Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
There are more intriguing performances than one person could possibly see this month, so our editors' picks run the gamut. The topics—Greek mythology and systemic racism, the Ballets Russes and secondary incarceration—are as varied as the styles—contemporary, bharatanatyam, aerial. The one through line: They're bound to make you look at the world a little differently.
Last week, Dance Magazine's owner Frederic Seegal visited the Vail Dance Festival. He was so excited by what he saw there that he wanted to share with Dance Magazine readers a few of the highlights that made the biggest impression on him.
Having been fortunate enough to be on the board of New York City Center when Arlene Shuler introduced Fall for Dance in 2004, I never thought that I would see anything that could rival its inventiveness, assemblage of talent and audience enthusiasm. That is, until this week when I spent fours days at the Vail Dance Festival.
In Paramodernities, Netta Yerushalmy deconstructs dance masterworks and presents their movement alongside scholarly essays that contextualize them. Yerushalmy has had a sterling dance career, working with Doug Varone's company and freelancing with notables like Joanna Kotze, as well as making her own dances. This particular project is in demand in such places as Jacob's Pillow this month, and later at venues across the country, including multiple New York City sites.
Merce Cunningham would have been 99 years old today, and, as a present to the dance world, the Merce Cunningham Trust has announced a dizzying array of celebrations to unfold over the next year in honor of the groundbreaking choreographer's 2019 centennial.
"Merce liked saying he didn't want to celebrate his birthday, and yet he always enjoyed when we threw parties for him," Trevor Carlson, producer of the Merce Cunningham Centennial, said in a press release. Though the Merce Cunningham Dance Company shuttered in 2011 (two years after the choreographer's death, per his wishes), plans to celebrate his legacy range from performances to film screenings to workshops to education programs to dinner parties.
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For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
What would it be like to view a Merce Cunningham piece from the inside? CUNNINGHAM, a new dance film utilizing 3-D video technology, will allow audiences to find out, putting them in the midst of numerous dances ranging from iconic classics such as Summerspace (1958) and RainForest (1968) to early works like Totem Ancestor (1942). On the team is filmmaker Alla Kovgan, co-directors of choreography Robert Swinston and Jennifer Goggans, and a stellar cast of former Cunningham dancers, including Rashaun Mitchell, Silas Riener, Melissa Toogood and Andrea Weber. Filming is expected to take place in spring 2018 in hopes of a premiere aligned with Cunningham's 2019 centennial.
It's well known that Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most famous American artists of the 20th century, made costumes and sets for Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown. What you may not know is that he also choreographed and danced in many performances of his own devising. You can see evidence of them among the vast amount of paintings, sculptures and collages at the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.
In a competitive dance world where students train to conquer the next big thing, it can feel like historic modern techniques—from Graham to Horton to Cunningham—just aren't a priority. But the truth is, these styles are just as relevant today as when they were created.
University of Taipei students in José Limón's work. PC Yi-Chun Wu
We're not ashamed to admit it: The Dance Magazine staff is a big bunch of dance history nerds. But we also know that, sometimes, learning about our art form's past via textbook can feel stale. That's why we completely lost it (in a good way) when Seet Dance, a contemporary school in Sydney, Australia, contacted us about their special take on dance history. As part of their curriculum, they recreate scenes from famous modern and contemporary works with Legos.
Yes. You read that right. With Legos! Who doesn't love Legos?
And the level of detail—from the figures' positions to their costumes and the accompanying sets—shows a keen understanding of these iconic moments.
Browse through some of Seet Dance's set-ups below, and put your own dance history knowledge to the test. How many do you recognize? Scroll to the bottom for the choreographer and name of each work, and links to clips of these memorable performances.
All photos Courtesy Seet Dance
When Robert Swinston brought his French company to New York City's Joyce Theater last year, they were met with near euphoria. It had been more than three years since New Yorkers had seen a Merce Cunningham evening (Cunningham's company ended its Legacy Tour in 2011), and the young French dancers of Compagnie CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston bristled with the alertness that makes the master's choreography so bracing. From April 4–9, Swinston returns to The Joyce with three Cunningham favorites: Place (1966), which ends with a famously thrashing solo in a long plastic bag; the delightful How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965), danced to a series of John Cage's Zen anecdotes read aloud; and the peaceful Inlets 2 (1983), with watery sounds by Cage. joyce.org.
