Walker Art Center

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Memories of Merce

By Philip Bither

By now, many have recounted the profound impact that Merce Cunningham, who passed away in July at the age of 90, had on dance as well as the broader worlds of performing and visual arts. Fewer, perhaps, have noted how deeply he was also admired, in fact beloved, by so many in those worlds he inhabited—so much so that everyone forever just referred to him as “Merce,” as if he were a shared old friend of all.

I feel lucky to have known and worked with him for 25 years. And I am proud to be part of a place like the Walker, which sustained one of Merce’s closest ongoing institutional partnerships, going back to his first performance here in 1963. But more than this, I simply loved being around him those relatively rare but special times, when I was privileged to watch this gentle, incisive, funny, generous, and brilliant man make his art.

I love that Merce never compromised the rigor of his work or his ideas just to please audiences; alternatively, this didn’t keep him from taking great pleasure when audiences enjoyed his creations. Sometimes we forget that until very recently, Cunningham was considered controversial—more a revolutionary than a revered legend. Constantly pushing at the boundaries, pursuing new ideas and forging disparate cross-disciplinary collaborations right up until the end, his curiosity and courage informed everything he did.

He taught lessons of openness all of the time. I remember fretting greatly when we brought Merce out to view the stage we had set up for the Event for the Garden, which he created for the 10th anniversary of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 1998. The sole backdrop was simply to be the sky, trees, and dozens of Andy Warhol’s silver mylar pillows filled with helium (initially created for the Cunningham masterpiece Rainforest) flying above the stage. However, the removal of a huge Alexander Calder sculpture, situated in the Garden behind the open stage, was not possible, so there it rose like a black mountain, with the Warhol pillows floating modestly in front and on each side. I apologized to Merce and, with that inimitable twinkle in his eye, he just laughed and said he thought it was great that chance (so important to his process) allowed Warhol and Calder to become collaborators (along with him, too) in the Garden. That comment shifted my own perspective completely, accepting this “mistake” as a wonderful unexpected opportunity.

I facilitated several public conversations with Merce over the years, occasions for which he was always modest and soft-spoken, but also surprisingly and dryly funny. He was a great storyteller and full of a quiet joy of life. Before my first talk with him, I remember feeling particularly intimidated (after all, this was Merce Cunningham), but in a matter of minutes he put me at ease, making it clear he was open to and patient with any and all inquiries. However, the discussion that I enjoyed most of all was between him and Minneapolis dancer Sage Cowles (Cunningham Dance Foundation board member and close friend) last year at the Walker, before Ocean opened. Sage had been instrumental in helping to plan and support nearly every Cunningham engagement in Minnesota over the past 50 years. From the moment the talk began, the friendship and affection they had for one another was palpable, and it made the afternoon a delightful, engaging experience, one that offered special insight into this man as well as one of his greatest supporters.

One of the last times I saw Merce was following the final presentation of his monumental Ocean, performed in central Minnesota’s Rainbow Quarry last September. It was dark and cold and almost everyone else had ascended out of the quarry. A light drizzle was falling. Merce sat quietly backstage, in his wheelchair under a tarp—he had been down in the quarry overseeing the final piece for much of the week. I went up to him to say my good-byes and to thank him one more time for the audaciousness and beauty of his creation. He seemed to be soaking up the moment, and he said with uncharacteristic emotion that this was one of the true highlights of his creative career. For a man with such an amazing history, that spoke volumes. In hindsight, it feels like Ocean was a last, remarkable gift that he gave not just to the Walker and its partners, but to the people of Minnesota, a community that welcomed and supported him though much of his career. He will be greatly missed, but I am heartened knowing that his work and its expansive influence will be felt throughout the world in the times to come.

Philip Bither
McGuire Senior Curator, Performing Arts