Touring by VW bus with John Cage or Merce Cunningham at the wheel. Dancers knitting or napping on their way to performances. A pioneering troupe that was “poor, small and adamant.” These are the memories of former Cunningham dancer Steve Paxton, recalling his years with the landmark company in the early 1960s.
With the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the final days of its Legacy Tour — it will perform at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater Dec. 2-3 — I spoke with former dancers to learn firsthand about Cunningham’s artistic revolution. In last Sunday’s Arts section, six former Merce Cunningham dancers told me their stories of working with Cunningham and his collaborators. Recently, I also heard from choreographer and teacher Paxton, who was a member of Cunningham’s company from 1961 to 1964. Here, in his words, are some of his experiences, beginning with the first time he saw the Cunningham company, at the American Dance Festival in 1958:
The Cunningham Co. danced three works, if I remember rightly: “Summerspace,” “Antic Meet,” and “Nocturnes.” These works and the way they were performed stood out from the rest of the summer fare, and among the students, each loyal to whomever they studied with and aspired to dance with, arguments regarding the best of the festival were ongoing. Regarding Cunningham, most couldn’t accept choreography by chance. And the aerial, balletic style of the company caused frowns. I think they were right to question these elements, which brought into question basic tenets of the direction of Modern Dance. Yet each of the works shown by Cunningham was a coup de theatre, a proposition outside the norm and entirely successful in its own terms.
“Antic Meet” is a series of dance-comedy sketches. It begins absurdly as the curtain opens on a stage which remains empty for thirty seconds, enough time for the audience to become restive. Then Remy [Charlip] burst on stage, and from then the action never stopped. “Antic Meet,” too, was designed by [Robert] Rauschenberg, who invented his way through the sections producing visual humor and poetry. I have seen only a few genuinely funny dances in all these years, dances in which the audience laughs out loud. As with “Summerspace,” there seemed to be a high, playful intelligence behind it.
“Nocturnes” was entirely poetic. Set to Satie, it also had a ruched satin column up stage with a scrim beside it leading into the wing. A special and mysterious space (again, by Rauschenberg). The lighting was cool as moonlight, and Merce wore a face half white and half blue. Perhaps a moon image. And again, the beauty of the experience argued against my fellow students’ problems with the method of construction.
Merce also performed a solo, “Changeling.” This work took me years to assimilate. Spooky and intimidating.
After seeing Cunningham at the festival, I moved to NYC, got a job, and wrestled with myself about the philosophy behind the Cunningham work. One obvious problem was the proficiency of the company. Should work by chance look so technically assured, so clean and elevated? . . . I began to take classes at his studio.
Later that year Remy resigned, and I was invited into the smaller company. This meant touring around the U.S. in a Volkswagen bus, which, I was informed, it was my duty to pack. And unpack. And distribute and later collect all the items packed. There were the spaces under the seats, a compartment in the back, and a roof rack to transport nine persons’ personal luggage, the equipment of John Cage and David Tudor for various musical adventures, and the sets and costumes for the tour. The bus was heavy laden, and it never let us down, including at least two tours the the West Coast.
John or Merce drove, and John liked to play Scrabble when off-duty. The rest of us conversed and Viola [Farber] knitted. It was rather like a family around the hearth. Long silence, naps, breaks to stretch and walk about, and usually some amazing treat produced by John, a huge salad perhaps, or once Rogue River pears at perfect ripeness with pear liquor to accompany. David was quiet, Marilyn Wood chatty, Carolyn [Brown] and Viola made comment, Merce sometimes spoke, John and Bob laughed a lot, and both were great story-tellers. I remember the actual driving fondly.
I don’t remember there being anxiety about the company’s continuity. On the contrary. There were just enough grants to give Cunningham a studio and a little money; friends enough, especially among the painters of the day, to find artistic support or, as when Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns sponsored the Company at the Phoenix Theater downtown, even financial support. There were faithful dancers. Beautiful, brilliant faithful dancers.
It was obvious that Cunningham was a sort of underdog; the dance critic of the New York Times tried to ignore him to death for more than a decade, for instance. Pauline Koner, the perpetual guest artist of the Jose Limon Company, opined that Merce and John should be spanked, and the Limon and Graham students at their kindest would finally ask, ‘But is it dance?’
And the work sometimes caused riots in the audience. But the audience, the dance culture of New York City and the rest of the world just had to adjust. Cunningham and Cage were not going to cede a second of their artistic integrity, so it is perhaps more accurate to say that the company didn’t seem fragile. It was poor, small and adamant.