Journal 1: Merce Cunningham


Photo: The Guardian (UK)

He was a child of a generation of dancers whose work carried grand thematic concepts and sought to create movement that “conveyed,” “expressed,” “showcased,” and were arguably infused with an certain self-importance. These were the “Big Four,” Graham, Humphrey, Weidman, and Holm, among others. While their students in the 1940′s-1950′s were content to carry on these legacies, Cunningham began to ask questions about the Graham dancing he was doing and began to see possibilities for expanding what was, at the time, thought of as dance.

Cunningham’s innovating career was largely made possible by his union with musician John Cage, whom he met in the summer of 1942 while performing with the Graham company at Bennington College. The two shared interest in expanding what was perceived as art; their collaboration ushered in a willingness for experimentation that would become a building block of the postmodern movement.  In the same summer at Bennington College of 1942, Cunningham had his choreographic debut with Credo in Us. It was set to Cage’s composition of muted gongs, tin cans, tom-tom, electric buzzer, piano, radio and phonograph, and was “a satire on suburban marriage.” I find this interesting because there has been so much emphasis on his interest in dance that did not have a specific thematic intention; I would need to view the piece to understand how exactly he suggested this ‘storyline.’ After this debut, Cunningham continued to create work and Cage continued to score it, working together to explore how dance and music could be created and exist independently, but be performed together, in unison or juxtaposition, or both.

Cage was even more revolutionary that Cunningham, and is largely remembered for his advent of the prepared piano and use of assorted objects as musical instruments. He ventured that any kind of auditory experience could be considered music, while Cunningham similarly ventured to expand the context of a theatrical experience even to the pedestrian realm. Evident in their music and choreography, respectively, were elements of humor, Dada-ism, and the Eastern influence gained from their shared appreciation of Zen Buddhism. Keeping with his appreciation for Eastern philosophy, an ancient Chinese text provided inspiration for what became Cunningham’s characteristic use of chance in his choreography. What may have turned many people away from his work was the notion that it was ‘haphazard,’ but in reality, it was meticulously organized.

I feel it is important to note the historical context in which they were working: WWII and post-war America. Much art sought to provide escape and fantasy for the audience during this time of war, as art had for much of history. However, Cunningham and Cage preferred to reinforce reality, marking a new artistic approach that set them apart. He also was more interested in his process than the actual outcome, which contributed to his work having a “lack of artifice or preordained structures in time and space,” forcing the emphasis to be on the present moment rather than on recreating a moment or experience from the past.  In this sense, he may not have been creating an escape from reality, but he was actually creating an “escape” from the past, which can be essential for moving forward and extremely liberating.

Cunningham’s start of his solo choreographic career was not easy. His most appreciative audience members were the poets and artists who were already interested in the notion of expanding the concept of their respective artistic fields, while dancers were nervous about his work, at best. I would like to add that George Balanchine had come to America in 1933, and his teaching and choreography was beginning to pick up its legendary momentum in America. Meanwhile, Cunningham’s out-of-the-box, “un-musical” ventures had virtually no resemblance to the dance that was popular at the time.

Cunningham gained recognition when, in 1947, Lincoln Kirstein invited him to create a work for the newly-formed Ballet Society. This work was The Seasons, and in this work, he perhaps unwittingly contributed forming the nuance that still defines New York City Ballet as a progressive, collaborative company (for example, City Ballet produced the likes of Christopher Wheeldon, and collaborates with couture fashion designers, artists, etc., in addition to its primary function of preserving the legacy of the Balanchine work).

In 1958, he created the piece that is considered his closest to being popular, Summerspace. Unlike almost all of his other work, it was recognized by critics, who were reminded of ballet-like patterns and sporadic use of classical steps. This also made it possible for Cunningham to revise the piece to be performed by New York  City Ballet dancers en pointe in 1966. With his newfound popular recognition, he and his dancers (and Cage) continued on to a very successful (though, under-funded) European tour. His work was, unsurprisingly, much more warmly received in Europe than it ever was in the U.S.

On a European tour, Cunningham developed his concept of the “Event” when his company was to perform in a museum venue with no curtains or crossovers. To facilitate the space, he spliced together excerpts of pieces that were more suitable to the venue, and even after the tour continued to stage “Events.” Suspense was added by the fact that the dancers were never told what would be included in an “event” until the day of a performance (which would drive me insane, personally). He continued to find success marked especially by the award of the Paris International Dance Festival; but there was a new generation of dancers emerging.

Cunningham was a man of innovation, but he felt that the “innovation” of the Judson Church movement was a step too far. He disagreed with using untrained dancers and very much valued the trained, disciplined dancer who possessed technique. Perhaps because of his value of structure and technique even in innovative work, his work has endured.  His body of work is extremely vast, though much of it does not survive to current repertory and some is even non-repeatable. His “devotion to preserving the immediacy, and thus the transitoriness, of dance is a ky to his longevity as a creator” (Siegel).  His work, if not his repertory, endured because of his willingness to embrace new and different areas of art and technology, as he began to include the aid of computers and video as they became available. Over his career, he made nearly one hundred dances, as well as films and open-space Events.

As he aged, he continued to dance, but amended the nature of his performance. For example, he choreographed a solo specifically for his arthritic body, which reminds me of the spirit with which he departed from the Graham technique because it did not suit his natural buoyancy. His legacy leaves a remaining imprint on my generation. His dances reflected the expanding cultural consciousness of the mid twentieth century. Although his work does not reflect my personal tastes, I can see many influences of his philosophies and choreography in my dance training and in the persisting trend for dance to not necessarily need to be connected with any theme or story, and greatly respect his desire to make his ideas come to life.


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