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fendrock

Merce Cunningham

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I watched a documentary on Merce Cunningham today, and I don't understand his appeal.

So many of his techniques seem like gimmicks to me -- the dancing is not with the music but just happens at the same time as the music -- the use of chance to generate choreography -- any "natural" movement is dance -- etc.

What am I missing?

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All I know is that when I studied Cunningham technique with Viola Farber at Adelphi University for 3 years back in the 1960s, it was as hard as Graham technique to master. And when you finally "get" it, and the movement feels right, (at least) the dancer is enjoying and appreciating and having fun with Cunningham.

As far as "any natural movement is dance" -- we had to perfect the use of natural movements and integrate them into intricate steps which were not possible to do without training. I found Cunningham to be extremely exhilirating -- both while watching his company and while performing the choreography we were taught.

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I watched a documentary on Merce Cunningham today, and I don't understand his appeal.

So many of his techniques seem like gimmicks to me -- the dancing is not with the music but just happens at the same time as the music -- the use of chance to generate choreography -- any "natural" movement is dance -- etc.

What am I missing?

Working backwards on your post:

I'm glad you are still interested, and will try to address your reactions and question. First, what you are missing is the experience of the dance in performance, by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I don't know which documentary you saw, but I do suggest you see the company when you can, and let us know what you think.

Second, these are not gimmicks. They are a philosophy. At the time Merce Cunningham and John Cage started collaborating, more than 50 years ago, their ideas were quite radical.The notion of dance and decor and music being separate means that movement is sufficient onto itself, not needing these other elements.

Next, chance does not generate the choreography. Rather, it is used at some point, or point, in the making of dances to determine discrete elements---such as how many dancers enter, for one possible example. The work is not improvised whatsoever, and it is not being determined as it is performed. Among the reasons for using chance stated by Mr Cunningham's, a desire to make choices outside his own frame of reference is primary.

Finally, I don't know exactly what was meant in the documentary about "natural" movement. Merce Cunningham is inspired by the natural world--by birds, by cats, etc.--and also has always been a keen observer of humans. However, his technique, which combines elements of the classical, specifically in the lower body, with a whole additional use of the torso, augmented in recent years by additional refinements, is complex, demanding, and requires highly trained dancers. Many of the Cunningham dancers have ballet backgrounds, some coming from ballet companies and schools, and some joining them after leaving. Merce himself taught at the School of American Ballet. His work is in the repertories of ballet companies including ABT and NYCB. His tecnnique is in the curriculum of many dance departments, and is also taught, of course, at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio, in the Westbeth Building in downtown New York City. There are also some technique videos.

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HEy Fendrock,

I had a reaction like yours at first, too. Luckily, where I live in Berkeley, California, the Cunningham company performs every year, and I got frequent chances to see them. It was with "Pictures" that I got the point. I had never seen anything that beautiful in that way, ever before in my life. I was totally, totally gone on that ballet. The next one that floored me was "Sounddance," which is performed amidst hte most thunderous noise I've ever endured, but it was like war, and they were like warriors, just staggeringly brave, defiant creatures in absolute extremis. THey keep bursting through the back curtain, which has slits in it and one moment they're hidden and the next they're there and hellzapoppin.... actually, one guy leads them all in ,and he's I think the last to leave when they all go flying back out. "Pictures' is serene, and "SOunddance" is the opposite -- but they are unbelievable great.

And in "Pictures," the lines are so beautiful, it could be "Sleeping Beauty."

Merce has a fantastic sense of line.

There's lots more to say, but that's where I'd start. if you're ever in a place where you can see old Merce videos, check out "septet" = it's set to music by Satie, and it perfectly fits it = or anything with Carolyn Brown in it. Actually, any of those will also have MERCE himself in it - -and that's worth seeing, he's so funny. But Carolyn Brown was a ballerina of the first rank -- mysterious as the sphynx. Nobody, not Fonteyn, not Farrell, not Sizova, nobody outranks Carolyn Brown.

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The documentary that I viewed was "Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance" (2000).

It is true that I have not seen Cunningham live and perhaps such an experience would leave me with a different impression. Still, I can understand the frustration of the spectator depicted in a review I looked up in Arlene Croce's book - "We came here to see dancing. When are you gonna dance?"

Perhaps it was a perspective imposed by the documentary, but it seems that at least some of Cunningham's philosophy calls into question how we define dance.

Personally, I do see dance as closely tied to musical expression. Also, I did not mean to suggest that the dance was improvised. In fact, one could say that improvised dance is still under the control of the person doing the improvisation, whereas the use of chance means the choreography is no longer fully created by the choreographer. (Cunningham himself is shown talking about how he at first found choreography using chance "impossible').

I find it difficult to appreciate how the use of chance could dependably result in something with a meaningful phrase or line.

Marga posted about she enjoyed Cunningham's technique -- is it possible that something can be a joy to dance and not easy for the audience to watch?

