Tribute to Merce by Douglas Dunn

June 30, 2009

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.