Merce Cunningham about the process of making “Ocean,” in one of 19 interviews for the web series “Mondays with Merce.” Here are excerpts, never before published, from that discussion.

Continue reading “OCEAN, a conversation with Merce Cunningham”


MERCE CUNNINGHAM, APRIL 16, 1919 – JULY 26, 2009

courtesy Hugo Glendinning

The sky crackled with lightning that night, the air rattled with thunder, and Merce Cunningham joined with the elements so natural to him: the earth, the sky, the water, and the air. 

Those birds he drew! They could fly as he once could and as, until his last two weeks, he set his dancers to doing. He told me near the end of his life that choreography had become, for him, “a habit of mind.” Even as movement was taken from him, his dancers gave it back. So direct, their process with Merce: thought into movement, with nothing intermediary.

In his last months, he was tired; but he was game. He never stopped laughing, at himself as much as anyone or anything. To the end he was  gallant and courteous with visitors, and clear. Always clear, like those green eyes that could look as blue as the sky on a cloudless day.  I asked him this:

Merce, how is it that without music, without narrative, and with your using chance procedures to remove yourself, to keep from imposing your personality on the movement, that your dances are so passionate?

Because, he replied, I love dancing!

portrait of Merce Cunningham courtesy of Hugo Glendinning  ©copyright Hugo Glendinning

Quotations from an interview by Nancy Dalva  ©copyright Nancy Dalva


note: Merce Cunningham sat with me for nineteen formal interviews over the last two years of his life. This is the last twenty minutes, unedited, of the last conversation for Mondays with Merce. While I had never intended to include myself in the series, I am off camera here, to allow for the back and forth of the conversation, without losing anything. We had planned to discuss “Split Sides” in our next interview, but looking back at this now, it feels to me like a kind of valedictory. My last conversation with Merce was just few weeks later at his home, shortly before his death in July 2009.

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