Remembering Merce Cunningham

27 Jul

The dance world is having a rough summer after Pina Bausch, MJ, and now Merce Cunningham.  Although, I do feel like his death is a little easier to absorb because he had such an incredible life filled with many years of dance, whereas Pina and MJ went so suddenly.  Karen Eliot, who I’ve mentioned danced for his company many years ago said it was a gift, in that he finished his last work, called the dancers to thank them, and then went peacefully in his sleep.  She said it was very much something he would do, to decide that now was the time to go and to do so.  She had known that he was not in good health for a little while now, but the poor thing is still heartbroken.  Bravely, she foraged on in class this morning, trying to be her usual self and even had us try entrechat six, which made my brain go “sha-duh-duh-duh-what?”  Anyway, there were some tears after class, and she told us a little about how much he meant to her, especially as her teacher and what he imparted onto her, so my sympathies are with her and others who were friends, family and lovers of Merce.

I studied a little bit of his work and ideas through a dance and theatre history class, and truthfully they weren’t easy for me to fully comprehend because I’m one of those crotchety grumpy bears that likes dance and music to be woven together in a harmonious relationship.  My brain is wired to take delight in classical lines, classical music, classical dance, and classical methods of presenting such.  If you like Daoism as much as I do, then you know going against one’s nature is a no-no, and Cunningham is practically on the opposite end of the spectrum.  He didn’t see music as a necessity and didn’t mind randomizing choreography and having a piece look completely different for each performance.  Reminds me of his partner John Cage as well, who felt the same about music and went as far as writing a “piece” where someone would sit at a piano for a few minutes and the music was whatever noise there was.  Some audience members were annoyed, but I think that’s just evidence that some people take life waaay too seriously.  Anyway, back on topic, to me the pursuit of chance is radical and on the verge of madness, but Cunningham was so halcyon in his approach (I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use that word!) that it’s impossible to associate it with insanity.  It’s all very perplexing, but somehow he made it work, and even I was able to appreciate his choreography.

One of his works that I really liked was Biped (which for whatever reason I always want to mistakenly call Bipedal).  It employed innovations in the use of technology with dance, another aspect of Cunningham’s work that makes my brain work overtime, resulting in lasers and abstract 3-D holographic figures walking and running, while human dancers moved with them.  The effect was really neat, and it’s just one of those pieces that is interesting to look at.  In the same way sitting in a park and staring at some trees or riding a train and looking out the window is something interesting to look at.  We don’t necessarily stare at things because we derive a great amount of pleasure from doing so, but visually there’s always something compelling that makes it so we can’t avert our gazes.  For me, this is the essence of many of Cunningham’s works…whatever “it” is that keeps us staring at things, that “it” is something valid and worth exploring.  And more importantly, that “it” is different for every person.  I loved the way Biped didn’t make me feel stupid, and that I could indeed appreciate modern dance.

Another one of his pieces that I vividly remember is Beach Birds for Camera, which I found to be incredibly charming.  The goal of the piece wasn’t to be a bird or even move like a bird, but somehow it recreated for me that same fascination one gets when observing animals at the zoo.  To me, the piece seemed to capture the essence of how birds relate to and communicate with each other and what their language would look like if it were made into movement.  It’s really quirky, almost silly in a sense, as seagulls themselves are rather vacuous creatures (Finding Nemo anyone?  Which reminds me of a funny story in ballet class when every time we did echappé sauté, someone in the class would say “esssscah-pey!” a la Dory, and the teacher seemed really confused.  I think she was one of three people on Earth at the time that hadn’t seen Finding Nemo).  I found myself horribly amused, and wishing I was a bird too.  There is a short excerpt here (I saw the original black and white group version):

So, dearest Merce…thank you for introducing new ideas about dance and art; that not everything has to have a story, and that dance is indeed its own independent art form.  Even though I could never dance that way (improv freaks me out enough as it is), I feel like you are the kind of person I could have had interesting conversations with, proof that even people with vastly differing natures don’t have to get up in arms when they don’t agree on something.  Although, I did read a beautiful quote by you, and it would seem that we do share something in common:

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

-Merce Cunningham

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