Merce Cunningham, as remembered by his dancers

Talk about a radical departure. What we will see when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs at the Kennedy Center on Friday and Saturday will never exist again. The troupe is in the final stretch of its international Legacy Tour, launched after the choreographer died in 2009. After its final performance in New York on Dec. 31, the entity founded in 1953 will disband.

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.

Jasper was a profound person to be near. There was the intensity with which he was working when he was cutting my costume, for instance. For a piece called “Canfield,” we went to his loft on Houston Street, and he sprayed us with this special paint that would pick up the light. He was so quiet and so focused — except for the Bob Dylan music he was playing, “Lay Lady Lay.” It had just been released. We listened to that all day! I adore Jasper, but I don’t think we’ve exchanged two words.

People would yell and scream and throw things on the stage, or leave in droves. Or no one would show up except four nuns. That happened one time in Rochester — and they stayed! The nuns stayed. The grounding of the aesthetic was so spiritual. There is no “most important” person. There is no most important place onstage. There is no climax, no cause and effect. It’s about seeing each thing for its own value.

‘Europe was very vocal’

Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Company member 1968-76

Hayman-Chaffey teaches her own system of exercises in Los Angeles.

Once we were performing in the south of France, at the Fondation Maeght, just above Cannes, and we were dancing in this inflatable balloon thing. It was an architect’s experiment, like a bubble, that was kept aloft with air. The stage and the audience were inside it. It magnified the cold at night, and the first night we performed, it was just horrific. We were doing “Signals,” and I start out in a chair. And I was sitting in my chair feeling my muscles cramp up and wondering how the hell I was going to do my solo. I’ve never had every muscle in my body cramp up like that.

During the performance, some young kids jumped up onstage, during the group section, and I remember one of the dancers, Mel Wong, going after them and throwing them off. And we just kept going. They were on the stage, I think, in protest. Merce’s music has always had different effects on the audience. I don’t think there was ever 100 percent audience satisfaction with the music. And it was particularly shrill that night. [The music was by avant-gardists David Tudor, John Cage and Gordon Mumma.] There were four or five young men, and Mel stepped out of his role and wrestled them off. Merce kept going as if nothing was going on.

Europe was very vocal, always. One time in Paris, at the Theatre de la Ville, there was a “for it” faction and an “against it.” And they were both going hell-for-leather at the end of the performance, the booing on one end and the clapping at the other. That made it more exciting for us. It’s a reaction, which is much better than no reaction. It’s a strong emotion, and that means that we did well. But Merce never expressed very much of anything. He was never one to vocally express his satisfaction or dissatisfaction with anything. He was very much about getting on with the work.

I remember when Merce was creating “Torse,” which was a very hard piece, very complicated, lots of steps, very fast. When he started teaching the steps in class, that was the only time almost all of us broke down crying afterward. We asked John [Cage] to ask Merce if he could please make it easier. John said: “Look, what are you complaining about? You have that beautiful view outside; just look out the window when you feel like crying.” John’s view was, whatever Merce wanted, he should get, and we should all get on with it. John was like everyone’s father, in a way.

‘This quiet world’

Douglas Dunn, Company member 1969-73

Dunn, a choreographer, runs Douglas Dunn & Dancers and lives in New York.

When I met Merce, he was in his early 50s and still dancing very beautifully, going in to the air, demonstrating everything in class. He loved to dance and just did it all day.

His primary experience was physical, not social. That was extremely appealing to me, to go into this quiet world of movement elaboration. I saw it as overcoming the high intellectual, verbal prejudice of Western culture and diving into this mute place. He offered a new world within which I didn’t have to deal with that social aspect.

In the book “Changes: Notes on Choreography” [interviews with Cunningham, edited by Frances Starr], there is a letter Merce wrote to Bob Rauschenberg about “Antic Meet.” He says, “Bob, I just finished reading all of Dostoevski and now I’m ready to work on the piece.” When I read that, I threw the book down. The idea that Merce had read Dostoevski really made me angry. . . . I was sick of too much intellectual life. . . . But there is that passionate craziness of Dostoevski, and something of terror in him. And we might think of Merce as this extreme formality, but if you got to see him when he was young enough, you saw this passion. There was the calmness of classicism, but also this tremendous passion pushing against it.

”Antic Meet” is a lot of fun. The chair [Cunningham danced with one tied to his back] was very enigmatic; that was Rauschenberg’s choice, not his. The sweater with many arms, that Merce knit, everyone agreed that was a takeoff on Martha Graham’s “Lamentation,” that piece where she’s inside a big length of stretchy fabric. Parts of it are like something you’d see in vaudeville. It’s a piece that people agree was a comment on Martha.

Merce and John [Cage] came from that era. They were still countering drama and melodrama. That’s why their work never feels flat. There was so much vitality feeding this choice to be less dramatic.

The first time I saw “Sounddance” was at a showing in the studio, and my reaction was: Merce, you’re gonna kill yourself. He was on the stage the whole time, very active. He was getting older, and I feel like he was testing himself. He was really pushing it. That’s a good example of that passion.

‘Part of the experiment’

Neil Greenberg, Company member 1980-86

Greenberg, who lives in New York, is a professor of choreography at the New School for Liberal Arts .

Merce was in his 60s [when Greenberg joined the company], but he was still performing. He danced in every performance I was in. Always. In “Squaregame” there is a section where Merce was thrown around by two men, and I was one of those men. He lies on our arms, on his belly, and we toss him in the air and he ends up on his side, and we toss him again and he ends up on his back. He was an older man, and he was grunting while we were tossing him. I think it was a bit much, and I was fearful of hurting this guy. I was only 20. But nothing was ever said about it.

