Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham; drawing by David Levine

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 philosophy but to the work of painters of the period. Duchamp’s daring and playfulness provided a kind of manifesto but no one was more important technically than Jackson Pollock, whose idea of control and freedom—the hand disciplining the dribble of paint, which then went on to lead a life of its own—summed up a theory of organization and chance in art that came to be known as action painting, just as Cage himself was labeled a conceptual artist. These phrases, little drawers meant to contain ideas that never quite fit them, were inadequate labels.

Cage was trying to establish connections between life and art that he felt had got lost in the repetitious and deadening homage paid to “great works,” and in the separation of “serious” and “popular” art. Attacks on that separation are often launched by people capable of producing neither. Cage was both a true liberator and diligently iconoclastic. He is the man who said, “Beethoven is a roll of toilet paper.”

The ins and outs of Cage’s thought, made up in equal parts of original wisdom, provocation, and hot air, are not easy to follow. Highly disciplined in the name of a new freedom, he uses arbitrary rules which, once established and set in motion, decide the nature of a piece. Say a poem where the word “Marcel” or “Duchamp,” written in capital letters down the middle of a stanza, assures a form of either six- or seven-line stanzas. Or in Where Are We Eating, and What Are We Eating? (38 Variations on a Theme by Alison Knowles), from Empty Words (1979), an “essay-collage” on food, describing exactly what was eaten by the Cunningham company on tour, Cage’s greedy fantasies (he was on a macrobiotic diet at the time), and references to places where the company had dined—all drawn from life, all making a definite configuration, silly, pointless, or true 1 Literary examples, these nevertheless establish basic principles. Once a rule is fixed, chance, equally important, may then take over. Cage comes from California, the birth-place of new creeds; his father was an engineer and inventor. The rigor of the blueprint, the querulousness of the crank, and the adventuresomeness of the pioneer are mixed in his nature and work.

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Ever since Cage abandoned the prepared piano, his work has been more a concept of music than the thing itself. The Cage–Cunningham collaboration is therefore lucky. It’s as if a great gourmet of ideas who couldn’t quite cook found the perfect chef in whom his recipes would be realized.

In the late Forties, at Black Mountain College, the Cunningham company began tentatively to be formed. There Cunningham met prophets like Buckminster Fuller and painters like the De Koonings and Robert Rauschenberg, who was to become an artistic adviser to the company (a role later filled by Jasper Johns, and still later by the English painter Mark Lancaster, who resigned from the company and went back to England last year). It was at Black Mountain in the summer of 1952 that Cage produced what is now considered to be the first “happening”—a multimedia affair called “Theatre Piece by John Cage” (poetry, Charles Olson and M.C. Richards; film, Nicholas Cernovitch; music, David Tudor; design, Robert Rauschenberg; choreographed and danced by Merce Cunningham). Slowly as the Cage–Cunningham connection was forged, Cunningham came to be a dance phenomenon, but kept schooling himself in other arts at the same time.

The kind of education Diaghilev provided Balanchine, Cage proffered Cunningham—mainly visual at first, its ultimate lesson proved to be a complete reaction against the nineteenth century, particularly the notion of form exemplified in its music.

Cunningham got rid of the “trappings,” freeing himself of literal, representational, and mythic subjects. His dance was to be spared both connotation and symbol, and—as he makes clear in The Dancer and the Dance, a series of recently published interviews conducted by Jacqueline Lesschaeve (who hogs more space than is usual in an interviewer)—ultimately music:

I think it is essential now to see all the elements of theater as both separate and interdependent. The idea of a single focus to which all adhere is no longer relevant…. My work with John had convinced me that it was…necessary for the dance to stand on its own legs rather than on the music.

Ironically, under the tutelage of a composer, Cunningham replaced music with “sound.” A fanatic of the new, he—or he and Cage—first saw the possibilities in magnetic tape and the electronic synthesizer. Video was waiting around the corner, to be used as a recording device on the one hand (that is, as a substitute for Labanotation), and, on the other, as a machine for which dances were to be created. Video, like a Polaroid camera, takes pictures as well as showing them, and, better than a Polaroid, can perform both functions simultaneously.

