“When I dance, it means: this is what I’m doing.”1 This telling quote encapsulates the discursive and visionary qualities of an iconoclast whose body of work encompasses and has influenced the disciplines of dance, music, film, visual arts, and more. Neither modern nor postmodern, Merce Cunningham remains a choreographer unclassifiable by the standard dance lexicon. And yet, somehow, “contemporary” seems a woefully inadequate descriptor. Though he has consistently rejected the impulse to have his work “read” in any conventional sense, there is no doubt that a highly rigorous formal vocabulary has taken root. Cunningham places the gesture—movement—above all else, while advancing the still radical notion that each art form is independent, yet intertwined through enactment. Indeed, it is this very subjectivity that lies at the heart of his dance.
Cunningham’s obvious creative leanings were encouraged by his family during his childhood in Centralia, Washington. Early dance instruction (tap, ballroom, and an array of traditional and ethnic forms) indicated a flair for the dramatic, and his continued interest in the theatrical led him to the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington (now Cornish College of the Arts), where he pursued drama, later switching to dance. He became closely acquainted with the school’s headmistress, Nellie C. Cornish, a prominent early influence. The school employed as instructors a number of former Martha Graham dancers, and he went on to dance with her company from 1939 to 1945. It was also at Cornish that he formed the most significant collaborative relationship of his life and career with composer John Cage. Merce Cunningham and Company officially performed its first season in December 1953, at what is now the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City.2
The company’s first Walker Art Center–sponsored performance took place in 1963 on the minuscule stage of the Woman’s Club Theater in Minneapolis. Dancing were Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Steve Paxton, Viola Farber, Judith Dunn, and Marilyn Wood.3 Cage served as musical director and Robert Rauschenberg as set and costume designer. The Walker’s first full-scale residency with the company in 1969 was among the earliest of its kind, not only in Minnesota but also in the United States, and it continues to serve as an effective outreach model for new audiences. Later residencies included talks, lecture/demonstrations, and performances at venues ranging from the Minneapolis Regional Native American Center Gymnasium and the Benedicta Arts Center in St. Joseph, Minnesota, to events with long-standing partners such as Northrop Auditorium and the Hennepin Center for the Arts. As part of the 1969 residency, the company performed Canfield, a work often cited as an example of choreography that is based entirely on time structures rather than on narrative, representative gestures with fixed meaning or dependence on exact rhythmic notation. The process not only enables the autonomous development of musical components, but also allows Cunningham to choreograph in sections that may be reordered, excised, or combined anew with other works, while establishing the independence of movement for its own sake.
A later example using a variation on the above principle is Doubletoss (1993), a work created by the merging of two separately choreographed dances.4 Both compositionally and thematically, the piece focuses on binaries, which are emphasized by costuming (two sets, different according to which dance is being performed at a given time), set design (a black scrim upstage, creating the effect of double worlds), and duets intertwined with ensemble movement. Various rhythms and postures come together in a delicate anarchy of phrases that somehow translate as both disjointed and unified. Takehisa Kosugi’s5 score Transfigurations, composed with processed radio frequencies, was curiously similar to the high-pitched squeals of whale song, a perhaps unintended invocation of the natural in opposition to the sound source.
The significance of this methodology can be traced to the revelatory freedom gained by the use of chance, particularly in relation to the composition of phrasing. Although indebted chronologically and perhaps in spirit to the early procedures used by Dadaists such as Marcel Duchamp and Hans Arp, Cunningham’s method is honed specifically to meet the needs required by the medium of dance. Those dictates could range from space considerations to the physical limitations of the body; however, it is fair to say that conceptually, chance operations remained an open-ended idea, and only one dimension of his choreographic practice. Chance has enabled Cunningham to identify connective transitions from one phrase to the next, but also constructs the rejection of wholeness, which is anathema to his approach. To suggest that such a thing could exist is contrary to the logic that drives the work—an eradication of the veneer of unity.
