MERCE CUNNINGHAM, APRIL 16, 1919 - JULY 26, 2009


The sky crackled with lightning that night, the air rattled with thunder, and Merce Cunningham joined with the elements so natural to him: the earth, the sky, the water, and the air. 

Those birds he drew! They could fly as he once could and as, until his last two weeks, he set his dancers to doing. He told me near the end of his life that choreography had become, for him, "a habit of mind." Even as movement was taken from him, his dancers gave it back. So direct, their process with Merce: thought into movement, with nothing intermediary.

In his last months, he was tired; but he was game. He never stopped laughing, at himself as much as anyone or anything. To the end he was  gallant and courteous with visitors, and clear. Always clear, like those green eyes that could look as blue as the sky on a cloudless day.  I asked him this:

"Merce, how is it that without music, without narrative, and with your using chance procedures to remove yourself, to keep from imposing your personality on the movement, that your dances are so passionate?"

"Because, he said, I love dancing!"

portrait of Merce Cunningham courtesy of Hugo Glendinning  ©copyright Hugo Glendinning
Quotations from an interview by Nancy Dalva  ©copyright Nancy Dalva 2010, 2013. 2014





This marvelous footage is among my favorite dance films--it speaks to clarity, nuance, phrasing, intention, pacing, detail, the innate authority of the choreographer and his first cast, to grandeur and softness, to romance and what it takes to achieve it. Applicable to any dancer and--in my dream--to any choregrapher. Those familiar with Balanchine and Cunningham will lean forward saying to yourselves, "Yes, and yes." Douglas Dunn is right. Dancing is dancing. Here, cigarette in hand, is the loose-limbed, Bloomsburyish Sir Frederick Ashton. His eyes can hear, and his ears can see.



Appearing this month
June 18-19, 2015
          at the
International Festival of Arts and Ideas
Shubert Theater
New Haven, Connecticut

 originally published in

Happy we!
What joys I feel
What charms I see.

The auditorium lights dim halfway. The band strikes up (the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, under Nicholas McGegan). Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” zings into the house, filled with Mostly Mozart Festival and Mark Morris regulars. The urge to boogie in your seat is fierce. Then, action! The stage fills with dancing. And right away, when the music is sweeping you up in an unconfined surge of joy, the choreographer sends out a nod to his previous great Handel work, and to those who love it: “L’Allegro, Il Penserso, ed Il Moderato,” which you can hear underneath the overture (an echo of “Then Let Hymen Oft Appear,” a tenor aria from the second act). We’re in familiar and beloved territory.

Mark Morris Dance Group. Credit: Ken Friedman.

In the Morris version, “L’Allegro” ends with a surge of dancing. Wave after wave of dancers—duets, trios, quartets—run in from upstage and frolic towards us, only to exit and return again. All of the movement save the fast exits is from upstage to down. Here, in “Acis and Galatea,” Morris begins with similar bubbling waves of dancers, but in diagonals traversing every way but towards us. Then he gives us our “L’Allegro” moment: a quartet joyously advances and then drops to the floor and rolls sideways, with one dancer still neatly upright and sidestepping over the others. The audience laughs—as they will throughout the dance—which has some choice visual pranks, often engaged with the libretto’s text or subtext. Here, there’s a joke and an in-joke.

But this is not “L’Allegro,” and it isn’t Handel. It is not a dance. It is a two-act opera, and a Mozart rearrangement of the original Handel. Besides its clear connection to the Mostly Mozart Festival, this version of the music is fuller yet lighter, racier, less stately, and more dance-y. This score moves us forward in the Morris canon.


PARIS, 1970 

photo: James Klosty

with thanks to the photographer for this beautiful and evocative image




PARIS circa 1900

Did Marcel Duchamp see this aircraft or one like it?

photo: Oscar Bailey

photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Before its accidental shattering and subsequent reconstruction:

photo of Carolyn Brown: James Klosty

photo: James Klosty


(Marcel Duchamp was then 21 years old)



"Chance is the dogma, but look deeper."

