Giant's steps

Merce Cunningham (1919–2009)
By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  August 4, 2009

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MERCE IN SOUNDDANCE Almost all contemporary dance has adopted his convictions, if not the rigor of his process.

Merce Cunningham's death on July 26 wasn't unexpected. He'd been in frail health since this past winter. He was in a wheelchair for his 90th-birthday celebration in April at Brooklyn Academy of Music. In June, the Cunningham Foundation announced plans for the future of the company and the repertory after his death. And on opening night of the company's engagement last month at Jacob's Pillow, July 22, a live video feed was set up so he could watch the performance from his home in New York. Through the week people were saying, "He's holding his own. He's sitting at the computer."

I think he wanted to go. I think working was his life — dancing, choreographing, teaching, touring, studying people and animals and technology — but steadily the physical stresses of a lifetime overcame his disciplined productivity. We can't know whether he was consciously waiting to let go until after the company's closing Pillow performance Sunday afternoon, but, gentleman that he was, it would have been like him.

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Merce Cunningham has been a major force in the dance world for more than 50 years. Critics still feel they have to explain how he revolutionized the act of choreography and the whole notion of what constitutes a dance. This is strange when you consider that almost all contemporary dance has adopted his convictions, if not the rigor of his process. We don't have to know exactly how young choreographers create dances. Interesting explorations of movement can look pedestrian, or borrowed, or assembled from mismatching techniques, and still be dances. They don't have to be propped up with stories, musical structures, or formal stage patterns. We accept this broadened definition because of Cunningham's persistent example. His artistic creds are long-established.

Yet some theoretical audience education always seems to accompany a Cunningham performance, as if the audience wouldn't "get" the idea of all-dance dances without a logical sequence or some soothingly compatible music. It's harder to explain what really is different about the way his dancers look. They're austere, smartly placed; they make no concessions to indulgent sensuality or self-reflexivity; they concoct no suspenseful pauses or strategic build-ups to bring the audience along. They can rush around almost aimlessly, changing directions, their ultimate destinations known only to themselves.

Their movement is, well, almost peculiar. It's chopped-up, counter-intuitive, often executed with hyper-intensity. Cunningham moves are put together and sometimes totally conceived by mechanical forces — computers, random ordering devices. They can't be learned in a studio as combinations that you master over time. They're rehearsed, of course, but each dance makes different demands. In performance sometimes, you see the dancers struggling to fulfill them.

What I'm saying is that Cunningham dances produce affect in a different way from dances that adopt the same general principles but haven't been put through the methodical and boring task of disengagement. All the theory-speak that accompanies Cunningham dances may lead some people not to expect affect at all. Just the same, they move us. This is a marvelous vindication of Cunningham's contention that movement has its own integrity — and also an ironic answer to his Zen-like avoidance of all psychological overtones.

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Related: Cyberloops, 2009: The year in dance, High stepping, More more >
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