Sharing Merce

July 29, 2009

The day after Merce Cunningham died, his Westbeth studio hosted an all-day open house. Trisha Brown, Ralph Lemon, Koosil-ja Hwang, Sarah Michelson, Rosalind Newman and many other choreographers came to pay their respects—or to commune with his spirit. Merce, the renegade, had become an aesthetic anchor in our lives. Ralph Lemon said to me something like, “Without Merce around we have no parents. What do we do now?” Of course, we carry on. We have already absorbed within us the bracing influence of Merce Cunningham.

   Rashaun Mitchell, who dances in the company, told me that before the group left for the Pillow last week, they went in to say goodbye to Merce in small groups. He described Merce as serene at the end. Apparently Merce said something like I want to sleep and not get up.

   I arrived at the Westbeth studios just after Robert Swinston had given a Cunningham warmup to visitors. A few old-timers talked about the comfort of doing the first bounces that begin every Cunningham class: the gentle upper back bounces. So now, every once in a while, I do them on my own—as a memory of his class, or his voice. You keep the spine long as your head and shoulders are pulled down by gravity.

   When a dancer dies, it creates a hole in the dance community. Reaching across that hole, you feel more part of the community than ever. This is not a tragic or untimely death, but a momentous one. Now is a time to gather together our thoughts about what he meant to us, how he changed the look, the sound, the way that we perceive dance, and the beautiful dances and events and questions he gave us.