Merce Cunningham, movement magician, has taught many people how to look and listen to both art and life in fresh and non-judgmental ways. His dances offer us myriad riches -- colors, shapes, patterns, sounds, stillness, activity -- without the burden of "meaning." His dancers do not play roles; they play themselves. In a Cunningham work, music and movement and decor exist independently, yet together. And any space -- gallery, gymnasium, studio, proscenium, stage -- will do. Freedom and intelligence ooze from every component of this man's artistic oeuvre.
For the past three days, Washington has been awash in Cunningham's artistry. The Smithsonian's American Dance Experience series, a trailblazer in all that is inventive and relevant, presented a mind-boggling collection of lectures, films and videotapes that afforded a look at this great artist's past and present work, and even suggested the shape of things to come. Those devoted Merceophiles who attended all 11 or so hours of screenings and discussions at George Washington University, Carmichael Auditorium and Baird Auditorium received a compressed, but thorough, education on Cunningham's roots, influences, theories, collaborations, teaching methods, work habits, experiments with dance, video and film and much more.
David Vaughn, the noted critic, performer, teacher and Cunningham archivist, presented a verbal and cinematic journey through the choreographer's repertory. He told of Merce's early training in ballroom and tap, his stint in Martha Graham's company, his introduction to John Cage and to that man's notions of chance composition, his development of the renowned "Cunningham technique" (derived from yoga, the curved back of the Graham technique, the turned-out, extended legs of the classical ballet and the freeing of the spine and upper torso) and his establishment of the early-'50s Cunningham company that stood the dance world on its ear. Vaughn's droll and learned commentary was accompanied by some of the most outrageous screen images imaginable. In a film made in 1964, then company stage manager Robert Rauschenberg constructed the set for a dance called "Story" from whatever he scrounged up backstage before each performance. Two years later, during "Variations V," Merce rode a bicycle around a collection of dancers and plants sending electronic messages to the musicians in the pit through elaborate wires wrapped around assorted limbs and leaves. The '60s films captured a company of totally different, totally passionate performers -- beautifully awkward Viola Farber, Sandra Neels of the endless legs, powerful Gus Solomons Jr., the incomparably elegant Carolyn Brown, and, of course, Merce, the satyr-like master of them all.
The flesh-and-blood, 1981 Cunningham appeared last night to speak about his recent exploration of the camera. In a charming, rather impish manner, he chronicled his attempts to learn about the highly technical worlds of video and film. "Dance and video are two babies yet crawling," he declared. Despite his relative inexperience in the cinematic field, Cunningham, under the tutelage of film and video artist Charles Atlas, has already broken new ground. "Locale," his most recently-completed dance film, sets up a lush, fluid duet between camera and dancers. Dressed in gorgeous leotards of slate gray, deep blue, chartreuse and rose, the 1979 Cunningham company swims in and out of the camera's eye, groups and regroups like small herds of deer, and spells out yet another triumph for an ever-advancing genius.