Much has been written about Cunningham’s unorthodox and groundbreaking works, dances created independently of their musical accompaniment, and which flouted nearly every convention of theatrical arts. His pioneering choreographic methods, such as chance principles (he tossed dice to decide the order of steps and sections of a dance), and computer animation, have been chronicled by critics and historians. But in the following pages, we hear from those who knew the man and his art best: his dancers.
I interviewed six former company members whose experiences range from the 1960s to Cunningham’s final years. Here, in their words, is what Cunningham’s upheavals felt like. They take us inside the three works on the upcoming program — “Antic Meet” (1958), “Sounddance” (1975) and “Squaregame” (1976).
They recall what it was like to be in the studio and onstage with the laser-focused but often bewildering choreographer. They danced through near-riots. They witnessed collaborations with composer John Cage, the company’s musical adviser, and artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Over the years, one thing never changed: Ringside at the revolution was not an easy perch.
‘The force of this person!’
Meg Harper, Company member 1967-77
Harper, who lives in Brooklyn, taught at the Cunningham Studio and now teaches tai chi and qigong.
It was the fall of 1965, Thanksgiving weekend, and my mother took me to Chicago on a rainy night to where the Merce Cunningham Company was performing. We were a little frightened; we knew we were in for something, from the things we had heard about John Cage.
The curtain came up, and Merce was standing in the middle of the stage. He had on a yellow leotard, as bright as the sun. There was so much energy, even though he wasn’t doing much, just standing there. The force of this person!
That evening was one of the most unforgettable of my life. You know, like when you find someone you love and you can’t sleep? I was just knocked out. The dancing plus the music — I had never seen anything like it. I saw a kind of clarity and precision and virtuosity, without ego, that was totally focused on the creation of this landscape. They were dancing beyond the borders. It wasn’t just the stage space; it was like this was happening outside the proscenium, before we even saw them.
The no-ego part is a hallmark of Merce’s work. You see people focused in a way that is so precise. But the focus is not outward, about being seen, but inward, on the movement. I see this virtuosity without ego as a constant in all of his work.
I joined the company Dec. 7 of 1967. . . . We went on a bus to Buffalo, where Merce made “RainForest.” Andy Warhol had made these pillows [for the decor], and they experimented with them to get the helium right. And Warhol wanted the dancers to be naked. Well, that couldn’t happen. So then Jasper Johns took over and created skin-colored tights and leotards. Then he would take each of us individually and, with scissors, cut these wounds in them.