The discrete coexistence of music and dance as both Cunningham and Cage imagined it is critical to understanding their practice. As a central tenet, it was an obvious necessity to address both the linkages and the sovereignty of the two in context. In 1981, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (then directed by Dennis Russell Davies) dedicated an entire year to the work of Cage and copresented a number of Cunningham residencies and performances, including the groundbreaking Perspectives series,6 which highlighted musical elements of the repertoire, complete with lectures, classes, and films. Along with Cage, experimental composers such as Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher, and Gordon Mumma were frequent contributors to the company’s musical legacy. A number would form meaningful individual relationships with the Walker and were invited back over the years to perform independently. Of particular note is collaborator and accompanist David Tudor’s 1976 residency project, an aural environment in which electronic sounds, derived from the resonant qualities of sculptures and found objects, played in the galleries and drifted into the lobby like a sonic blizzard. Titled Rainforest, the piece was first heard in Minneapolis as part of the company’s 1972 residency.
As reflected in the company’s fiftieth-anniversary performance of Split Sides at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2003, Cunningham’s eclectic taste for unexpected musical partnerships remains—this time in the form of a collaboration with Icelandic band Sigur Rós and Britain’s Radiohead. A roll of the dice on the day of the premiere determined the order in which segments of the overall dance were to be performed, a nod to Cunningham’s first chance piece Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951) (dictated by the tossing of a coin). Further, additional production elements such as set, lighting, and costumes are also formed autonomously, often coming together with choreography for the first time at dress rehearsals and even on the day of first-run performances. Mutual trust and a congruous understanding of Cunningham’s aims (or lack thereof) have allowed extraordinary creative liberty for the company’s collaborators, who have included Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Rei Kawakubo, Morris Graves, Isamu Noguchi, and recently, Terry Winters. This rich history, and a thorough examination of Cunningham’s place in the annals of multidisciplinary collaboration, were presented in the Walker-organized 1998 exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones.7
It is important to note that while Cage and Cunningham shared a belief in the validity of indeterminacy as a practice, each at times applied the method differently in his own work, as it proved useful. According to Cunningham, “My use of chance methods … is not a position which I wish to establish and die defending. It is a present mode of freeing my imagination from its own clichés and it is a marvelous adventure.”8 While the use of chance could be considered a logical precursor to the achievement of “naturalness,” the definition of this ideal was distinct for both artists. Each strove for “the imitation of nature in the manner of her operation”9 through their practice, but they were divergent epistemologically. Cage’s rejection of the highly individualized self through the erasure of conceptual and formal distinctions can be interpreted in alignment with the Zen philosophies he ascribed to, whereas Cunningham takes a Wildean approach, one that maintains a conscious separateness from the world in order to make some sense of it. One absorbs the notion in seeing his dance—in essence, a map for how to live a life, how to make a choice, and how to reconcile the intellectual fragmentations that occur in one’s being.
“The audience is where you are,” says Cunningham. This elegant statement, akin to a mantra, embodies freedom and boldly underscores the enormity of his task: an impartation that there are no fixed points in space and time, no boundaries to be transcended. Rather, each place one resides is independent and vibrant, and interrelatedness is favored over inspiration.
Artist’s statement, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Web site, http://www.merce.org (accessed October 22, 2004). ↩
The first unofficial performances by the group were given at Black Mountain College in August 1953, billed as Merce Cunningham and Company. It is now known as Merce Cunningham Dance Company. ↩
The company was invited by the Center Arts Council, the Walker’s performing arts arm before the formal establishment of its Performing Arts Department in 1970. ↩
With the Walker, Northrop Auditorium and the Cunningham Dance Foundation co-commissioned a three-year, three-commission series of works: Fabrications (1987); Field and Figures (1989); and Doubletoss (1993). ↩
Takehisa Kosugi became the company’s musical director after the tenures of John Cage and David Tudor (who served as advisor). ↩
Cunningham collaborators Marty Kalve and Kosugi were participants. ↩
For an excellent contextualization of dance’s relationship to the modern museum, see Sally Banes, “Dancing in the Museum: The Impure Art,” in Philippe Vergne, Siri Engberg, and Kellie Jones, eds., Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1998), 10–15. ↩
Quoted in Stephanie Jordan, “Freedom from the Music: Cunningham, Cage & Collaborations,” in Germano Celant, ed., Merce Cunningham (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 1999), 62. ↩
John Cage quoted in David Vaughn, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, Melissa Harris, ed. (New York: Aperture, 1997), 7. ↩