The end of the documentary shows Cunningham incorporating new technologies into his work. For example, he experiments with choreography software, uses sensors to generate dancing images and utilizes lasers in his set design (if you can call it that).

I found this stuff fascinating, and it occurred to me that the first radical elements he introduced (separating the music from the dance, etc.) were new and perhaps refreshing at that time in the same way the use of technology is now.

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I found this stuff fascinating, and it occurred to me that the first radical elements he introduced (separating the music from the dance, etc.) were new and perhaps refreshing at that time in the same way the use of technology is now.

I think Merce would agree with that! Paul, that guy who starts and ends Sounddance was Merce himself ( his part is now danced by Robert Swinston). The curtain/set is by Mark Lancaster...It happens that Merce was also the last person seen in Pictures. Remember the end, Merce standing there holding Trish Lent across his body?

And Fendrock, I don't quite know how, but even without music, or decor, even with chance, Merce's dances still have the clearest structures, and are still astoundingly complex. I think a way to think about them would be to think about Cezanne, and his paintings, particularly of Mont St. Victoire. That kind of art. This is absolutely my favorite topic in the world....and I don't think you get a great idea of the work from that film. It makes Merce sound kind of flaky in places, and he is anything but.

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Nanatchka, I find your comparison with Cezanne very helpful, thanks.

You've convinced me -- I will try and make an effort to see Cunningham the next time he's in Boston -- hopefully I'll be able to convince my daughter (the dancer) to attend as well!

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I saw Merce Cunningham Dance Ensemble last month in DC - they come here just about every year, but this was the first time I'd seen them (review by Sarah Kaufmann.) Nanatchka's excellent post was what motivated me to go buy the ticket. Not only that, your post really helped me to understand what I was seeing. Thank you so much, Nanatchka, you made a new friend for Merce!!

One observation and one question, if the thread is not too old by now:

(1) Nanatchka mentioned that Merce's choreography treated the lower body in a rather classical manner, the upper body less so. I saw that indeed, and my naive observation is that this is actually a *gradient* (continuity of change) from foot to head; the feet often classically positioned, the legs with semi classical extensions held for quite a long time (must be physically hard on the dancers!), and the whole attitude of the body getting gradually less classical, and more modern, as one progresses from the torso to the arms, neck, head, hands. It's the seamless integration of classical and modern in the individual body that made these dances really work for me.

(2) About the music, Nanatchka mentioned (and Merce also said during post-performance discussion) that it was composed independently of the dance (Merce quote: "The only thing we agreed on ahead of time was the length of the piece.") Yet, in all the dances I saw, there was a strong reciprocity between musical and choreographic elements; the music and movement truly seemed to "belong together," such that I can hardly imagine any dance without the specific music that accompanied it. My question is simply, how does he make this work? In theory it shouldn't be possible at all. Is it that the dancers subtly adjust to the music (they mentioned this in the post-performance discussion), or that the music, like white noise, can "take" any dance, or that the choreography can "take" any music, or perhaps just that Merce and his musical collaborators had a really good "feel" for each other's work?

Anyway, thanks again, Nanatchka, for a really thoughtful post that opened up a whole new choreographic world to me.

--Mike

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Mike, it's a pleasure to read that Merce has a new fan. You can find another review of those D.C. performances at dancviewtimes. I can't answer your question, but I heard John Cage lecture once and I came with a brand new interest in ambient sound. It's wonderful how Cunningham's choreography can turn high-volume, otherwise grating noise into beautiful music.

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Well, Mike, in the days when Merce started choreographing "independently" of the music, as Remy Charlip used to tell the story (I'd heard this a long time ago, so I'm going to have to keep it very general), it was the days when Merce was teaching class and John was playing for class, and he'd often not finish playing when the combination came to an end. SO they settled by getting out their stop-watches.

Merce and John were also living together -- "John cooks, and I do the dishes," he once told a symposium I attended at Cal -- and they may have had a pretty good idea of what the character of the piece was going to be, even if they didn't confer. SO in theory it's one thing, but.....

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I think part of the Cunningham philosophy is that even by limiting the control over the product (through chance procedures and independence of music and dance), meanings and relationships arise. You can't prevent coincidences, in art or in life. I don't think he "makes it work;" the universe just works that way, and he's been able to show us that. At least, that's how I see it.

A year or so ago, he did a piece to music by Radiohead and Sigur Ros. The first night, they played live, and as you might imagine, it was impossible to get tickets. From what I heard, the musicians "cheated," and tried to coordinate themselves with the dancers. I saw the recorded music version, and there is a moment I'll never forget: the music had been soft and sustained (atmospheric, you might say), for a while, and the dancers-- a man and a woman-- were quite still. Suddenly, there was a chime in the music, and the woman developped to the side sharply-- ding! It was so perfect, I had a hard time believing it wasn't planned. But that's just what happens.

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I don't think he "makes it work;" the universe just works that way, and he's been able to show us that.

In a nutshell.

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