But Cunningham’s interest in whatever is technologically current is deceptive. In his work the gesture is the dance, and the results of a notion so simple depend on the nitwit or the genius (as is here the case) who deploys it. Cunningham’s orchestra pit may be wired to the gills with electronic equipment and souped-up instruments, yet he is essentially a natural, a naif whose starting points are as straightforward as walking, bending, and turning. The thought that has extended and revitalized these movements is anything but naive—no other contemporary choreographer that I know of is as articulate on the subject of dance—yet its premises are basically mathematical, structural, and diagrammatic, rather than emotional. One doesn’t go to a Merce Cunningham recital to be moved.

Because references to drama and to music are missing, Cunningham’s is the least describable work of all the major choreographers of the last quarter century. Then, too, the conventional “fourth wall” of the theater isn’t congenial to Cunningham:

In classical ballet as I learned it, and even in my early experience of the modern dance, the space was observed in terms of the proscenium stage, it was frontal. What if, as in my pieces, you decide to make any point on stage equally interesting?

Cunningham’s choreography is meant to be seen from all sides, and his work is forced into the mold of a theater only by necessity. A gymnasium, an athletic field, or a circus tent would all be more natural habitats. Many years ago I watched the company (now much changed) at Westbeth, the site of Cunningham’s studio, and school in New York, and it was one of the most exciting dance experiences I’ve known. Cunningham’s studio was and is on the top floor; one sees the sky through the windows facing west over the Hudson. The audience sat on both sides of the room while the dancers moved through the large empty space, dancing what Cunningham calls Events, random passages taken from various works and put together at random by number. It was surprising how much of the formal element (or what I took to be the formal element) was very clear from so close and from a side view. (There was also the added intensity of the closeness of the viewer to the performers.)

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The dancers, of course, were turned toward the side many times, but the dance as a whole was angled for viewing from anywhere in the room. The plain truth about Cunningham seemed odd: he was most theatrical when farthest away from a theater, and that gave one a clue to the whole method. It stems from a naturalness in dancing in which no gesture is discarded, where grace is not an end in itself or an ultimate virtue (though it counts heavily, no matter). And it also requires backbreaking technical feats, something on the order of English gardening, where to produce the effect of a soft, natural paradise, the required scientific tactics (not to mention the sweat and toil) are anything but paradisal.

Cunningham’s dances are difficult to take in from a proscenium viewpoint for another reason, as he explains in The Dancer and the Dance:

The dances…are not constructed linearly. One thing doesn’t lead to another. I was taught that you led up to something, some climax. That didn’t interest me very much. I rather liked the idea of things staying separate, something not leading up to something else. The continuity is constantly unpredictable.

There is something naive about this, of course—a work can be inevitable and still be unpredictable, Oedipus Rex, for example. But I think what Cunningham means is that the ordinary chain of developments is broken. The loss of music as well as the cause-and-effect relationship of one movement to another leaves many Cunningham dances bereft of emotional impulse and sensuous surface. Sometimes they seem more like kinetic sculpture. Yet there is a certain advantage to this—selfimposed limitations made in the abstract produce surprising specific gestures, spacing, and relationships. Human references outside the work are beside the point.

Cunningham states this clearly in his interviews with Lesschaeve:

For me, the subject of dance is dancing itself. It is not meant to represent something else, whether psychological, literary, or aesthetic. It relates more to everyday experience, daily life, watching people as they move in the streets.

Not all choreographers feel that dance is a transformation of everyday life. For Balanchine, it was, I think, closer to an idealization, and for Graham a matter of transforming rituals in the light of modern psychology and anthropology. Yet Balanchine didn’t design abstractly, or make out pre-dance patterns—what Cunningham calls his “paper work”—but created dances under the spell of a musical score. The music led to the steps of the dance just as the dancers’ bodies were the living material on which movement was built. The same is true of Paul Taylor, who seems to me Balanchine’s heir—much more so than any of the young dancer-choreographers who have emerged at the New York City Ballet. Taylor is connected to Balanchine through music, although separated from him by a dislike of the subservient role the male ballet dancer plays in partnering. Balanchine and Taylor are less surprising by intention than by intuition; Cunningham is surprising by strategy. (Yet in the interviews he says at one point, “I never thought, and still don’t, that dancing is intellectual. I think dancing is something instinctual.”)