To kick off 2015, we asked 15 leading choreographers working in the U.S. to choose what they see as the most influential work of the past 15 years. Their selections highlight a slice of the creativity witnessed in the past decade and a half—and offer insight into what drives their own artistic choices.
Julie Tolentino in Raised by Wolves. Photo by Yongho Kim, Courtesy Tolentino.
Julie Tolentino’s Raised by Wolves, 2013
In a virtuosic tour-de-force that included choreography, improvisation and vocal incantations, Tolentino created an intimacy so potent that it was both frightening and exhilarating. This installation included a solo performed 50 times over a few weeks for an audience of no more than five in the Commonwealth & Council gallery in Los Angeles. It influenced me not just on how to make dances, but how to be an artist. It was a reminder of why I do what I do: to takes risks, to speak directly about the most complex issues of the human condition, and to try to do so in a wholly original way.
Bel in Cédric Andrieux, Photo by Marco Caselli Nirmal, Courtesy Bel.
Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux, 2009
The end had me in tears as Cédric sang along with The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” I felt so seen and understood as a dancer throughout the piece. I wanted to continually stand up and say, “See, this is what it is like!” And at the end, when Cédric looked at all of us, with no dancer gaze, just as a human being, I thought, This is exactly why I make dances: So I can get to this moment.
Ordinary Witnesses, Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA.
Rachid Ouramdane’s Ordinary Witnesses, 2009
This rare, powerful work attempts to bear witness to events of human suffering in history. But it also achieves an aesthetic coup by using understated and intelligent staging in a documentary form of dance theater. I feel Rachid is posing an existential question: Can dance and choreography even have the criteria to address these issues? This work tilts the conversation of choreographic content, quite radically, into new directions.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2011’s Park Avenue Armory Events, Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy Park Avenue Armory.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s farewell performance, 2011
The final shows of the Cunningham company at the Park Avenue Armory, which included his 2009 Nearly Ninety, were a profound reminder that artists can keep forever growing through all points of their creative journey, regardless of age. The scope/size of the space and the amount of dance vocabulary being shared from the several stages set up—and the magnitude of importance of Merce’s work—was beyond anything I have witnessed.
Urban Bush Women in Walking with Pearl...Southern Diaries, Photo by Ayano Hisa, Courtesy UBW.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Walking with Pearl suite (Africa Diaries, 2004; Southern Diaries, 2005)
In this piece, Jawole Zollar mined histories of dance, a people and a place. Using collective and personal narratives with dancing that’s both fierce and intimate, she’s influenced generations of artists. She’s made a refuge in the form of a company, a network and an institute for choreographers of color, and has raised her voice for all women in the field.
Cedar Lake in Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Cedar Lake.
Crystal Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue, 2008
This work very literally explores what the title expresses. Yet it is so fully realized that the choreography transcends its own specificity into a totally riveting experience of sheer physical magnificence. She reveals the fragility in human emotion and beauty without an ounce of irony.
Alvin Ailey performs Grace. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy AAADT.
Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, 1999
This piece makes me want to shout, holler and cry…and give witness. Witness to a culture where dance works as an exalter of pain, frustration and loneliness. The themes still resonate, 15 years later, as a powerful celebration of the lives deeply embedded into club culture that have passed on. I’ve always viewed it as a dedication to those who’ve sought dance and club culture as the ultimate healer.
Mark Haim’s This Land Is Your Land. Photo by Tim Summers, Courtesy Haim.
Monica Bill Barnes
Mark Haim’s This Land Is Your Land, 2010
This was one of the most powerful, moving works I have ever seen. Mark is a riveting performer who blends a down-to-earth real-person quality with perfectly executed technical movement choices, and he was able to transfer these qualities to a large group of both dancers and non-dancers. It was profoundly beautiful and joyful and heartbreaking. I feel like this is the best example of the belief that some ideas and emotions can only be expressed through movement.
Liam Mower as Billy. Photo by David Scheinmann, Courtesy Billy Elliot.
Peter Darling’s Billy Elliot, 2005
I was so intrigued by the beautiful imagery that Peter Darling brought to the “Grandma’s Song,” a vocal solo, through a slow-moving wave of choreography that passed from one side of the stage to the other. It was a perfect example of how stylized ensemble choreography can function as an impressionistic surround, illuminating the subtext and complexity of a narrative solo.
