THAT’S WHAT EVERYONE CALLS HIM. It doesn’t seem improper, we just do it. Merce’s work, Merce’s studio, Merce’s dancers, Merce’s performances. Christened Mercier Philip Cunningham, known as Merce.
Because the name so suits him, suggesting, as it does, both the element mercury—quicksilver, changeable, unpredictable—and the god Mercury, fleet-footed messenger from Olympus. Second, fans (and isn’t that what we are, at heart?) often call their favorites by their given names: Rudy, Martha, Misha, Twyla … Merce.
But that is not all. Merce is called Merce because his manner is unaffected and direct; because he is held in great affection, as well as esteem; and because he is so clearly our contemporary—if we can catch up with him. This man who has kept dance apace with the other arts of the twentieth century—music, painting and sculpture, literature—is now busy whisking it into the twenty-first. His work is not merely reflective, it is predictive. He is the least dated person imaginable, and the most acute observer of natural phenomena.
Here are a few things about Merce that you won’t find out from his dances: He has a beautiful speaking voice, melodious and low, and the most marvelous laugh. He likes good red wine. He has a black leather jacket. His mother, a woman of considerable independence, loved to travel. His father was a lawyer. He is a Chevalier de la Légion D’Honneur, appointed by president François Mitterand. He doesn’t like to celebrate his birthday.
Here are some things you will find out: There is no greater choreographer, no braver or more truthful performer. There is no one more innovative. His dances encompass a technique and a philosophy yet are full of the everyday.
Here are the best things about Merce’s dances: They are commanding and rigorous, and submit themselves readily to explication and analysis. Recollected in tranquillity, they absorb all thought, all conjecture—a strange and wonderful power common to all profound works of imagination. They offer a proposition about the function of dance, and a suggestion for how to go about looking at it. One might even come to think, after a long time of looking and thinking, that these dances offer a proposition about the nature of life, and how to go through it. Yet none of this matters at the moment of seeing the dance.
In the theater, all you have to do is open your eyes and your mind, and let the dance in. Everything you need to know is in it. There is no secret. You can enjoy figuring out the dance—there is much fun and reward in this—or, when the time is ripe, you can let the dance transfigure you. How this happens is a mystery not easily expressed in words, for dance comes in at the eye. One can say this much, at least. It is not something that happens with every dance of Merce’s, or at every performance, and yet there is this possibility, this necessity: You will find yourself in the dance.
Some years ago, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed a season of eleven Events at New York City’s Joyce Theater. (These ninety-minute works, unique at each performance, are paradigmatic Cunningham—made up of fragments, short and long, from the repertory; indifferent as to accompaniment, decor, and costuming; dance for its own sake.) At that time, John Cage, Takehisa Kosugi, and David Tudor were in the pit. (Their music is a whole story—a separate story—unto itself.) One night, Cage waxed oracular, sending forth garbled messages that directly addressed the very issue at hand, as it were. That is, how to partake of the dance before us.
“It gives you all thought,” Cage intoned cheerfully. “My advice: Where are you in it? To give more time for the trip than oooh, aohhh, geraghhh …”
Where are we in it? We are with Merce. There is no better company, and there’s no need to worry about where we are going. As Merce says, “The only way to do it is to do it.” We learn by going where we have to go.
Dance Ink Monograph I, 1994, published by Patsy Tarr.