The dancers, seemingly naked in their snake-tight leotards, move eerily about the stage, now in unison, now alone, windmilling their arms, bending, twisting, freezing, leaping . . . and suddenly, shockingly, executing a classic ballet step. Merce Cunningham himself, tall, lean and supple at 65, sweeps through the group, raises an arm with consummate elegance, contemplates his outstretched hand. Behind the dancers, around them and through them, flows the odd, ascetic music of John Cage, booming, clicking, clanging, drumming, pattering. Its silences are so much a part of it that they might be created by a special silence drum, wielded by a silence virtuoso.
The dancers and the music do not interact. They coexist.
This is the art of the man who has been called the greatest dance heretic of the 20th century, a century that has seen a lot of dance heretics, beginning with the outrageous Isadora Duncan and from there to the thoughtful rebellion of Martha Graham and beyond. Cunningham's work makes all that came before him look dated. He has freed the dance from the story, from the music, from all traditional disciplines.
"Dancing for me is movement," Cunningham murmured during his visit here for a lecture and performances, the last tonight at 8 in Lisner Auditorium. "I think movement is part of life. It doesn't have to have a reason for being. It just is. Any more than the air has to have a reason. It's just there. You can have a reason for dancing, but it's not necessary. It has its own validity, its own necessity."
The words come easily, for he has been explaining his work since he formed his company in 1952, for that matter since he teamed up with Cage in the '40s. But words utterly fail to prepare you for the sight of Cunningham dancing.
As he moves, flinging his limbs into attitudes, swirling, gliding, tilting his head, darting his tongue, you are hypnotized by his complete concentration. You have to watch. The precise way his fingers fan out, just there, like that, fills the moment, dominates your attention.
Somehow, despite his age, despite the seriousness of this attempt to celebrate movement itself as dance, you see in your mind a small boy -- one of those furiously active, red-haired dynamo kids -- discovering the wonderful machine he lives in: Look! Look what I can do with my ankles! Hey, I can twist my wrist halfway around! I can lean this far back without falling! You see that? Look!
He denies it. Says he doesn't remember being hyperactive. He was the middle son of three, born in Centralia, Wash., "a hundred miles south of Seattle." His late father was a lawyer, and his brothers are lawyers too, one of them a judge, still living in Centralia. "They never left. They rarely see what I do, not that they're not interested, just that our lives have no connection that way."
They are used to it now, as are many of us. The pariah, as I.F. Stone would say, has become an institution.
"People from all over the country send my family clippings and stuff. We were in Seattle several years ago" -- the "we" is his company, of course -- "and I got lots of publicity, and they had a show in a gallery there of our sets, and it included something I had drawn. Well, it was marked 'sold,' and that was what most impressed my relatives -- that this had been sold."
He started with ballroom and tap dancing. That was what there was in Centralia.
He remembers a vaudeville teacher in his childhood. She used to perform with Indian clubs and gave a monologue while walking on her hands. Once he saw that, he never turned back.
"I wanted to be in the theater, whatever that meant, and I was in high school plays and all, the things you do, and then I got into dance and studied tap with Mrs. Barrett. A wonderful teacher. She taught different taps -- Irish clog, waltz clog -- and she made them all sound different. I can hear it still. She was so insistent that we get that sense of the difference."
Then he went to the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle. Some school -- John Cage played piano for the dance classes. Cunningham joined his percussion orchestra. In 1939 he joined the Graham troupe at Bennington College in Vermont, at the time probably the very best place in America for a visionary dancer to be.
He danced the Revivalist, a key role in Graham's seminal "Appalachian Spring," scored to music by Aaron Copland. To this day the role bears Cunningham's tall, angular mark.
Leaving Bennington in 1945, he migrated to New York, began his long collaboration with Cage and started his true career.
"With Graham I got a sense of what was possible," he said in his considering way. "I'd had little or no connection with the ballet, almost never had even seen it, maybe once in Seattle. It would have been the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo that came there, I suppose, I don't remember."
He wanted to celebrate movement itself, to retain a sense of wonder as he examined its connection with life. "So much movement is repetition, and if you get caught with that idea, then that's where you are. But if you don't think of it as repetition but as something new each time . . ."
