Photo by Annie Leibovitz
An appreciation of the life and legacy of one of our greatest choreographers. [22:52]
Merce Cunningham: The dance is an art is space and time. The object of the dancer is to obliterate that. The fortunate thing in dancing is that space and time cannot be disconnected and everyone can see and understand that. A body still is taking up just as much space in time as a body moving. The result is that neither the one nor the other moving or being still is more or less important except itâs nice to see a dancer moving.
Jo Reed: That was legendary dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham from a talk he gave in 1952 called âSpace, Time and Dance.â Curious and Relentless, Cunningham pushed the boundaries of movement and in the process, influenced the way we think about dance and choreography. Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nationâs great artists to explore how art works, Iâm your host Josephine Reed.
Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia Washington in 1919 and he died in NYC in 2009. Simply put, Merce Cunningham is one of Americaâs great artists. Critics have compared his impact on modern dance with Isadora Duncanâs, Martha Grahamâs, and George Balanchineâs. Itâs no surprise he received a National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur genius grant. His work looked like no one elseâs.
Dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Streb.
ES: When I saw Merce, my whole world was exploded and shattered on a certain level. It was reptilian, subcutaneously organized in this manner in which you couldn't comprehend. Initially there were bodies doing the movement, you couldn't understand the intention. I was so steeped in emotionalism, and also in psychology, that's sort of like, what's the impetus for action, and what he was doing was simply taking the human-- the human skeleton and its muscles and manipulating it, and I didn't understand the language, but I was just totally spellbound. Because, in some way, I thought he was telling the truth, in a way that the other form did not.
Jo Reed: Dance critic and historian Suzanne Carbonneau
Suzanne Carbonneau: Cunningham was the first person that challenged modern dance as it had been inventedThere was the idea of modern dance with its beginnings early in the 20th Century, was that the inner soul of a person would be revealed through dance. It was a reaction against ballet. Cunningham came in and acted the notion that dance was going to be about something completely different, once again. So that, that didn't include those psychological narrative dramatic interests of early modern dance.
Jo Reed: Elizabeth Streb
Elizabeth Streb: The territory he scoped out, such as, you know, it's about movement, movement in and of itself. We have so far to go, we have an infinite distance to go to understand movement on earth, and I feel that's what he was doing. And I think, for me, even though you'd look at my work at Streb work, and you'd look at Cunningham work, and you wouldn't understand what the relationship, perhaps was. It has everything to do with the ground plan he laid down in terms of the questions I started to ask.
Jo Reed: Suzanne Carbonneau
Suzanne Carbonneau: The work after Cunningham took very, very different forms from Cunningham, but he had laid the groundwork for them to be able to make work about something other than what the early modern dancers had made work about, and that dance, in itself, contained everything that was necessary for articulate and deep expression without reference to other ideas and other forms.
Jo Reed: Merce Cunningham came of dance age in the 1940âs when he first went to New York City.
Suzanne Carbonneau: Cunningham would have been coming into New York at a time when modern dance was really becoming established as an American art form that people like Martha Graham, and Doris Humphrey, and Hanya Holm, and Helen Tamiris were beginning to be recognized as genuine important American artists. Modern dance was still, probably by the general public, thought of as something a little outrÃ©, but artists were beginning to take it very seriously. And Cunningham came into modern dance as a member of Martha Graham's dance company; the work that he was doing with Graham was really astonishing, and actually he-- his presence in the company changed the way that she was choreographing.
Jo Reed: From the beginning, Merce Cunningham engaged in a series of collaborations with artists across disciplines including painters, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, innovative musicians like David Tudor, Radiohead, Sonic Youth and his partner of fifty years, composer John Cage. Suzanne Carbonneau.
Suzanne Carbonneau: The partnership was both personal and professional. They met at the Cornish School, now the Cornish College of Arts in Seattle, where Cunningham was an undergraduate. And they started working together at Cornish and continued when they came to New York. That was a partnership that lasted until Cage's death in 1992. It was one of those extraordinary artistic partnerships where neither would have been who he was, as an artist, without the other, and together they really changed modern art.
Music - Totem Ancestor
Jo Reed: Weâre listening to âTotem Ancestor,â a piece composed by John Cage in 1942; heâs also playing the piano. Itâs one of the first collaborations between Cage and Merce Cunningham. One of their most controversial innovations is the independence of music and dance. The dance isnât partnered with music is performed parallel to it. Elizabeth Streb found Cunninghamâs relationship with music inspiring.
Elizabeth Streb: I kind of feel he ignored it, which I so admire, because I think music is a true enemy of dance, of course, and I think that he was not a metered dancer. He didn't count. You know, I learned early on, as a young dancer, when my teacher would say, one, two, three, two, two, three, three two, three, and I'd be like, and then they'd have all this movement you were supposed to do within that timeframe. And I knew-- I felt just deeply, intuitively that was incorrect. That was a incorrect assessment of how to move. And Merce's sense of music was, he wanted it in the room, he had a broad definition of music, certainly, vis-Ã -vis the collaborators he chose, such as John Cage, etcetera, but he did not count. He did not believe, I don't think,well perhaps he counted, but he did not believe that music and dance, that sound governed movement, it was just juxtaposed.