In regard to method, Cunningham’s notions are clearest when he’s being specific, as in describing the way Torse (1975) was created:

I figured out the phrasing2 and the continuity ahead of time, before the dancers came to rehearsal. Not, of course, the way they would dance the phrases, but the phrases themselves. It took a long time. I worked on it by myself with the help of video. There are sixty-four phrases, because that’s the number of hexagrams in the I Ching. The phrases are formed like the numbers themselves. For example, one has one part in it, two has two, three has three, up to sixty-four. But I didn’t make it as though one were one rhythmic beat, and so forth, metrically. Let us take the second phrase, it will be clearer. The counts are related to weight changes. That is, if you stand on your foot, that’s one; if you bend your knee, that’s a weight change, so that’s two. Now that could be done slowly or quickly. At sixty-four, you have sixty-four weight changes.

Or in talking about Scramble:

For a section called “Separate Movements” I made nine different short sequences, slow in tempo, one for each dancer. The dancers repeated their individual movements through the space, each like a separate animal crawling or moving slowly. Later, as we began to do sections of Scramble in Events, each dancer learned all nine movements and then was free to go from one to another of them in any order he or she chose.

…The directions they take while doing the movements are free. They start from a point and end at another one. But they don’t have to go in a straight line.

In another section in Scramble called “Fast Dance,” there are rapid sequences which they all know…. Sometimes one dancer [does] it, sometimes two or three. They may enter and exit during it….

With the “Separate Movements” I don’t have to worry about the dancer’s position in space…. With “Fast Dance” I must tell them where to go…or they must make the decisions themselves…prior to dancing it. It must be rehearsed clearly, otherwise there might be a collision.

J.L. In Scramble you can change the order of “Separate Movements,” “Fast Dance” or the other ones?

Yes, the order is different each time the dance is given.

The Dancer and the Dance sums up a choreographer’s history, beliefs, and methods. Cunningham’s loyalty and tact in the face of his interviewer’s hostility to Graham are particularly commendable, his integrity shatterproof, and, throughout, his personal charm manages to filter through the heavy French metal of abstraction.

Examples of what Cunningham says in The Dancer and the Dance could be seen in his week-long series of Events at the Joyce Theater off Broadway this winter and the works he performed in last spring’s full-length City Center season in New York. As usual, no cumulative action developed, no formal pattern was readily discernible. Yet the dances were remarkable in not being boring. What holds them together? First—no matter what Cunningham says—an intrinsic feeling for the stage that stamps every Cunningham piece with its own brand of theatricality. And second, an inexplicable but unmistakable intensity that communicates itself directly to the audience—or at least to me.

In fact, the enigmatic quality of the action may be the key to one’s attention. We are used to the experience of forms purposefully attaching themselves to one another. That forms may have no end other than themselves (and whether, therefore, they are properly forms at all) is in itself provocative and mysterious. Yet, though gestures are repeated, phrases imitated, movements increased or decreased in their dynamics, the lack of development is telling in the end. I often miss the very thing Cunningham deplores—formal progression.

Last season, two new Cunningham works had their premières, Doubles and Native Green. An elegant solo begins Doubles, followed by duets and a quartet which ultimately breaks apart into three figures and a single dancer. Doubles is full of jumps in place and nervous falls to the ground, and the dancers had the look of creatures testing the earth and the air for some message they were waiting to hear—a message always about to be uttered.

Six dancers in Native Green were dressed in chic white spacesuits speckled with tiny jewel bits, and danced against a wallpaperlike background of an odd, patterned red with a diagonal line slashed through it from one side. It may be a Cunningham triumph that almost nothing can be said about the two new dances that adequately describes them yet the dances themselves made sense while being performed. The electronic score for Doubles by Takehisa Kosugi had the usual clangs, whizzes, rippings, and chimes. Little screeches could occasionally be heard, made, I think, by sawedoff small violins. Native Green had a score by John King called Gliss in Sighs.