You Got Served. Photo © Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems.
Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo
You Got Served, 2004
This was the first time that the crew-based mentality style of hip hop was seen on the big screen. Dave Scott’s work is incredible, and really started a whole dance crew craze.
Atlanta Ballet in 1st Flash. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Jorma Elo’s 1st Flash, 2003
I remember being in awe of this piece. I told everyone I knew that Jorma had reignited the conversation between classical and contemporary dance, in a new way that invited gesture and idiosyncrasy back to the table. After its premiere, Jorma was called to choreograph for major classical and contemporary companies everywhere. He has since clearly influenced the dance world and, to my eyes, 1st Flash was the beginning of it.
Non Griffiths in Dover Beach. Photo by Paula Court, Courtesy The Kitchen.
Sarah Michelson’s Dover Beach, 2009
Through an accumulation of highly original and powerfully athletic dances, exemplified well by Dover Beach, Sarah Michelson re-legitimized the type of technical/formalist dance language as a vehicle for avant-garde expression that had formerly become anathema to downtown dancemakers in general. Her dances oppose the rejection of all artifice (associated with the Judson Church aesthetic) with a theatricalism that nonetheless retains high-art bona fides poised on the border between dance and gallery-worthy visual art.
Mark Morris Dance Group in V. Photo by Robbie Jack, Courtesy MMDG.
Mark Morris’ V, 2001
The intelligence, craft, structure, musicality, mathematical patterns, the unavoidable humanity—this piece is timeless. It inspired me by demonstrating that a choreographer is responsible for creating everything that happens on the stage. Nothing is haphazard about its construction, indicating a strong singular voice from Mr. Morris that is brought to life through his beautiful dancers.
Akram Khan’s ma. Photo Courtesy Akram Khan Company.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Akram Khan’s ma, 2004
I was humbled by ma. It combined philosophy, poetry, intricacy and humor. I felt that everything had been said. Nothing more could be added choreographically.
Paxton in The Beast. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy BAC.
Steve Paxton’s The Beast, 2010
Through this profoundly gripping study of small spinal manipulations and shifts of energy, Paxton somehow suspends time. The dark, disorienting palette of action confirms the belief that imagination is the only limit to innovation, and that the prerequisite of youth in dance is an illusion: Paxton, still an extraordinary innovator at age 75, accomplishes what younger dancers can’t begin to do.
What happens when one of America’s most iconic modern dance companies closes? Six former Cunningham dancers reflect on how the experience led them to where they are today.
When the Merce Cunningham Dance Company gave its final performance on December 31, 2011—the culmination of its two-year, international Legacy Tour—many people wondered what would happen to Cunningham’s vast, pioneering body of work. Would other companies continue to stage his dances? And would audiences still want to see them?
But in addition to the 150-plus pieces in his archive—now in the hands of the Merce Cunningham Trust—there were 15 phenomenal dancers (plus four “RUGs,” or members of the company’s Repertory Understudy Group), whose futures remained to be seen. Where would their careers take them? And how might they carry on Cunningham’s legacy, even as they veered off in seemingly unrelated directions?
With two and a half year’s notice—and severance pay to ease the transition—the end wasn’t necessarily a shock to these dancers. But it was a time filled with both promise and uncertainty. Today, many continue to take the daily Cunningham technique class offered by the Trust, and to teach and stage his work around the world. Others have moved into new fields such as filmmaking and web development. Dance Magazine caught up with several dancers from the final generation of the company to find out how they have (and haven’t) moved on from Merce.
Choreographer; collaborator with Rashaun Mitchell; freelance dancer with Tere O’Connor, Wally Cardona and others
Joined MCDC in 2007
I’m still adjusting to a freelancer’s existence. It requires a certain technical in-shapeness, which is really different when you’re on your own, as opposed to showing up to the same place every day and taking free class.
Tere O’Connor is a huge Merce fan, so it was really interesting to start working with someone who had followed the company for so long. Especially in poem, which he made in 2012, I think he was drawing upon my body of Merce knowledge, that technical background, but he was also trying to alter certain ways of moving that I had unconsciously adopted. He would talk about softening the spine, or dropping the head-weight in ways that you would just never do in Merce’s work. It’s been a really rich, exciting experience to see the way that Tere crafts his dances. That wasn’t so transparent with Merce; he never shared a lot about the choices he made.
