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Merce CunninghamApril 16, 1919 - July 26, 2009


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#16 kfw

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 04:24 PM

It's great to read people's early memories of Cunningham. I first encountered his work when I ran across a documentary on a UFH television station one lazy afternoon. I remember it as the late 70's but it may have been a few years later. In 1988 I heard Cage and Cunningham speak at Harvard, Merce showing a video and talking about the challenges of putting dance on film, and Cage reading a hodgepodge of texts for one of the Norton lectures, and then answering questions the next week. I bailed out of the lecture after 45 minutes, but left the Q & A session excited about the idea of hearing noise not as a nuisance, but as sound, as inherently interesting.

Finally in 1993, at the American Dance Festival in Durham, I saw the dance company live. I found the first two pieces dry, but the last one, CRWDSPCR, clicked, and I've sought out Merce's work ever since.

PBS NewHours had a nice tribute to Merce this evening. They have an interview with David Vaughan here and the tribute should be there later.

RIP, Merce.

#17 bart

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 04:31 PM

Thank you for the link to that beautiful video, Paul. I love the way Cunningham locates and responds to the long, langerous heart of Satie's piece, ignoring the upbeats and surface notes. It's like a religious ritual: pure, serious, performed with greata concentration.

Septet strikes me as so different from most of the later work. Alexandra is reminded of Apollo. The classical purity reminded me too, as do the 3 women. Could he have been commenting here on Balanchine's ballet?

#18 Alexandra

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 07:05 PM

Robert Greskovic in the Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.co...2935454066.html

#19 LiLing

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 08:14 PM

I first encountered Merce when I took some classes he taught in Boston. I was crazy with excitement at this strange new way of dancing, as only a teenager can be. I then saw the company while attending the American Dance Festival, held at Connecticut College. It was the summer he premiered Aeon, which caused quite a scandal, because John Cage played his score at a very high volume. People near the speakers claimed they had pain in their ears, and some of the audience walked out. Louis Horst was on the composition faculty, and he disapproved of Merce's methods, as did most of the faculty. That of course make him a rather heroic figure to us, the students (it was the 60's after all). Some members of Jose Limon and Pearl Lang's companies (who were in residence) took Merce's advanced class as well as his own co. members, whom we idolized. He may have said teaching was a necessary evil, but his classes were exhilarating. Heady times indeed, and wonderful memories. Thank you dear Merce, RIP

#20 Amy Reusch

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 08:26 PM

For me, the Septet imagery was evocative of Matisse's Dance @ MoMA.... I remember as a young bunhead seeing a photo of Septet in Dance Magazine and thinking perhaps modern dance had something to it after all... (young idiot!)... how we pry the brain out of it's habits...

#21 Marga

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 10:36 PM

Trom the Times article:

No other choreographer has asked dancers to move the torso with such rigor and intensity while also keeping the lower body busy. No modern-dance choreographer has ever made more brilliant use of legs and feet.


THIS is what I remember best. His technique was damn hard to accomplish! On a very simple level, it was akin to that trick where you pat your tummy while trying to rub your head in a circular motion. I studied Cunningham for four years. It was an entirely new way to move. Viola Farber was my main teacher and she was extremely demanding, so when we got something just right it felt so good! Those classes were indeed exhilarating. I've got goosebumps remembering!

The coterie of Cunningham, Cage, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg formed a "rat pack" in the world of dance, music, and visual art that has seen its equal, in my estimation, only in Balanchine's artistic clique.

#22 Drew

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 10:43 PM

I find the news of Cunningham's death rather overwhelming. I saw his company just a handful of times-- the first with my mother at Lisner auditorium in Washington D.C. -- I am guessing in the 70's. Cunningham was still dancing and the work in which he danced seemed to thematize his isolation and difference from the other dancers (he was far older of course and moved quite differently). I was fascinated by his crabbed feet and solitary air. . . and loved the whole evening's performance which felt profoundly classical to me. Not exactly classical as in classical ballet, but simply classical -- rigorous, pure. The last time I saw his company was in 2005, an Event at the Barbican Center.

Every time I saw his works danced by his dancers I felt deep, deep pleasure and a recurrence of that initial sense I had the first time I saw them of being in the presence of classical purity and rigor offered at an extraordinary pitch of intensity. Sometimes at dance performances (hate to admit this) my mind becomes scattered and I can't focus -- with Cunningham I always felt entirely drawn in by what was before me...as well as being simply awestruck by what his dancers were able to do. For various reasons, as a dance lover, I have much, much more experience of ballet than modern dance (I'm really a balleltomane) but the two great choreographers who have always been paired in my mind as the most crucial, the "greatest" I know of, are Balanchine and...Cunningham.

