The End of Merce is an End for All of Us

July 26, 2009

I knew this day would come and dreaded it. When Merce dies, an era dies, I thought. When Merce dies, the whole beginning of contemporary dance dies. If there hadn’t been Merce, there wouldn’t have been Twyla, Trisha, Lucinda, Bill T. Jones, and so on. We are all indebted to him, not only for his new and bracing approach to dance (and the shared approach to dance-and-music engineered by John Cage), but also for the doors he opened for other dance artists.

     It was never a matter of loving one of his pieces or hating another. It was how he put dances together: based on curiosity, based on what the body can do, and yes, based on chance. It was how he stimulated the mind as he activated the bodies. He challenged his dancers physically with unusual coordinations and intellectually by erasing assumptions. He gave the audience the choice to look at one part of the stage or another, to stand back and watch his fountain of creativity or to just follow one drop of water in the fountain.

     His choreography was not connected to narrative, and thus he thrust narrative itself into question. He did this by departing from Martha Graham in the biggest aesthetic rupture in dance history. Instead of putting dance at the service of story, he celebrated dance as its own event. Instead of playing the incredibly spring-y Revivalist in Appalachian Spring, he took that energy and applied it as a natural force itself—like a river, like mountain, like the animals that he drew so beautifully.

    Whether we went to see his work once every three years or many times a year, whether the music was too loud or the chance element was too chance-y, witnessing his work always made us contemplate the nature of dance.

    I feel lucky that I saw Merce dance himself (like an electrical current onstage), that I took class with him and felt his gentle hands on my shoulders, that I got to see his work evolve over decades.

     Let us cherish these next two years when, according to the new Legacy Plan (which we will report on in the October issue), the company will be giving their final world tour.


Photography ©1997 Annie Leibovitz/Contact, Courtesy MCDC