Riener midair in his and Mitchell’s r e v e a l. Photo by Darial Sneed, Courtesy Riener.
Choreographer; collaborator with Silas Riener; faculty member at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts
Joined MCDC in 2004
I started choreographing when I was still in the company, in 2008. I had a sense that there was going to be a huge chasm in my life after the company closed, so it was important for me to get the wheels turning. I didn’t expect to have much going on, but in the end, I pretty much hit the ground running, finishing Nox and then making Interface and Way In. It’s only now that I’m going, “Whoa, what just happened?”
For a while, I measured what I was doing against Merce’s work. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of anxiety around that, but I was very aware of it. I knew I wasn’t going to escape his influence, so I tried to have a healthy relationship to it. With Nox, I was definitely trying to get away from the Cunningham vocabulary; then with Interface, I allowed myself to go backward a little bit. Ultimately, I find so much value in his work—I think it’s extremely relevant still, and it’s not a particular interest of mine to reject it.
Mitchell in his and Riener’s site-specific installation Taste. Photo by Lilly Evecherria, Courtesy Riener.
Dancer, Trisha Brown Dance Company
Joined MCDC in 2009
We had our final show on New Year’s Eve, and on January 3, I think, there was an audition for the Trisha Brown Dance Company. I was like, You know what? This timing is kind of insane, but it’s here, so I should just try.
There’s an attack, a fearlessness that I learned from Merce’s work: Just do it, don’t think about it. That’s really hard to do onstage, in a performance setting, and it’s something I’ve taken with me. But I also had to peel back a lot of layers to get into Trisha’s work. There’s a quiet precision about her choreography: It’s super-specific, but in that quiet place, movement can resonate in a very strong way. That’s something I’d always admired and wanted to learn how to do, so I felt up for the challenge of trying to retrain effort, retrain physicality.
Scott performing Trisha Brown’s Newark. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy TBDC.
Dancer, Mark Morris Dance Group
Joined the Repertory Understudy Group in 2009
I thought that being trained in Cunningham, I would be able to do anything. That seems silly now. The moment I started working with Mark Morris, I was very quickly humbled. We take ballet class, which was hard to get back into after Cunningham: the port de bras, the use of the head and neck. Mark is an incredible teacher. He can work with any kind of body, any kind of challenges, and give that dancer the strongest base of technique possible. I’ve learned so much in these past two years about the placement of my body.
Merce’s work almost felt safe to me, because I loved the idea of pure movement. Mark’s choreography challenges me in ways that are outside my comfort zone: being more expressive sometimes, expressing different characters or ideas. But it also feels wonderful on my body.
Martorana (right) in Morris’ Crosswalk. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy MMDC.
Freelance dancer with Pam Tanowitz, Stephen Petronio, Rashaun Mitchell and others
Joined MCDC in 2007
When the company ended, I was scared that I might not really get to dance again. I wasn’t ready to leave. But I made it known that I wanted to keep dancing, and luckily doors started opening.
Working with Stephen Petronio has been fantastic; I didn’t think at this age or point in my career I would make such a big jump in learning. It’s a whole new way of approaching movement, like, Oh! I can sink into my hip, and it’s not that it’s technically incorrect; it’s just a different aesthetic.
In a lot of ways, dancing with Merce changed my instincts; it allowed me to see many ways of doing things. When you ask a Cunningham dancer to try something, there’s not really any resistance to it: There’s nothing too strange or too hard. Not that it’s easy for us, but there’s never a bizarre task, because you get so used to trying anything and not questioning whether it’s possible. You’d never think of telling Merce “no.”
Toogood (right) in Tanowitz’s The Spectators. Photo by Elyssa Goodman, Courtesy Tanowitz.
My last five months in the company, I was dealing with a serious back injury that wreaked havoc on my body. When the company closed, I was offered a few jobs, one of which I really wanted to take. But I couldn’t do it. It was disappointing, but life is strange and pulls you in weird ways. I’ve been learning that more and more over the past two years.
I used to come up with choreography in my head. Now I come up with pictures, shots, scenes, plotlines. Merce's style of performing, of just being onstage, has affected me profoundly. It's almost an innocence: He's in it, and that's it. Merce is onstage, and he's dancing, and he's not doing or thinking anything else. I feel like I was able to incorporate that into my dancing, and now into my life. Whatever I'm doing, that's what I'm doing. Full out.