I loved doing “Squaregame.” There was something free about it, like he created it with a loose hand. It also had a beautiful duet.

Here was a gay man, and yet he made so many male-female duets. I think it was a tradition he was schooled in, and therefore he had a take on it. He became skilled at disrupting it in different ways. It really took off when he started working with Carolyn Brown [Cunningham’s dance partner from 1953-72], and they were a great team. But some people think he broke his contract with chance mechanisms by continuing with male-female duets. If things are being grouped by chance, you wouldn’t come up with so many male-female duets. Meanwhile, he was subverting and revolutionizing so many other aspects of what was possible with dance. . . . But maybe it was a good move, to give the audience something that was recognizable.

I think he was a little uncomfortable sometimes socially. [His choreographic methods] were methods that didn’t require a lot of communication with the dancers. That’s a part of the experiment. All you’re giving the dancers are what he thought of as the facts about the dancing, what the movement is, the spacing, the timing. Then it’s up to the dancer to put themselves into it, and the intersection of those things is what you end up with onstage.

It left a lot of room to imagine what he thought of us, since he never told us what he thought of us.

I rehearsed my departure speech to Merce over the years in bathtubs around the world. At my going-away party, Merce came up to me and said, “Neil, I just wanted to tell you that it’s been really beautiful” — and my heart just leapt in my chest, and he said — “to watch you teach your parts to David.” David was the guy who was replacing me. Later I spoke to another dancer about it and I was like, “Can you believe that?”

And she said: “But, Neil, he said the word ‘beautiful’! He was telling you you’re beautiful.” So that’s how I choose to see it. It was so uncharacteristic, but he somehow worked the word “beautiful” in there.

‘Dancers onstage thinking’

Patricia Lent, Company member 1984-93

Lent lives in New York and is the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s director of repertory licensing.

Merce was impatient with things that were medium, or comfortable. He liked fast or slow. He pushed us. If we accomplished it, he would complicate it, change the spacing, the speed, the arms. I have a firm belief, though he never said this, that he thought it was interesting to have the dancers onstage thinking. He wanted us out there having to concentrate. I think he enjoyed that energy.

In “Roaratorio,” which is an hour long, there are sections that are brainteasers beyond all measures of belief. They were like memorizing a telephone number with 73 digits. To remember what to do next, and what direction you face and whether your leg goes front, side or back, is mind-boggling. You had to rehearse it a thousand times. It’s just this side of unlearnable.

I see it now and want to laugh. They’re out there drowning in this phrase! Some dancers didn’t like it. They’d say: “Why does it have to be so complicated? Why are there seven different variations of this phrase — why not just have the same phrase seven times in a row? What difference does it make?” I think the difference is, you have to be out there remembering. And if you screw up, you have to find your way back in.

Sometimes you can see the dancers do that, and I find it extremely heartwarming. If you watch Merce’s dancers, you’ll see them looking at one another, catching one another’s eye. And it’s to get themselves back on track if they’ve gone off, or to connect their phrase with someone else’s, or to check out the spacing.

Those little moments when they catch each other’s eyes are the most beautiful things out there. They’re making the system work.

‘Like a jigsaw puzzle’

Jonah Bokaer, Company member 2000-07

Bokaer is an independent choreographer and media artist and lives in Brooklyn.

When I was in the company, Merce’s work was primarily created through the use of animation, on a computer program called DanceForms. Merce made the movement material digitally on the screen. . . . I think largely he turned to this because of his own physical limitations. A parallel is toward the end of Henry Matisse’s life he found a way to use other tools — the cutouts — to extend his abilities. When I joined the company, Merce was still walking, mobile, teaching classes. Then he was wheelchair-bound. . . . By the end of my time there, he was sitting down and teaching.

After I learned various forms of animation, Merce invited me into his home, and I was able to help him enter his compositions onto the computer screen. He had a very tranquil loft on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in Chelsea. He always had a number of plants and flora around him in the studio and at home. And gorgeous works of visual art on the wall, by John Cage and Jasper Johns, and also Terry Winters. There was beautiful natural light. And his two cats were a huge part of his life.

He and I sat at his desk, and he did his customary procedures of rolling dice. My sense is he started with an idea — a solo, or a duet. He had parameters and was working inside them. It was then a very anatomical process: Is the leg bent or straight, is the arm up or down? Action by action he was determining by chance. At times it was rather painstaking.

Angles and degrees of rotation were heightened and multiplied. The arms were being called to make bends and angles that they weren’t asked to make in the ’80s and ’90s. It pushed his vocabulary. . . . The legs would be doing one rhythm. The arms would have a different rhythmic design. And then the head movement. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. He would teach the legs first, then the torso, then arms, then head. And you know what the impact was? Working in that way made the earlier repertoire easier. It gave us more agility and power to do the older works.

In 2006, composer Mikel Rouse proposed doing a collaboration for the iPod Shuffle, which became “eyeSpace.” [This was a dance in which audience members could listen to the music on iPods, and shuffle the selections at will.] There were very, very clear marketing initiatives involved. But efforts like that only expanded Merce’s notions of chance.

Merce’s appetite for innovation really led the way. But I would also say I don’t think he ever had an iPod in his life.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

brings its farewell tour to the Eisenhower Theater for performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The Kennedy Center, 2700 F. St. NW. www.kennedy-center.org. 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.

 
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