Merce Cunningham’s Septet, performed in 1964
Wayward, wizened and wise, 89-year-old American choreographer Merce Cunningham is the Zen master of modern dance. He creates choreographic mysteries and leaves us to ponder their significance.
Cunningham studied tap and ballroom dance as a child and was soon performing as a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company. During that time he met composer John Cage, who became his lifelong partner, artistic collaborator and journeyman. Cunningham founded his company in 1953, with Cage as musical director and artist Robert Rauschenberg as their first designer.
In the beginning, they were paid little heed but such was their insight and conviction that by the mid-60s they were attracting more and more followers. However, Cunningham did not cease his quest: he was a pioneer in creating dance for the camera, and in using computer software for composition. He’s always a step ahead, on a higher plane.
What is Cunningham choreography?
With its emphasis on line and shape, Cunningham’s dance style looks on the surface quite balletic but his motives and methods are completely different. For him, dance is quintessentially about people moving; it has no necessary connection with music, or with stories, or with feelings. So he doesn’t choreograph on that basis. His works may have a score, but it’s made separately from the choreography; the same can go for the set. Elements meant to work together in performance are created independently by a cohort of trusted collaborators. Composer Morton Feldman explained the process like this: “Suppose your daughter is getting married and her wedding dress won’t be ready until the morning of the wedding, but it’s by Dior.”
Cunningham is drawn to the Unknown. He loves incorporating the unforeseen into his work – most famously, by using the I Ching to decide sequences of movements. He likes the improbable in dance style too: unexpected changes of weight or direction, arms that don’t “go” with legs.
He has applied the uncertainty principle to works he’s already made, in what he calls “events”. For these performances, he splices and shuffles together existing choreography from different works in his repertory, and plays them out to a different score. It’s like recombining bits of genetic code to create something new.
How to watch
Cunningham is much more interested in effects than intentions. That’s a good credo for audiences too. Try to be very alert to what’s happening, but at the same time very open about its sense and significance.
Cunningham has collaborated with many visual artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Bruce Nauman. His composers have ranged from John Cage and Gavin Bryars to Radiohead and Sigur Ros. His pieces aren’t designed to highlight star dancers, but some dancers certainly shine in his works, including Carolyn Brown in the early years, and more recently Frédéric Gafner (who’s now, improbably, called “Foofwa d’Immobilité”).
In his own words
“The dancers are not pretending to be other than themselves … They are, rather than being someone, doing something.”
“It is hard for many people to accept that dancing has nothing in common with music other than time and the division of time.”
In other words
“Cunningham seems bent on reinventing himself until the last” – Judith Mackrell, the Guardian, 2002
“Merce Cunningham reinvented dance, and then waited for the audience” – Mikhail Baryshnikov
“The multiple focuses and overlapping space-time continua are almost homologous with the post-Einsteinian pluralist experience of modern life – no?”
“They don’t even dance on the beat.”
Trisha Brown, Karole Armitage (US)
Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies, Michael Clark (UK)
Now watch this
Watch a clip from Cunningham’s Biped
Video interview with Merce Cunningham
Where to see him next
Following the death of Merce Cunningham in 2009, the Cunningham Dance Company has now been dissolved, and his works licensed by the Merce Cunningham Trust. Check here to see current licensing.