Web developer in training
I feel like I'm still in transition, trying to find my next major goal. I'm still interested in dance, but it's rough being in the arts; it's not a stable profession. i was just thinking the other day how the last 15 years of Merce's career, when he started working with DanceForms—that major shift in his work—he was 75 years old. He worked from 75 to 90 and made some of the most amazing work of his career. That really struck me. Like, "Oh, I'm only 30." It was a liftime pursuit: He just kept with it, one foot in front of the other. And he continued even at 75 to change and experiment.
Carrying the Cunningham Torch: Robert Swinston
A Cunningham dancer of 31 years (including 17 as assistant to the choreographer), Robert Swinston continues to champion Merce’s work, while branching out into new territory. When Cunningham died in 2009, Swinston led the company forward as the director of choreography, and he continues to be a member of the Merce Cunningham Trust. But he has also started fresh in some ways, moving abroad to become the artistic director of the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine (CNDC) in Angers, one of France’s 19 government-funded choreographic centers.
In his new position, Swinston has assembled an eight-member company to perform Cunningham’s work, as well as his own adaptations and original choreography. He has also reimagined the CNDC’s two-year pre-professional training program. Students learn the techniques and repertoire of modern and contemporary dance masters, from Martha Graham to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker—and, of course, they get a heavy dose of Cunningham technique.
Reflecting on the past two years, Swinston says:
“I’ve ended up in a job where I’m able to do more than I could possibly have dreamed of, after such a long career with a great artist. The transition was not easy: I felt it was a loss, to lose the structure in which to present Cunningham’s work at its best. But I later realized that the decision to disband the company was not an artistic choice; it was a matter of finances. If you don’t have new work, you cannot sustain an organization. No one will give money to it. The future of the Cunningham company was limited by that basic fact. It was hard to recognize, but I’m glad it happened now, and I’m glad I have this opportunity, because I can also find my own vision. That’s a great luxury.”
Swinston teaching at CNDC. Photo by Jef Rabillon, Courtesy CNDC.
Siobhan Burke, a former Dance Magazine editor, writes on dance for The New York Times.
Some of What He Said to Me, and Didn’t Say, 1968–1973
Merce Cunningham danced, and I had the pleasure and privilege of dancing near him for a few years. As far as I was concerned, he needn't ever have spoken a word. What first drew me was the elegant animal, only later the agile mind. His verbal restraint was, indeed, remarkable, if also knowing, and often purposeful. In my first performance with the Company at The Brooklyn Academy of Music I entered, strutting onto the stage right toward him during Canfield—at the wrong moment. Immediately sensing my error, I whirled about and exited. Never heard a word. For a year I let a beard grow. Full, orangey-red. Ridiculous. Grotesque. Not a word. In Düsseldorf he gave me no more than five minutes of material for the Event of an hour or more. We were in a large square ballroom, viewers crowding up to all four edges of a central dance floor. In each corner of the room was a tall potted plant. During my waiting I pushed one of these plants along one wall and then back, very…very…very slowly, the upper trunk and fronds of the traveling tree visible as backdrop to at least half the audience. No comment. Then or ever.
During an early 70s tour of France, a magazine article by Carlos Castañeda was being passed around the bus. It told of an advanced practitioner ascending a rock face, ledge to ledge, without being seen to climb. After several of us had read the piece, and were chatting about it, Merce said, “I'm familiar with that kind of movement.” The moment when he showed what was to be my first phrase in Tread, he was near me, then he was over there. Between the two locations was a hole in time and space, a gap not conducive to my learning the steps for which I was to be responsible.
Merce said: “You break it down, then you put it back together.”
He said: “You have an idea, then you change it.”
He said: “I don't work with ideas exactly.”
We gathered at dawn to drive the length of Long Island for a show, stopping for lunch along the way. There was little conversation on the bus, everyone sleepy and anticipating a long day. Save for us, the restaurant was empty. We sat at a large round wooden table, thickly lacquered and carved with crude scalloping on the circumference. This social circling of the entire company was unusual, the disparate personalities not used to being arranged closely and in symbolic harmony. Under the steely-eyed gaze of the many stuffed heads of wild game on the walls, we maintained a lingering silence, like an infinitely long, held breath. Finally John [Cage], sitting next to Merce, spoke. With a sighing intonation he said, “Ah, the Bohemian life.” No one laughed.
