Dancing for me is movement in time and space. Its posibilities are bound only by our imaginations and our two legs. As far back as I can remember, I've always had an apetite for movement . . . I don't see why it has to represent something. It seems to me it is what is is . . . It's a necessity . . . It goes on. Many people do it. You don't have to have a reason to do it.
Thus spake Merce Cunningham, the Great Emancipator of dance. It took his courage and independence of mind and spirit to set dance free from slavish dependence on music, on storytelling, on character development or on emotional or psychological "content." Because Cunningham's influence has become so pervasive, and in some ways commonplace, in contemporary dance culture, it's hard for us, in 1985, to realize just how heretical his ideas seemed when he was setting out as a choreographer more than 40 years ago. For a long time, much of the public, the press and the dance establishment thought he was crazy or frivolous or both.
If there's still some die-hard resistance (and there always will be), Cunningham, still performing at 75, has made converts of the rest of us through the sheer beauty, lucidity and force of his dances. He's given us a body of work -- and is adding to it still -- that's one of the glories of 20th-century art. It's Cunningham's outlook, moreover, that has fueled and inspired not only the majority of innovations by younger choreographers, but also many that have emerged in other artistic media.
Cunningham is coming to Washington this week, and bringing his company with him -- it will be the first time the troupe has performed in downtown Washington in 14 years. Thursday evening, he'll show and talk about "Coast Zone," his most recent collaboration with filmmaker Charles Atlas, shot two years ago in the Synod House of New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Friday and Saturday, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will present "Pictures" and "Doubles" (a "Golden Commission" by the American Dance Festival), both from 1984, and an earlier repertory favorite, "Roadrunners," from 1979. The film showing and performances will be at Lisner Auditorium.
The history of modern dance in America is a sequence of rebellions, one touched off by a daring individual dissatisfied with received traditions. Isadora Duncan tossed overboard the restrictive academicism and clothing of classical ballet. Martha Graham defied the picturesque exoticism of her mentors, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn -- themselves iconclasts in their own ways -- in favor of a bold new earthy, percussive technique, a new depth of subject matter and a new concept of dance as theater. There were others, each of whom made a break with the past. If Cunningham's breach seems the most radical of all, it's because he chose to jettison not just his predecessors' dance esthetics but accepted notions of what art in general was supposed to be like. Throwing dice to determine the order of movements in a dance? The man had to be a lunatic or a prophetic genius. It's easy to see, in retrospect, that the latter was the case, but it wasn't so simple three decades ago.
Cunningham, however, never threw out the baby with the bath water (some might say that task was accomplished by some of his wilder-eyed successors). That is to say, though he greatly expanded the domain of dance, he didn't abandon it altogether. His dancers still wear dancewear, for instance -- not blue jeans or sports outfits or business suits. His dances are performed frequently, if not invariably, in proscenium theaters. They involve lighting, decor and sound. It's the nature of and relationships between these elements that Cunningham so profoundly changed.
Autonomous coexistence is his fundamental principle. Dance needn't "express" the music, or music "accompany" the dance, and the same goes for visual ingredients. Each could go its own way according to its own inner drives, and simply coincide in time and space. This presents a viewer with enormous freedom to discover links or parallels in the simultaneity, or to switch at will from one plane of focus to another, as if they were TV channels. This doesn't imply, for Cunningham, that the dance movement (or the music or the visual designs) can't be expressive of something, but only that the "something" is up to the observer to determine -- it's not dictated by the choreographer, by program notes, by a libretto or by any predetermined subservience of one collaborator or another.
By a similar token, Cunningham has eschewed the formal development of dance themes, constrained to follow some discursive, unalterable, linear course. Instead, he has cultivated the idea of a "field" of space and time, in Einstein's sense, as an operative sphere of influence. In a Cunningham dance, many different things, all of relatively equal interest and importance, may occur at different points on the stage, all at the same instant. There's another kind of freedom entailed in this multiplicity -- it heightens the sense of an unpredictable, surprising present tense in Cunningham's work. As Arlene Croce once cogently put it:
"Merce's theatre of dance seems to me unique in that it does not attempt to reproduce intended effects for an audience to take the measurement of. It doesn't ask you to relate what you are seeing to something you have seen before -- even to another performance of the same piece. It asks you to observe what is happening now. It is entirely a theatre of the moment . . . "
The quest for yet another sort of freedom -- from one's own cliche's -- lies behind Cunningham's celebrated use of chance procedures, such as dice throwing, formulas from the I Ching, or other devices that randomize choice, to determine the order, pace or duration of dance movement. No one speaks to the point more clearly than Cunningham himself:
"When I choreograph a piece by tossing pennies -- by chance, that is -- I am finding my resources in that play, which is not the product of my will, but which is an energy and a law which I, too, obey. Some people think it is inhuman and mechanistic to toss pennies in creating a dance instead of chewing the nails or beating the head against a wall or thumbing through old notebooks for ideas. But the feeling I have when I compose in this way is that I am in touch with a natural resource far greater than my own personal inventiveness could ever be, much more universally human that the particular habits of my own practice, and organically rising out of common pools of motor impulses."
The proof is in the pudding, and one has to seek no further than the dance works themselves to validate Cunningham's methodology -- works that have multiplied, endured and grown in richness and stature with each passing season. There's another measure of Cunningham's success as a revolutionary -- the number and significance of the rebels he, Cunningham, has in turn spawned upon the dance scene. Paul Taylor, Remy Charlip, Douglas Dunn, Viola Farber, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Gus Solomons Jr., Mel Wong, Charles Moulton, Karole Armitage -- this isn't a cross-section of contemporary choreographers, but merely a partial list of former members of the Cunningham troupe who have struck out on their own paths. Cunningham has not only pursued a vision ahead of his time and taught us how to catch up with him -- he's also, entirely in keeping with the original motivation for modern dance, fathered his own posterity.