This seems to be Merce Cunningham's year. First the great iconoclastic modern dance choreographer learned that he had received one of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" awards. Weeks later, he was named one of five Kennedy Center Honorees.
And it's about time. Since 1942, when he fashioned his first dance, Cunningham has taught a great many souls how to look at and listen to art in radical, open-minded ways. His dances -- meticulously wrought and infused with colors, shapes, speed, stillness, rhythms and encounters -- do not purport to be about any one thing, leaving the spectator free to interpret them any way he sees fit. The dancers in these works do not play roles, but rather themselves: amazingly agile creatures with an almost animal-like sense of movement and stasis.
Like most great artists, Cunningham does not rest on his laurels. Now that his revolutionary methods of composition and performance are being used the world over, he has reached out to embrace the intricacies of film and video. His company has expanded and continues to thrive. And at 66, the choreographer continues to dance, a curly-haired sage moving quirkily amongst his disciples.
Despite this incessant flow of activity, Cunningham found some time over the past eight or so years to sit down and talk with French writer Jacqueline Lesschaeve about his development as a dancer and creator of dances, his collaborations with a host of artists and composers, and his philosophy on how movement relates to all aspects of daily existence. The result, "The Dancer and the Dance," is an interesting, though not compelling, series of question-and-answer sessions that provide scant original material for the Cunningham enthusiast, and insufficient background and banter for the general reader.
The main problem is Cunningham himself. A notoriously elusive interview subject, he is not the sort to gush, gossip or reveal intimate details about his personal life. Though he responds to each of Lesschaeve's queries and comments directly and in depth, he maintains a very definitive reserve. Just as he composes his dances by means of chance procedures, charts and a stopwatch, so does he reflect on his work in the most careful and reasoned terms. It is in the accompanying photographs and choreographic sketches that we see him at his most animated.
There are moments, however, when Cunningham loosens the verbal reins a bit. He paints a wonderful portrait of his first dancing instructor, Maud Barrett of Centralia, Wash. (" . . . she came on stage dressed in a yellow gown with white pantaloons and little black patent leather shoes, swinging Indian clubs. I'd never seen anyone do that, and she was also talking to the audience because they were all her friends; that was quite a sight"). He has many witty observations about his collaborations with the painter Robert Rauschenberg. And at one point, after Lesschaeve has remarked that certain people find it astonishing to see a man of his age dancing, Cunningham offers this eloquent statement: "I dance because it gives me great pleasure. Not only because of the questions that are raised through dancing, but because of dancing itself . . . I don't see why cliche's or conventional ideas should interfere with the explorations that I can still make. Those people who are shocked think of dancing in a very limited way. I think of dance as a constant transformation of life itself."