He experimented with chance. He threw dice or the I Ching to determine the sequence of movements, the placing of props. "If you go on the premise that you start from nothing, then anything is possible," he said. "It seemed to me that there wasn't any reason why any one movement should follow another, except for the obvious physical limitations of the body, which I simply accept. That's the way we are. But if you don't have preconceived ideas, there's so much more you can do, if you don't let your mind get in the way to make decisions about the way things should go. You let the decision come from outside yourself."
Audiences walked out. They booed and stamped and whistled. One time in Cologne, West Germany, Cunningham's troupe used live sound tapes for accompaniment, playing them back from time to time. The audience booed, and the boos turned up on the tape . . . so he danced to that.
"Twenty years ago, when we first went to France, people threw things at us. But it has changed gradually, and in the last several years we've danced all over France -- tiny places, big places -- and they accepted us." Sometimes the audience would be so quiet he'd peek around the curtain to see if they were still there.
All through the '50s he stayed in touch with the general upheaval in American art, had sets and costumes designed for him by Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and others. Radical composers wrote his scores ("often we don't hear it until the first performance"), de Kooning did sets, Buckminster Fuller did props, Stan VanDerBeek the film projections and Nam June Paik the video scenery. Robert Moog handled the electronics. In 1951 Cunningham produced "Theater Piece," often called the first "happening." In one dance he rode across the stage on a bicycle carrying a potted plant.
Of his life as a heretic: "No, I never doubted my ideas. I could see them always quite clearly. Sometimes I doubted the way I was using them . . . "
He loves video, an important part of the modern technology he tries to keep abreast of. But it is hard to work with, and to find a studio with enough height and surrounding space for the lights and cameras.
"It's so different from the stage. It's a mistake when they try to transfer from stage to video, I think. It's not at all the same thing. They are radically different. If you know the piece, maybe, they work together, but people, and not particularly dance people, mostly don't look at it the same way on TV."
For his PBS "Dance America" program in 1977 he completely remade the dances to accommodate the camera. Video continues to interest him -- once for the Museum of Modern Art he taped a dance using still shots, the camera moving in to hover over an elbow here, an ankle there -- and he makes a tape every year or so.
Most of the Cunningham dancers come up through his New York school. They tend to have solid, athletic physiques, not the attenuated bodies of classic dancers found in, say, the New York City Ballet company developed by George Balanchine. "The Balanchine dancers don't have waists, just shoulders and heads and legs. Because that was what Balanchine was interested in. We do a lot with the midsection, the back and torso, so there has to be something there to do it with."
Ballet dancers do try out with Cunningham ("people have to have made some kind of decision when they come to us"), but some simply can't handle the unaccustomed unorthodox freedom to design their own movements. When he invents a new dance he usually starts by himself, working out patterns and flow, but when rehearsals begin, the dancers add their own phrasing. No two dancers, he has observed, make the same movement exactly alike. He lets it happen.
(Another dance pioneer, Agnes de Mille, choreographing her breakthrough ballet "Rodeo" in 1942, faced a different situation: Her classically trained dancers kept trying to insert traditional jete's and entrechats into her exuberantly new figures.)
He starts by thinking about a movement of the human body, "then I try to find out what it is, work with it a long time, then that can lead to another one." Sometimes he will take a familiar ballet gesture, such as Martha Graham's signature pose with a fist to the forehead, the other arm and one leg extended behind, and he will gently satirize it. But not satisfied with a simple satire, he adds a random note, quite incompatible in conventional terms: He is seen struggling to put on a sweater with four arms and no neck hole.
"It's different," he said. "It doesn't follow at all. But there it is."
Merce Cunningham will never be a mass media cultural hero. He will never be a Baryshnikov. He will never fill Madison Square Garden, or even, perhaps, the Kennedy Center. It doesn't bother him. It never has. "I never thought about audiences particularly," he said quietly. "Recently we've played in so many different places here and abroad, but in the beginning we'd just go where we thought someone might want to watch. Schools, churches, meeting halls, all kinds of places."
One time he visited his aging mother in a Centralia nursing home and showed her a print of Warhol's portrait of him. Some wallpaper was draped in front of him in the picture. His mother apparently got the impression he had produced the wallpaper himself.
"Oh!" she said, brightening. "You've finally done something useful!"