Jo Reed: But how is music the enemy of dance? Elizabeth Streb.
Elizabeth Streb: If you think just methodologically, the method of putting sounds together, compared to the method of putting action together, you know, oral composition is completely, completely foreign to physical composition which is causal. You couldn't possibly borrow those mechanisms of composition from that field, music to be used by dance. I think it's wrong, I think it artificializes action, I think it's just not deep enough thinking about, gee, I wonder what the iambic pentameter of action might be? What are the rhythms, the juxtapositions, the archetypal moments of time, body, space, that would be purely, almost, you know, manufacture an ah-ha moment, but for purely physical reasons. If music is playing, it's too bossy, it's, we will never arrive at our goal of understanding what the compositional techniques of movement are, if we keep using music.
Jo Reed: Merce Cunninghamâs collaborations remained unique because of his commitment to the independence of the music, the set design and the choreography. So, for example, Robert Rauschenberg designesd the sets, John Cage composed the music, Cunningham choreographed the dance, and everybody saw the work of the others for the first time at dress rehearsal. Suzanne Carbonneau.
Suzanne Carbonneau: This is one of the difficulties with Cunningham. We think of an artistic theatrical production as all the elements should be united, combining into a unified whole. The notion that we get from Wagner, all the idea coming together as a unified whole. Cunningham and Cage actually believed, again, that we could experience things simultaneouslyâthat no art form should be subordinated to another, that no artist should, no artist's vision is more important than another artist's vision, and so that in fact these artists were free to do the work that they felt they needed and wanted to do, and that they could just exist in the same space and the same time, and we could take all these-- all this in, and this goes very much to their study of Zen Buddhism which they studied as a way to develop an artistic practice with notions that were separate from these psychological states of art that had really been with us from even-- from way back to the Romantic Period, actually.
Jo Reed: Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham: A prevalent feeling among many painters that lets make the space in which anything can happen is a feeling dancers may have too. Imitating the way nature makes a space and puts lots of things in it: heavy and light, little and big, all unrelated yet each affecting all the others.
Jo Reed: In fact as time went on, the relationship between music and Cunninghamâs choreography became even freer. Suzanne Carbonneau.
Suzanne Carbonneau: I think audiences may be bewildered, although it's quite interesting, when you see the work together in the theatre, you usually don't know how that work was created. Cunningham chose his collaborators carefully. He chose collaborators that he felt an artistic connection with, and Cunningham continued to experiment throughout his life. I think it's one of the things that sets Cunningham apart from almost every other artist who, if you follow artistic lives, people tend to have an experimental period, and then they find their voice, and when they find their voice, they tend to speak in that same voice, repeat that voice through the rest of their lives. Cunningham never did that. Cunningham continued to push himself, to experiment, right up until the very, very end of his life, and when an audience thinks that they know an artist, and they go to see that artist, and that artist has changed on the audience, that presents difficulties for audiences. It means that the audience has to be willing to go for a ride with the artist over and over again. The audience can't rest on its laurels either.
Jo Reed: Executive Director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Trevor Carlson.
Trevor Carlson: And whatâs wonderful, if one gets to a place, and is able to experience Merce's work, and, in that experience, is able to sort of free their mind, free themselves from the need to have narrative or continuity or make relationships or connections, that, in point of fact, those connections exist quite beautifully and magically and there's situations where you have the option to play different types of tracks of music while you're watching some movement, because things will happen organically where there will be an upbeat in the music, and a dancer will suddenly be in the air. And that coincidence is extraordinary. And somehow that much more magical in that situation than it is when you have the upstroke of a bow on a violin, and a dancer's then left flying in the air. and it hasn't been planned or orchestrated.
Jo Reed: But this method of working does present special challenges to the dancers
Trevor Carlson: Merce's work is so very fixed, the timing, the organization, sometimes that fixed aspect allows the dancer to make choices but they're making them within a real defined framework, and so I would say, more than anything else, comparing to classical dance, for example, that Merce's works are really dependent on the dancer's understanding of what their part in this is, aside from executing movement. There's a real level of intelligence and play that goes into performing one of Merce's dances that I would say doesn't quite exist in the classical world because there are a lot of other landmarks there. The music is a perfect example, and classical movement, classical ballet one has a form of measure outside of one's own body, and that's the music, and one can use that in order to time and space the distance between one movement and the next. And in Cunningham's work, it's all dependent on the dancer's own internal rhythm and timing, and if that changes for that dancer, that throws the other things off. It's really the creation of the independence between the dance and the movement, the movement and the sound, creates a real challenge for the dancer, because they're sort of left alone in this world.
