September 30, 2009

Merce Cunningham (1919–2009)


He blasted open the rules of concert dance. He pried choreography away from narrative to make dance his subject matter. He exploded the stage space so that there were “no fixed points.” And most shockingly, he divorced dance from music, forcing the audience to look and listen more intently and come up with their own “meaning.”


Growing up in Centralia, Washington, Merce Cunningham learned vaudeville-style numbers from Maude Barrett and later studied with Bonnie Bird at the Cornish School in Seattle. In 1939 he attended the Bennington School of the Dance, which was at Mills College that year. There he made his first dances in Louis Horst’s composition class (although he disagreed with Horst’s theme-and-variations approach) and also met Martha Graham. In his five years with her company (1939–45), he created several roles, most notably the fervent Revivalist in Appalachian Spring. Ultimately he distrusted the emotionalism of her style and set about making dances that celebrate “the appetite to move” rather than serve a story.


Cunningham was an unforgettable dancer: serene in Septet, bizarre in Changeling, and wildly agitated when he thrashed around inside a plastic bag in Place. Always he had a wit and an animal alertness. With his natural light jump, he leavened the earthiness of early modern dance.


He gave his first solo concerts in 1944 with music by John Cage, whom he had met at the Cornish School. Profoundly influenced by the composer, he took Cage’s idea that any sound could be music and applied it to movement and dance. He sometimes made decisions based on the I Ching (the ancient Chinese Book of Changes) or dice-tossing rather than personal preference. Gus Solomons jr, who danced with him in the ’60s, says, “I remember thinking that what he was imagining was physically impossible. But we’d try and usually find that it was indeed possible, just nothing we’d ever thought of attempting before.”


Cunningham started the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953 and opened his school in 1959. The 1964 world tour put the company on the map, partly because of their big success in London. Always embracing new technologies, Cunningham pioneered dance for video in the ’70s; LifeForms software (now DanceForms) as a choreographic aid in the ’90s; and, recently, iPods for the audience. In all he made about 150 works, collaborating with a wide range of composers from Cage, David Tudor, and Takehisa Kosugi to Radiohead and Sigur Rós.


One of his many innovations was to present “events” rather than finished pieces. These performances drew material from existing choreography, chipping away at the convention of a beginning, middle, and end. They allowed a stream of movement to gush forth, with Cunningham’s innate sense of structure keeping us guessing what would come next.


Cunningham’s dances are an acquired taste. To this day there are those who are angered by the loud music or puzzled by the lack of story. However, even skeptics often feel they are witnessing something unique. In 1985 Cunningham told NPR, “One only has to get one’s mind out of the way about deciding that something is good or bad, and allow for different kinds of things to take place, so that I’m constantly on the point of discovering what I don’t know about rather than repeating what I do know about.”


Cunningham created works of bracing energy, alarming chaos, or quiet beauty. Countless choreographers have been influenced by him. But more than that, he changed the landscape of dance globally. He broke away from modern dance so completely that a new term had to be coined, and now we have postmodern dance.



Photo by Penny Brogden,
DM Archives.