                                      Carolyn Brown

"If the dancer dances, everything is there. The meaning is there if that's what you want."

                                       Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham with composer Gordon Mumma in St. Paul de Vence, 1966            

STARTING more than  seventy years ago, Merce Cunningham began to change the way people dance and the people see dancing in the same way that Picasso and the cubists changed the way people painted and the way people see painting.

He took dance apart and put it back together again, leaving out all but the most essential. He stripped dance of conventional narrative; he ordered it by chance procedures he conceived it without music and without decor. He took it out of the proscenium (but later put it back) and exploded the stage picture into fragments. He made the viewer the auteur. The great irony inherent in all this is that only a great storyteller possessed of extraordinary musicality could have stripped away so much and be left with more. Cunningham was able to separate dance from its traditional trappings not because dance does not need them, but because dance--at least in his hands--already had them.

There has been a lot said and written about Merce Cunningham and John Cage and their working method--most of it said by neither of them. But of all of the odd things people have thought about Cunningham's dances over the years, the oddest--including the notion that the dances are in part or whole improvisational (which of course they are not)--have arisen from his use of chance, the most confusing element of the Cage-Cunningham dogma. To some, its use seems flaky. To others, it implies a certain haphazardness, the evidence of the dances themselves notwithstanding.

Cunningham used chance, in some form, at some point (but not necessarily the same point) or points in the making of every dance. While the habit may have originally been inspired by Cage and Marcel Duchamp--friend to both Cage and Cunningham, and Cage's chess partner--two reasons (other than a playful disposition)  for its continuance suggest themselves. First, that Cunningham either did not like to make or at times could not easily make choices, though that is speculation; second, that Cunningham was intentionally--if at times quite minimally--depersonalizing his work in order to open it out to the individual viewer. In retrospect, one can see the choreography getting himself out of his own way, to allow for possibilities he had not encountered before, and to keep himself interested and challenged, with ever new puzzles to solve. Still, his work indelibly bears his signature, and conveys his cast of mind, and temperament.

#Throwback Thursday: Boris Eifman's "Anna Karenina"


Throw Tolstoy From the Train

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
“Anna Karenina”
New York City Center
May 26, 2005

All good ballets are alike. Each bad ballet is bad in its own way. Or ways. For instance, the ballet Boris Eifman calls “Anna Karenina” is vulgar, meretricious, rapacious, and lewd, a low-brow spectacle cloaked in high brow pretensions. Rather than reminding the viewer of Tolstoy, the author of a novel of the same title, or even of Freud, with whom Eifman seems to confuse him (he notes, in the program, Anna’s “psychoerotic essence"), the work is reminiscent of the MacMillan of “Manon” (though that louche ballet is a paragon of delicacy next to this one) tempered with the subtle elegance of the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s genteel pageantry.

I admit I was vexed with the choreographer going into this, for I have not forgiven him for his portrayal of Tanaquil LeClerq in his ballet about—or I should say, “about”—George Balanchine, made for the New York City ballet for the Balanchine centenary. But I resolved to emulate the open mindedness of Tolstoy’s concert-going Levin.

He, you will recall, is actually a character in the novel, although not in the ballet, where neither he nor his wife Kitty appears (sparing us a childbirth scene). There are, however, some characters in the ballet I could not quite place—for instance, two corps of leather queens and leather goons for whom I searched the novel’s pages in vain upon returning home after the performance. But there, in Part Seven, Chapter V (which would be p. 684 of the recent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, in the Penguin Classics edition), Levin attends a matinee. “Both pieces were new and in the new spirit,” Tolstoy writes, “and Levin wanted to form his own opinion of them....[he] resolved to listen as closely and conscientiously as possible. He tried not to get distracted and spoil his impression....” Me, too, and it wasn’t easy.

