The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve
Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Merce Cunningham Dance Company
I first saw Merce Cunningham in a dance class at Bennington College in the summer of 1941, a period that now seems to me as remote as that of the Napoleonic wars. Martha Graham (in whose company he then danced) kindly allowed me to watch classes. I was at the Bennington School of the Arts for the summer, having received a fellowship to write a dance drama whose quality may be judged from the only line I now remember: “I hear pianos dipping into silver…something.” The last word eludes me. Polish? Threads among the gold?
Martha Graham wore a pagoda-shaped hat to protect her from the sun, and she doffed it during classes. As I watched potential dancers jump into the air, Cunningham, looking like a Creole faun, always took longer to land than anyone else. He was still airborne while everyone around him had succumbed to the force of gravity. Each time Graham demanded this leap in place into the air, Cunningham went higher, stayed up longer, and landed more lightly than any of the other dancers. The gift was inborn; it seemed as natural to him as running is to a deer.
Two years later, in 1943, by coincidence, I met John Cage in Madison, Wisconsin, at Arthur Blair’s house. Arthur was the editor of the “little” magazine Diogenes, the center of intellectual ferment (such as there was) on the campus, and also the stopping-off place for visiting artists crossing the country. The Cages, on their way east from the West Coast, spent the afternoon. Cage, then married to a woman named Xenia, seemed charming, and I was immediately struck by his good looks, his air of secret humor, and by the rare impression of being in the presence of someone remarkably innocent, and yet extremely wise in the ways of the world, as if an American adolescent and an Eastern sage had become encased in the same body. In the year between my meeting Cunningham and Cage, they produced their first work together, Credo In Us, at Bennington College in the summer of 1942, and for many decades now Cage has been Cunningham’s collaborator.
Cage brought new ideas of duration, silence, and chance—mainly borrowed from the Chinese with a special emphasis on the I Ching—to the composition of music, and these notions in turn affected Cunningham. From the beginning, Cunningham had been interested in the “new.” For a boy who hailed from Centralia, Washington, and had no fixed or received ideas other than that “any kind of movement could be dance,” the “new” was double layered, and involved the transformation of ordinary life into dance as well as the reworking of the movements of dance itself into an instrument capable of reflecting the techniques and experiments of painters and sculptors like Remy Charlip and Richard Lippold, and composers like Satie, David Tudor, and particularly Cage.
Cage’s strategies were both avant-garde and anti-elitist and owed a great deal not only to Eastern …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.