Three living links to Washington-born Merce Cunningham talk about the renowned choreographer's life, work and personality, in advance of the final performances and disbanding of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
“His eye for movement was incredible, simply incredible,” says Michael Cunningham of his uncle, the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died at 90 in 2009.
“If we were sitting in this yard,” Cunningham says, gesturing around his Seattle garden with its view of Lake Washington, “anything that moved, you could see it in his face. His eye caught it, and he was no longer giving you full attention — because he was looking at it. And who knows what about the movement it was: the start of it, the middle of it, the end of it, how it stopped?”
Cunningham, who bears a marked resemblance to his uncle, is (full disclosure) a friend. He’s also a vivid raconteur, with some fascinating stories to tell. But it’s his emphasis on his uncle’s unusual eye for things that darted, scuttled, ambled or flew that cuts to the essence of the choreographer’s art.
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“If I caught him doing it, I’d ask him, ‘What have you just seen?’ Because I often didn’t see it. … Who knows how he stored or retrieved or remembered some of these things that he would try to either mimic or try to use as a basis for other movements?”
Seattle audiences will have a chance to see how Cunningham’s eye for movement translated into a revolutionary brand of dance when Merce Cunningham Dance Company, now on a “Legacy Tour,” makes two of its final appearances at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday and Saturday. The company will bring its curtain down for good on New Year’s Eve in New York, where it will put on one last “Event” at the Park Avenue Armory.
Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia and attended the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts), where he met his future partner and collaborator, composer John Cage. By the age of 20, he had moved to New York to join the Martha Graham Dance Company. But within a few years he had rebelled against the strong storytelling component in Graham’s work and focused — sometimes with humor, sometimes with solemn mystery — on movement for movement’s sake. His belief that movement could be presented on stage divorced from characterization, representation or music radically changed the direction of modern dance.
By 1953, Cunningham had founded his own troupe. Soon he was launching his own bare-bones, do-it-yourself tours of the U.S.
On one occasion, his nephew remembers, they stopped in Centralia between performances: “Cage was doing the driving because he didn’t trust anybody else to drive. And they had the scenery wrapped up on top of the bus and prayed that it wouldn’t rain.”
Visits from “Uncle Merce,” his nephew notes, were rare in the early days due to the rigors of Cunningham starting his own dance company. In later years, after the company won international renown, visits to the Northwest were more frequent, but a get-together might be no more than a backstage meeting.
Still, in the last few years of Cunningham’s life, when his health was in decline, his nephew made a point of calling him every few weekends to see how he was doing. Often he would hear an old movie running on the television. If he didn’t, that meant that Cunningham was seated at his computer, “working something out,” as the choreographer would put it.
Cunningham had adopted the computer for dance purposes — specifically, a computer-animation program called Life Forms — by the early 1990s, and one piece on Thursday’s program, “BIPED,” incorporates actual computer imagery of ghostly figures into the dance.
“He was 80 years old when he did that piece,” his nephew says, “and that, I think, is quite amazing. … The computer was a wonderful tool for him to have access to. The fact that this was something new wouldn’t faze him at all. And the fact that he happens to be a certain age when he sees it has nothing to do with anything.”
The program undoubtedly helped extend Cunningham’s artistic life. Decades of dancing on nonresilient floors — “all those piazzas and squares where they were dancing on cement” — had taken a serious toll on the choreographer. “He couldn’t necessarily do the movement himself and look in the mirror to say ‘What does this look like?’ So there had to be a way to say: ‘If I want this to happen, can we do this?’ “
What Cunningham wanted to happen, his dancers agree, was often impossible, as two other living links to the choreographer attest.
Donald Byrd, artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, and Patricia Lent, who came to Seattle from New York to help set Cunningham “minEvents” on Cornish students over the last year, were both scholarship students at the Cunningham studio in the early 1980s, and Lent later joined the company from 1984-93.
Cunningham’s presence at every rehearsal and performance, Lent feels, was vital: “The work is hard and challenging. And I tell you, having him there in the room made things conceivable and possible that wouldn’t necessarily be if he wasn’t there.”
Byrd, in a recent interview, echoed her sentiments: “He would always ask you to do impossible things. And you felt compelled to try to do it. … People would figure out how to do it, or some facsimile of it. And it was still extraordinary, even if it wasn’t what it originally was supposed to be.”
Cunningham’s nephew says his uncle rarely discussed particular projects. Byrd confirms that: “He didn’t tell you what the pieces were about.”