#23 Helene

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Posted 28 July 2009 - 09:58 AM

Leigh Witchel in The New York Post:

http://www.nypost.co...erce_181658.htm

#24 Jack Reed

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 10:09 AM

Jennifer Homans in The New Republic:

http://www.tnr.com/b...68-680d78fb6024

Judith Mackrell in The Guardian:

http://www.guardian....unningham-dance

14 images, some striking historical ones, many recent ones, mostly of performances in the Barbican, also from The Guardian:

http://www.guardian....unningham.dance

Alongside the images are links to other items, including the Mackrell article, and a short interview:

http://www.guardian....ep/30/dance.usa

What's the greatest threat to dance today?
There is none. Here in the US, there is far more dancing than there used to be. I think it's because so many people watch television, and then one day they woke up and realised they could watch dance instead.


Not that this is the time for summing up, but the modest, matter-of-fact presentation of large concepts seems characteristic of the man and his art, for me. Always moving, Merce was always Merce.

#25 kfw

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 01:02 PM

Wow, Jack -- thanks!

Terri Gross rebroadcast her December 1985 interview with Merce today, followed by an interview with John Cage. They're online here.

#26 Jack Reed

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Posted 01 August 2009 - 11:03 AM

I'm glad you liked those pages, kfw. Here's another link, to an unsually good video of Merce's Pond Way (or maybe just part of it):

http://www.dailymoti...nd-way_creation*

At almost twenty minutes, not only is it much longer than the clips we usually get to see, it's well shot, alternating views of the whole performance space with views of a part of it, to follow a solo, at least for a time; there are no claustrophobic close-ups. And if the choice of what solo is followed seems a little random at times -- well, where else would a little randomness be appropriate than in a performance of something by Merce? (Maybe someone whose French is more secure than mine can verify whether we have Charles Atlas to include in our gratitude for being able to see this a lot like we could if we were there.) And the image is pretty clear and sharp, too. This has been up for three years, so I suppose -- I hope -- it will remain available for some time to come. (I had a little trouble with it just now, myself, though.)

Not the least value of it is that is makes vivid Homans's (and others') characterization of Merce's dances. Having discussed the role of chance or randomness in their making, she says, maybe to prevent us drawing the wrong conclusion:

[H]is dances never appeared fragmented or disordered but were instead seamless and whole, possessed of an uncanny and appealing mix of artifice and spontaneity.


Homans also mentions Merce's interest in nature. Dances like Beach Birds, clips of which are on YouTube, suggest that pretty overtly. What I didn't know is that Merce drew, and his nature interest shows there too. Here is a link to some of his drawings, including nature subjects, currently on view (extended to 7th August) at the Margarete Roeder Gallery in New York:

http://www.roedergal...ngham_main.php3

(Clicking on the small images opens larger ones.)

*The DailyMotion link hasn't started working again yet, so here are a couple of links to other sites both showing another version which omits the first ten seconds or so and lacks the image quality of the Dailymotion video, but which -- just now, at least -- do work:

http://video.google....3...d Way&hl=en

http://v.youku.com/v...g5MzQzNzY=.html

Edited by Jack Reed, 02 August 2009 - 12:28 PM.


#27 Alymer

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Posted 02 August 2009 - 03:08 PM

Just by the way; in the course of a conversation some thirty years ago I was surprised to learn that Cunningham and Fonteyn were firm friends. The surprise was not that they liked and admired each other but that they had a plan to work together. Cunningham was to make a work for Fonteyn - solo, duet, group dance, I don't know what - which would be performed for an invited audience at Jasper Johns' studio. It was Fonteyn who told me and I later checked with Merce who verified that they did have this project. Clearly it never happened, but it's fascinating to think what kind of dance he might have made on that very classical body.
Obviously he did work with ballet companies; I remember seeing one of the early performances of Un Jour ou Deux in an almost empty Palais Garnier, but it's an indication that Fonteyn was not as conservative as she is often said to have been. (I'll skip over Lucifer, as I suspect she did that purely to please Nureyev.)

#28 sandik

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Posted 02 August 2009 - 04:56 PM

My sister and I were watching the Elliot Kaplan video of Points in Space once, and I was in the kitchen getting something when Cunningham came back on the screen -- she yelled out "Merce alert, Merce alert!" to get me back into the room.

I wrote a little something for a local blog here

#29 Helene

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Posted 04 August 2009 - 07:22 AM

Apollinaire Scherr:

http://www.artsjourn...merce_gone.html

#30 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 06 August 2009 - 05:05 AM

Jed Perl, art critic for The New Republic, curates an online slideshow of American artist John Heliker's sketches and portraits of the young Merce Cunningham:

Portraits of the Artist as a Young Man / "You Must Change Your Life"

I was friends with Heliker for many years, and although he would occasionally mention the time he had spent with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, especially their weeks together in Italy and France in the summer of 1949, it was only some years after Heliker's death in 2000 that I became aware that he had drawn and painted his friend Merce. The glimpses of Cunningham that we discover here have a delicacy and a dreaminess about them; these are very much portraits of the artist as a young man. And particularly in Heliker's painting of Cunningham, with its echoes of Picasso's saltimbanques, we see the most striking illustration imaginable of Alastair Macaulay's observation, in his obituary in The New York Times, that in the early years Cunningham's "long neck and sloping shoulders reminded people of a Picasso acrobat."




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