Merce said: “To train you repeat, but you don't think of it that way.”
He said: “You can always do something of what it is.”
In offhand conversation with composer Gordon Mumma, as our feet were crunching gravel on the way into some motel or other, he said: “Style is repetition.”
During a day-off, do-it-yourself workout on the Zellerbach stage in Berkeley, impulsively, pointing to the dark and distant balcony, I asked, “How do you dance for someone way up there?” Without hesitation he answered, “You pretend you're sitting next to him.”
One day at the studio, between class and rehearsal, as we munched sandwiches, I asked him what to do about not enjoying dancing. As if having anticipated the question, he offered that once you are dedicated to something, you keep at it even when pleasure is absent, and talked on about Margot Fonteyn's continuing beyond her desire in order to pay her husband's medical bills. This from the man whose appetite for the daily practice of dancing seemed never to flag, and never to be forced. His mysterious ability to appear each morning even fresher and more eager than I, twenty-four years his junior, led me finally to restate for myself Einstein's famous formula: E=mc2 became MC = E2.
Citing as stellar example David Tudor, who gave up concert piano playing for live electronic music, Merce said, more than once: “You must retrain yourself.”
He also said: “I never had a problem with rhythm.”
And he said: “Gertrude Stein understood language as rhythm.” Hmm, now I'm not sure; maybe he said “rhythm as language.”
On tour, after the midday rehearsal, the mid-afternoon meal, and the late afternoon nap, would come a blank hour, a limbo. Not wanting to jump the gun on pre-performance ritual, I would fall willy-nilly into existential despair. What am I doing here? Why am I dancing? Am I at the beginning, middle or near the end of evolution's expression of this tiny particle that is me? Customarily I would seek out Charlie (the videographer Charles Atlas). He would be dealing with costumes or other details, and our banter would lighten the funk. Manager Jean Rigg was also someone always ready to nourish a dancer's drooping spirit. One such afternoon, on my way from napping on the rug at the back of the house of some theater, Merce and I passed. Trying to hide my mood, though I think he sensed it, and beginning as if we were already in conversation, I inquired: “What does one hold on to?” I meant the question to be rhetorical, but he answered. “Nothing,” he said, and walked away.
During my tenure, words in class were few. “The leg goes here.” “Tilt, then arch.” The tone was descriptive, while filled, at the same time, with a barely sub-surface passion for every move and nuance. (My goodness, what a satisfying merge of boldness and finesse.) There was, of course, the counting, always the counting, counting of measures in length anywhere from 2 to 22. Often, each beat had its step, its recognizable unit of movement. Sometimes, however, he would count slowly and put any number of jigs and jags into each big note. (This preposterous prolongation would make me smile, but I always stood at the back.)
There were days, also, when he was overtly inflamed. To take one: Late in the class he presents a phrase that goes speeding down the length of the space in collision course with the mirror, and, in a last-second, explosive and indecipherable complication, careens to the floor. He shows the phrase over and over, not counting but singing. He seems not to be teaching, just doing, just dancing. The wildness is riveting, but imitation strikes me as dangerous. At risk of compromising my reputation for lack of caution, I call from the back of the room, “Could we try it more slowly?” “No,” he yells, with vehemence, and throws himself again into the sequence like a Kamikaze.
The occasional class-time simile, for its rarity, was all the more welcome and delightful. Arriving at the moment for deep pliés, he suggests, “Go down and up like an elevator.”
Then one morning, out of the blue, class barely begun, he intones, with more than a hint of impatience, “You should take Kierkegaard's definition of the poet—and reverse it.” “Oh, come on,” I said to myself, “how is that going to help our dancing today, that must be John talking over breakfast.” But then I had to consider that on another occasion, in Merce's absence, when I had had reason to enter his private room at Westbeth, what, to my surprise, had I beheld on his desk but Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being. I was profoundly moved. In any case, after the day's work I went home and checked the Kierkegaard. Here is what I found:
“A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music... and then people crowd about the poet and say to him: ‘Sing for us soon again;’ which can mean nothing other than, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul.’”
Douglas Dunn is artistic director of Douglas Dunn & Dancers, which performs Sky Eye Oct. 1–3 and Cleave Oct. 8–10, 2009, both at the Danspace Project.