Two slightly earlier works, Duets (1980) and Phrases (1984), choreographed in France at the invitation of the Centre National de Dance Contemporaine, were performed right after each other on the same program. The Cage score for Duets consisted of insect scrapes, chirpings, and tweetings, and the David Tudor ode for Phrases rattled with nervous electric and rubato moments—the crackling of thunderstorms arriving and departing—yet both dances shared characteristic movements: the pulling and shaking of the head to one side, as if the dancer were smitten by a sudden tic, the leg straight out to one side or the other, the bend from the waist, the fast gyration, and so on. In Phrases, the picking up of additions to the costumes off-stage—a girl will return with a leg warmer and a vest, a man with a small jacket or wrist band—adds the additional interest one finds in Ben Benson’s costumes for Jerome Robbins’s Goldberg Variations, extrinsic to the dancing but not to the theater of the piece. In Phrases, Cunningham tries for a mass effect only once, at the very beginning of the piece when all fifteen dancers are on stage together. (In Duets once, and again only once, all six couples are present in unison.) Phrases achieved a wholeness of tone and design not always characteristic of Cunningham, and seemed to me to get better and better as it went on and the more I saw it.

In Phrases, something Cunningham says in the interviews is illustrated over and over again:

All my work comes from the trunk nearest the hip, and you tilt or you twist it in every direction—I have eight directions that I use to open space up all the way around.

Pictures, of 1984, scored by David Behrman, was also performed this past season. It starts with a woman slowly entering on her toes, her foot completely arched, and that arched foot reappears in different dancers throughout the work. But the dominating motif is the frozen gesture, usually a distorted and difficult position to maintain—a supine figure, say, vertically supporting with his arms a figure facing him and bearing down on him from above. These frozen poses are bone-breaking positions, stretches held for longer than would seem humanly possible. Yet the effect of the whole is not virtuosic but elegiac, as if people were suddenly stopped in their tracks or had died. The dancers are seen against an intensely lit background, and, with a sudden change of lights, silhouetted against it. (The lighting by Mark Lancaster is of central importance and works wonderfully well.) Unexpected bends, turns, and unusual supports of the foot, the upper arm, and the shoulder are characteristic. (Never the waist. Though that conventional ballet support appears once in Phrases.)

The dancers glide across the stage in a form of slow ice-skating, and usually when the dancers are locked in a dead position, two dancers in much quicker time move about them in small jumps and pliés, with occasional sudden large extensions of the leg. A woman holds her head in her hand. Another dancer’s head begins to shake. The effect is gradual: there is a long buildup before Chris Komar’s entrance (a dancer I always wait for, the one most like the young Cunningham). Slow-motion camera footage, underwater movements—some density slows usual time sequences as if the stage space were thickened by an invisible substance. A ritual, perhaps a funeral, may be taking place; at other times, there is a sense of figures on a frieze or on a vase, stopped in their movements—carved, sculptured, photographed, or painted. A group piece, Pictures shades off into a series of duets for two figures in yellow, and others in dark blue, gray, or green-black.

Pictures begins to flag somewhere about two thirds of the way through. Then it picks up again when Cunningham himself is on stage. His entrances are always electric, partly because his arms and hands have a grace and vitality still that distinguishes him from the other dancers, now far more supple than he, who lack his peculiar ability to contain calmness and nervous energy within the same gesture. Watching Cunningham is like watching an aging faun, but a faun still, who has the dignity and presence of a special creature, an embodiment in person of what his dancers are all about. In the end, Cunningham holds the body of what appears to be a dead woman limply in his arms and—drama intended or not—the effect is devastating.

This Issue

March 13, 1986

  1. 1

    Both examples are taken from an essay by Marjorie Perloff, ” ‘Unimpededness and Interpenetration’: The Poetic of John Cage,” in A John Cage Reader (C.F. Peters Corporation, 1982). 

  2. 2

    Cunningham uses the word “phrase” often, which may require some explanation. Usually comprising a series of related gestures, a small dance phrase provides the context that gives movements a meaning in the same way a sentence provides a context for words. Whether a group of words is truly a sentence is a grammatical question, whereas whether a group of movements is a phrase is a stylistic one.