Eifman chooses to set the opening scene of his ballet to the same music Balanchine chose for “Serenade,” the first ballet he made in America, and well enough known to me that I could run it in my mind while watching the Eifman—or to be more precise, I couldn’t not run it. At the opening, a little boy is playing with a train. (The whole thing takes place, basically, in a set that is variations on a train station. A ballroom that sees frequent service is an inversion of it, and the whole thing reeks of foretelling and doom and sexual imagery unknown to readers of the novel, who actually do not know in advance that Anna is going to kill herself, as neither does she.) A beautiful woman in a gorgeous velvet cocoon coat parts her legs and opens her arms, and drops the coat at the exact moment the girls in “Serenade” snap out of parallel position.

I doubt this is a coincidence. Eifman is smart, and Eifman is talented. He is also an extrovert, without any seeming self-knowledge, or indeed a sense of humor. (He is not, for instance, self-knowing in the way Liberace was, though certainly given to flash.) It probably hasn’t occurred to him that but for politeness, one could fall out one’s seat laughing at some of his excesses, like the sex scene where Anna engages erotically with her bedframe, or the one where she drinks a potion like Alice in Wonderland and has a bizarre hallucination in which, seemingly naked (nude unitard, and, let’s not forget, toe shoes),she dances a section of something not unlike Jerome Robbins’s “The Cage,” if Robbins had included a chorus of the damned (also naked). After this, she gets carried off stage, stiff as a board.


"It's obvious he's trying to tell us something. But what?"


                          --from the French cartoonist Voutch

#ThrowbackThursday: Cédric Andrieux's Visual Autobiography (conceived and directed by Jérȏme Bel)


Il est Cédric Andrieux


Cédric Andrieux joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1999 ( after first dancing with  Jennifer Muller). He left in July,  2007 to join the Lyon Opera Ballet. 

On June 20th of that year, on the most beautiful late spring day, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was on a bus returning  to the city after the outdoor dress rehearsal for a Cunningham Event at Philip Johnson's Glass House in Connecticut.

The long day had been a true fête champêtre, with the dancers sunning on a hill after lunch, and then resuming the long pair of stages connected by a walkway, with the woodland opening behind them like a day dream. On stage, they seemed to have come out of the forest. Just as, In Cunningham's Ocean, they seemed to come out of the sea. 
Cedric Ocean
Cedric Andrieux and Andrea Weber

 IN EITHER ELEMENT, Andrieux could take dominion. He could be Poseidon, he could be Orlando in the Forest of Arden. Just in doing the steps and making them as big as they could be, he could summon up a world. This is the Cunningham magic, and Andrieux was an adept.  
  "I've been in New York for 10 years," he said at the time, "dancing Merce's work for nine years. I didn't think there's anyone else in this city who could bring me to as may levels as Merce did. But I want to dance different characters--which is why I chose Lyon. Because what I need in my career is diversity.""I'm glad to be going back."
"It comes with a sense of apprehension a little bit, because I haven't lived my adult life there. It is mostly a lifestyle choice. I feel at a place where I've done the pieces I wanted to do, and I've done them enough."

 "I leave with no regrets, and I feel very fortunate about the experiences I've had in this company. I feel very at peace, and that's great. I feel very lucky that I got to dance for Merce Cunningham. On top of the experience, he opened so many doors for me. " Andrieux was looking forward to dancing a wide repertory in Lyon, including works by Trisha Brown, Maguey Marin, William Forsythe, and Jérôme Bel. He was moving into an old apartment building with a balcony, a five minute walk from the opera house, and an eight minute walk from "an amazing outdoor market.

Later that spring, Merce Cunningham --named by the French first a Chevalier and then an Officier of the the Légion d'Honneur--would say, "From childhood I always wanted to see France. Not just Paris but the North, South, East, and West of France." And there Andrieux would return.
Derry Swan and Cédric Andrieux


One of his favorite roles was Merce's own in "Suite for Five." He performed a section of it--as if quoting his own earlier performance-- in this "visual autobiography" conceived and directed by Bel, telling the story of his dancing life from his first training in France though his last three years in Lyon.

