Moving Without Merce
Merce Cunningham was a giant of modern dance, pioneering radical techniques and philosophies that challenged both his audiences and performers. By the time of his death in 2009, a plan unlike any other in the dance world had been created by the administration and approved by Cunningham himself - a plan that laid the groundwork for the preservation of his choreography and for a finite end to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company . For The Nation, Marina Harss examines that precise plan, attends the company’s final performance, and looks back at a career that irrevocably changed the art of dance.
Despite Cunningham’s larger-than-life reputation, his work is far less mainstream than one might imagine. The first challenge for dancers and audiences is the lack of connection between music and dance, except in the earliest works. Cunningham and John Cage, partners in life and art, established early the precept that the music and steps would coexist in time but proceed independently of each other. One is used to seeing bodies moving to music—to most of us, music is the reason for moving—but Cunningham and Cage maintained that this was not necessarily true. Dance has its own rhythms, its own internal music. Thus, the dances are created and rehearsed in silence, which can at times be challenging even to seasoned Cunningham dancers. Because the music and steps are created separately, the tempos and dynamics of the two do not coincide—one might see devilishly fast footwork while hearing slow, quiet music, or the opposite, a long, drawn-out phrase set to fast, percussive sounds or, worse yet, movements of the feet, arms or torso that are just slightly out of sync with the music. This last scenario can tempt a dancer to follow the rhythm of the music, a temptation that is difficult to resist. The dancers hear the music only during performance. For a non-Cunningham dancer, this can be downright bewildering. During a demonstration and discussion at the Guggenheim last year, a highly skilled young dancer from American Ballet Theatre performed a short Cunningham duet, and was then asked what it was like to hear the music for the first time. “Distracting,” she said, with a shy laugh.