Considering Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham, the great modernist dancer and choreographer, died in 2009. His company died in 2011.

Its end was Cunningham’s wish, one sanctioned by a board of trustees: after his death there was to be one final world tour—and then that would be that. And on New Year’s Eve 2011, having spent two years traveling the globe, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company did put on a final show at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City; the following April, the studio’s doors closed.

For what? The journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, who danced with Cunningham in the 1970s, called the self-imposed shuttering “a stunning act of artistic self-immolation.” But that was Cunningham’s way: the relentless pursuit of the “stunning,” the new. He told the New York Times in 1992, at age 72, “Every artist should ask, ‘What is the point of doing what you already know?’” What excited Cunningham was possibility. It makes sense that he would not want his company to molder.

Cunningham’s works lack narrative; there are no stories to his dances. But this is not what distinguishes them. Their innovation is their purposeful discontinuity. From the start, Cunningham and his longtime romantic and work partner John Cage, the composer, felt strongly that art need not be focused or arranged—that it could be cacophonous, like life, with unrelated events occurring simultaneously. There is truth in the glibness that Cunningham was loath to be bored. He said:

Dance, like any work of art, is not interesting unless it provokes you—where you say, “I never thought of that,” and have some new experience … When I see dances where I can perceive from the first five minutes what they’re going to be, my interest drops 50 percent. What’s interesting is exactly the way many disparate things are brought together. That’s the kind of world we live in, and that’s the way I work.

With rare exception, Cunningham choreographed his routines separate from Cage, who himself composed music with no knowledge of the sets that Robert Rauschenberg, say, or Jasper Johns would design. The music and set and costumes and movement were created apart and united only at performances. They accompanied but never depended on one another.

Even in his choreography, Cunningham left much to chance. He would roll dice or flip coins to determine the number of dancers and sequence of movements, even the order of pre-choreographed sections, all in an effort to escape artistic cliché. What is gained by such exertions? Here is the New Yorker critic Joan Acocella:

Vaughan quotes Cunningham to the effect that stories or even themes put the spectator in the position of someone standing on a street corner waiting for a friend who is late: you can’t see the cars or the buildings or the sky, he said, because “everything and everyone is not the person you await.” So it was, he felt, with dancing in which you expect a meaning beyond the physical facts, and he wanted to show us the physical facts, the very cell of movement.

Cunningham was fascinated by what he called the “endless” possibilities of human movement. This was central to his work.

His routines (he appeared in them all until he turned 70) were frequently physically demanding, requiring real mastery of technique. The dancers accelerate and slow down, start and stop, balance motionless in stressful positions, tip themselves precariously. Alastair Macaulay, writing in the New York Times about a performance of Cunningham’s “Split Sides,” called soloist Silas Riener a “marvel of both tautness and pliancy” who “must have done 15 successive acts that were physically astonishing and 50 that went beyond any choreographic precedent.” Macaulay continues:

Much of “Split Sides” is about maintaining equilibrium while the body is tilting one way or another: this solo takes that challenge to new virtuoso extremes, phenomenal in terms of sheer gymnastics as well as rhythm, shape, and linear complexity.

Cunningham was no purist. He had ideas and pursued them, certainly, but he wasn’t doctrinaire about it, which distinguishes him from many other revolutionary modernists. Cunningham did not crusade against narrative, for example, firing away at his forebears’ perceived shortcomings. Instead he learned from his predecessors, borrowed from them, and attempted to use their innovations in new ways.

Cunningham truly was that rare artist who creates without pretension to truth. For him, there were many truths, all worth exploring. Indeed, this expansive tendency has long made it difficult for critics, who necessarily traffic in hierarchies, to evaluate Cunningham’s work. The oft-encountered problem: how does one judge chance?

Perhaps the smartest tack is to say Cunningham gave us a new way of understanding movement and dance. He didn’t insist on his way—he merely provided it and, in so doing, widened our vistas on art and its possibilities.

His dances tend to lack a center, and so, as observers, the center in a sense becomes us. We look and listen, and we have our conceptions challenged and perceptions broadened by Cunningham’s creations.