Jo Reed: However legendary Merce Cunningham might have been on the stage or in the classroom. Personally, he was generous and gracious with his time and his ideas. Elizabeth Streb
Elizabeth Streb: Merce Cunningham was a slow-mo driver. You know, he was on steady pace. He was iambic pentameter. You know, he listened to his heart, and he talked like that, he smiled like that, he was one of the kindest men of that stature I've ever met.
Jo Reed: Suzanne Carbonneau.
Suzanne Carbonneau: Cunningham was a very gentle soul, a very kind soul, I think he was a person who kept his-- who had reserve, but I had a wonderful experience with Cunningham where I had to do a public interview with him, and I was quite nervous about it. The first question I asked him at this interview was to tell me about the structures of the work we had just seen. It was at the end of a performance. And his face lit up and he burst into smile, at the idea that somebody wanted to talk to him about structures, because it's the thing he cared most about.
Jo Reed: In the latter part of Merceâs life, he depended upon and grew close to Trevor Carlson who would become the executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Trevor Carlson: I moved back to New York to work for the company at that time. That was in 1998, and started as the company manager for the company, and was really quite fortunate. In fact, I don't think Merce would agree, but I felt, and feel fortunate in that it was a time in Merce's life where he was becoming physically dependent on others in order to get from one place to the next, and being the company manager, I was on the road, and responsible for transportation, and making sure that everyone was in the right place at the right time, and quite literally, became Merce's shoulder for transport. And those periods, those many, many opportunities that we had to spend time together, in cars and backstage, and at dinners and so on, we really began to develop a close friendship.
Jo Reed: Cunningham was creative but he was also a practical man. And he thought about what would happen to the company and to his dances when he passed on. It is challenging to pass dances along from one generation to the nextâ¦.and this is particularly true in the case of Merce Cunninghamâs work because they are so dependent on the individual dancer. Trevor Carlson
Trevor Carlson : Dance is transferred for the most part, by communicating from one person to the next, and through that communication, you have this physical act, and that has been a real issue for us, because we want to do as much as we can to maintain the elements that we have to maintain, knowing in the time that we were spending with Merce, that that time was limited, and we-- I think really found that having as many resources available to pull from, would be most helpful but really the information needed to be communicated from one dancer to another, and that we just hope that we've created enough support material from our perspective to maintain that for decades to come. It's nice to have the recordings of the dances, but those who know dance well, know dance is really-- dance on camera is not equal to dance on stage by any stretch of the imagination, and to expect that it would replace it would be a real disservice to the field.
Jo Reed: Cunningham decided after his death, that the company would embark on a two year tour, offering audiences a final chance to see the choreography performed by the company Merce personally trained. Then, with generous provisions for all the company would be disbanded. Trevor Carlson
Trevor Carlson: Well, we talked a great deal with Merce about this and what he wanted to have happen. He, in 2000, created the Merce Cunningham Trust, which is a nonprofit organization as well, the same as our Foundation that supports the dance company, and he gave the trust the rights to all of his choreography and in doing so, created, frankly an opportunity to free up the work and the manner in which it's been presented and maintained, and cared for over these great number of decades, that way being really dependent on having artistic director in place, someone, the creative force behind it all. By creating the Merce Cunningham trust, he allowed the opportunity for the work to transition from being sort of lively engaged and an ongoing creative process, to being something that's being preserved and presented and used by scholars and dancers to help educate for the future. It's a type of preservation that changes the expectation that we might become a touring dance museum, and allows the work to sort of have a presence and existence without the burden created by having a dance company without a leader.
Jo Reed: Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham: For me, it seems enough that dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form, and that what is seen is what it is. And I do not believe it is possible to be too simple. What the dancer does is the most realistic of all possible things and to pretend that a man standing on a hill could be doing everything except just standing is simply divorce: divorce from life, from the sun coming up and going down, from clouds in front of the sun, from rain that comes from the clouds and sends you into the drugstore for a cup of coffee, from each thing that succeeds each thing.
Dancing is a visible action of life.
Merce Cunningham died in July 2009. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company's final legacy tour will run until December 31, 2011.
Our thanks to our contributors Elizabeth Streb, Suzanne Carbonneau, and of course, Trevor Carlson. Special thanks to Adam Kampe and the Merce Cunningham Dance Companyâs Kevin Taylor.
Excerpt from Split/Sides composed and performed by Sigur Ros
Excerpt from Split/Sides composed and performed by RadioHead
Both used courtesy of The Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Totem Ancestor written and performed by John Cage- used courtesy of Laura Kuhn and The John Cage Trust
The Arts Work Podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, a conversation with Academy Award-winner and National Medal of Arts recipient, actress Rita Moreno. To find out how art works in communities across America, keep checking the Art Works blog, or Follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
âTotem Ancestor,â composed by John Cage, Copyright Â©1960 by Henmar Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.