Merce Cunningham – “The World’s Greatest Choreographer”

On 10th September 2002, I was wishing that I could be in two places at once. But since I am not Super Woman, I decided to skip the Proms and go to the Barbican to see the dance event of the year: to see the creative choreographer of dance, a living legend – Merce Cunningham! I was beyond excited when he came on stage at the end holding his stick and walking with difficulty due to his arthritis; it was touching. From the look on his face he was obviously overjoyed with the ovation that he received.

In earlier years, before he developed arthritis, he used to have cameo roles in his productions. He was a beautiful dancer and knew how to throw in humour at the perfect moment during his performance. But he is now 83, and though he is no longer dancing, he is still working! Ten years ago his collaborator, John Cage, passed away and Merce began creating his choreography on the computer. Dance Computers are the new way to create and present choreography before the roles are enacted by dancers. Almost virtual dancers. He was the first choreographer to use computer technology creating movement sequences on screen.

Merce is the greatest protagonist of dance of the last century and, let us say, this century as regards to modern dance. His choreography has changed the relationship of dance music and art using improvisation. He has been the leader of the American avant-garde. He was born in Centralia, Washington on 10 April 1919. He studied tap, folk, and ballroom dancing. Later he studied acting in Seattle where he met the composer John Cage. Merce collaborated with Cage and became lifelong partners, both personally and professionally.

In 1939 Merce accepted the invitation to join the Martha Graham Company and moved to New York. For six years he was Graham’s leading dancer, creating roles in many of her works. During this time he was also studying ballet at the American School of Ballet. But the highlight of his career came in 1944 when he and Cage gave their first performance at the Humphery-Weidman Studio Theatre in NY. Merce performed six solos which were all set to Cage’s music. In 1945, Merce left Graham and became an independent choreographer. In 1953 he set up his own company with dancers such as: Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Remy Charlip, and Paul Taylor. John Cage and David Tudor were the company musicians but were later joined by Lou Harrison and Morton Feldman. They made their debut in NY on 9 December 1953 in Greenwich Village. The first tour came in 1955 and the international tour on 1964. He also had artists as part of his company: Robert Rauschenberg (resident designer 1954-64), Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and Roy Liechtenstein.

This year’s tour was to celebrate Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s 50th Anniversary at the Barbican BITE. The Barbican co-commissioned a world premiere. It is a tribute to his legendary career that has spanned over seven decades. Merce commented on the anniversary, by saying, “I’m more interested in working on something new. But since we were doing all this about the 50th Anniversary, I thought we needed some more history. And we have retrieved a fair amount of the old repertoire. How do they look now? Well it’s not what I would do now, but as the wonderful woman Miss Cornish, who ran the Cornish School in Seattle used to say after seeing something, ‘Well, we need not feel ashamed’.” I thought the dancers’ technique was perfect but I personally felt no emotion from them.

This year the programme included Fluid Canvas with music by John King and Interscape with music by John Cage. The same team of dancers that performed in last year’s production of Biped also performed this year in Fluid Canvas. Both Fluid Canvas and Biped were choreographed using two computers and integrating the latest computer technology. Cunningham said, “The inspiration came from a video installation that was done of my hands in motion. At the time I was also thinking two dancers are like canvas, yet they are fluid.” The visual works are from the digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelly Eshkar, in which mammoth video projections of dancers appeared on screens in front and behind the live performers. Cunningham said, “When the music, dance and visual come together, they produce something that none of us could have thought up.” The full company of 16 dancers in dark costumes suggests a colony of birds, their arms held like wings.

In the piece Interscape (2000) the solo cello part was played by was Audrey Riley. The solo was mostly intermitted notes or short phrases in ever-scrapping tones and the stage pictures by the painter Robert Rauschenberg in colourful design. There was a big collage décor like a screen, with variegated scraps, mottled costumes adorned with playful devices such as a clock face, a penguin’s head, or a Greek Temple. The dancers looked like little toys. Cunningham’s fragmented plot less choreography had nothing to do with the music and design that happened to share its stage. This was a unique Cunningham dance experience as far as I know, for I have never seen such technically perfect dancers. The computer was making strange sounds, not actual music. Cunningham’s hands could be seen digitally controlling the computer. He said, “the shapes are so abstract you’d never know it was my hands.” He also said, “I am fascinated by the possibility of something I haven’t found yet.” You can say that again! I am still looking for the love of my life. They say the best is yet to come.


Verinha Ottoni.


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