“Dance is a visual art.” Merce Cunningham
AT THE BEAUBOURG
Robert Rauschenberg: Express
IN THIS grey scale canvas we see images surrounding the dancers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Images of what? Racehorses with jockeys; men rappelling down a cliff; some harmonious and beautiful naked bodies; something that looks like a an underwater creature or perhaps the human brain; a city on the water, with piers reaching out from the shores; and to the lower right, an end to war: Grant and Lee at the conclusion of the Civil War that rent the United States. E pluribus unum. In the equilibrium of the canvas, these disparate items are unified as the product of an original mind. A singular mind.
You can see the images as an assemblage of unlike elements co-existing, and you can see the dancers among them representing beauty–and grace itself. Tilting at gravity, they embody the ability to fly through the air under one’s own power.
Or, you can see the dancers apart–find them to be a beautiful refuge, as art can be, from the world and its various clamors. They draw your eye, and into the canvas you fall, and all the rest is left behind. Outside. You’re in here. Inside the painting, or inside the dance.
“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.
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.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM, APRIL 16, 1919 – JULY 26, 2009
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.
An interview from March 1988, published in Dance Magazine.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Joyce Theater, December 2004
The things in the story are symbols, as it were, only of themselves.
Richard Howard, on Chekhov
Experiencing one of Merce Cunningham’s Events is to see a seamless, intermissionless hour (or so) of dance excerpts, combined in a novel context; experiencing eight Events over a week is to receive a philosophy. Something about life, and how singular our points of view, and something about perception, and how it is colored by our surroundings. To see the same dance excerpt on successive nights with different costumes, decor, and music, with different things coming before it and after is to begin to understand the dance apart from these additional elements, as just dance itself. As steps, as phrases, as figures, as images, as particles and as waves, with movement the all and everything. And with stillness not the absence of all movement, but the presence of all movement, as white is the presence of all color.