Or if he did, Byrd says, it wasn’t in terms of “story.”
“We were doing something,” he recalls, “and at one point Merce looked at me right in the face and he said, ‘This piece is about fast, faster and fastest.’ So that’s all we needed to know, really.”
While Cunningham and Cage were known for founding their work on chance procedures, both Byrd and Michael Cunningham see something more deliberate in “Quartet,” a 1982 piece being performed on Thursday’s program.
It is, Byrd says, his favorite Cunningham piece, thanks in part to hints of narrative in it that are highly atypical for the choreographer. Byrd wanted Spectrum to do the piece, but was firmly turned down.
“Merce was still alive,” Byrd remembers, “and I was told that they would never do it while Merce was alive.”
To add to the mystery, the only time Byrd saw Cunningham lose his composure was when he was asked about the “story” in the “Quartet.” Cunningham bristled at the idea that the dance had a narrative component.
“But,” Byrd contends, “I still say it’s there.”
Michael Cunningham concurs: “I don’t know as though you could say: This is telling us an exact story. But there’s such a fit to family history.”
By way of explanation, Cunningham notes, “Merce was one of four brothers. He was about 3 when his oldest brother died. … It wasn’t for, I think, about five years that Jack was born, and then they were back to three brothers. So I’m sure he probably remembers some of that, but who knows how much?”
Something of those events, he feels, is present in “Quartet.” Yet, he adds, it’s also “an abstraction of decades of time rather than a short narrative episode.”
The big piece on Saturday night’s program, “Split Sides,” finds the choreographer pushing his familiar games of chance to an extreme degree.
Dating from 2003, “Split Sides,” like “BIPED,” is one of Cunningham’s late pieces. Byrd has a special fondness for both, saying they both have “a kind of peace about them, just like “Quartet” feels intuitive to me — which is not a typical thing you would say about a Cunningham dance. They’re not trying to do anything. They just are.”
“Split Sides” is one of the few Cunningham works available in its entirety on DVD, in a format that allows you to see multiple versions of it. As the liner notes explain, at every performance there are “two options for the different creative elements of the piece: set design, costumes, lighting, music and choreography. The order in which each element appears during a given performance is determined by an onstage dice roll.”
On DVD, the sequence of the musical scores by Radiohead and Sigur Rós can be reversed, and it’s fascinating to see how different scores can lend identical steps different inflections. You can also watch the whole dance in complete silence — which was the way, Lent says, rehearsals were conducted once the piece existed.
Before that, she remembers, “Merce would clap and he would beat and he would sing, until it became something that we knew and held onto. … If you talk to dancers who’ve been in Merce’s company, often you’ll hear them say, ‘Well, I don’t remember any of the steps — but I remember the rhythm.’ “
What, once the Legacy Tour is over, will Cunningham’s legacy be?
“I think where he was most influential,” Byrd says, “is in how we think about structure and how we think about space.”
Byrd makes a useful comparison with another giant in American dance. “People think Paul Taylor is a great choreographer, and I guess he is on some level. But the dances are just so neat and tidy. And the Cunningham structures are messy in some ways. [It's] not so easily discernible what the organizing principles are about how things are held together. They have their own kind of structural thing. And I think that sense of structuring is part of the Cunningham legacy, that choreographers are liberated from the notion of a ‘well-made dance.’ … I can’t imagine dance the way we see it now existing if Cunningham had not lived. I’ll say it that way. The evolution of dance in America and in Europe probably would be very different.”
How that legacy will be disseminated through the dance world in the future rests chiefly in Lent’s hands. She’s now a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust and is its director of repertory licensing. That means she licenses out all future performances of Cunningham works by professional dance companies and students. Her aim in that capacity, she says, is “to share the work as broadly as possible and to give as many dancers and audiences as we can an authentic experience with the work.”
Lent is leery of the word “preservation,” saying, “The way I think of it is not that I’m trying to pin it down or put it in amber. It’s just that I’m trying to let this dance continue on its journey and to have another chapter.”
The choreography remains, then. But the performer survives only in film clips and photographs. And it’s the performer, when you talk to his dancers, who inspired as much awe as his work.
“Nobody could dance like Merce,” says Byrd. “I mean, he had this presence. He would be on the stage and all these young dancers would be jumping around and Merce would be over in the corner somewhere doing something, and you’d just watch him.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com