This was the fifth in a series of pieces Bel describes as "questioning the experience and the knowledge of performers." (The first, about a member of the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera, was shown here in its film version at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.)

The winter after Cunningham's death, on a memorial program at the Théâtre de la Ville, Andrieux performed the Cunningham section of his piece.
 Standing alone on the unadorned stage in his practice clothes, Andrieux spoke quietly into a microphone fastened somewhere on his shirt. [There he spoke French; performing in the United States, he spoke in his very New Yorkais English.

'Je m'appelle Cédric Andrieux, " he began.

He was still, modest, plain, and in fact the exact opposite  to what he had been with Cunningham: a master of projection. 

His intensity, his gaze, his ability to appear large in any context--these were some of his qualities dancing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  He was focused, he was ardent, he was there
And he was completely, compellingly present in this piece too, but not by sending himself out into the house. 
Instead, he drew his audience in. Somehow, he had reversed his polarity. 
In the course of the work, he performs what feel like sketches, very clear, of two of his  Cunningham roles--the "Suite" part he loved, and a solo from "Biped." Without music, without decor, just the steps. 
I hadn't thought I'd see Cedric in this work again, but there he was, drawing it out of his memory of that dancing, and so it seemed, out of mine.

That's a kind of magic, too, an Andrieux magic. Even if you didn't know this work he's danced in before, you could know it then, though the medium of his performance. It stood for itself, as itself. 

  He carries it foward, in his bones, his brain, his heart. Il est Cédric Andrieux.

photos: dressing room, Jamie Roque de la Cruz; Cédric  Andrieux and Andrea Weber in "Ocean," Stephanie Berger; courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust; "Suite for Five," Tony Dougherty, courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust, performance, Herman Sorgelos
 ©copyright Nancy Dalva 2010 , 2014
 originally published in an earlier version in


#ThrowbackThursday: New York City Ballet Spring Gala 2005: Martins, Evans, Millipied, Liang, Wheeldon


Bad News for the Muses

 May 5, 2005

Here's what I really want from a ballet: either to be transported out of my body into some fantastic heady realm, or to be transported into my body via some kinesthetic magic. What I don't want is to sit around thinking up snappy one-liners and experiencing various worrisome somatic symptoms, so that instead of drifting out of the theater, I hobble home cackling to myself like Carabosse, the embittered self-invited fairy spoiler in "Sleeping Beauty." 

Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal in "Distant Cries." Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Thus I am grateful to Edward Liang for "Distant Cries," his beautiful duet for Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal set to Albinoni, the 18th century Italian composer, which I saw first in the smaller confines of the Joyce Theater. It took well to the New York State Theater, gaining in poetry what it lost in intimacy. And how nice to see Boal, in his last season at the company before leaving to head the Pacific Northwest Ballet, take the stage in a piece he had commissioned for himself, so we might see that the excellent taste he has shown in his dancing runs deep. What a partner he has been, though it is his classical line and refinement that are usually most commented upon. He's been romantic with romantic girls, like Jennifer Ringer. He's been courtly. And here, with Wendy Whelan, he is a tragic lover. Nobody wafts or is wafted better than Whelan, who seems to be the choreographer's partner of choice for parting-gift duets. I've never seen a clearer dancer, except maybe Fred Astaire, whose gifts were of course otherwise altogether different—but for one other thing, which would be flattering one's partner. 

The stalwart Jock Soto, as it happens, is also retiring this season, but his tribute ballet by Peter Martins went on without him. While I am not saying he was lucky to be injured and not in it, one might as well look for the silver lining–because what a weird ballet "Tala Gaizma" is, starting with its inhospitable violin score by Peteris Vasks, and proceeding to its inevitable conjuring of Apollo, the Balanchine role Peter Martins himself danced with such blond godliness. Either he intended this piece to look like a retirement party for Apollo, or he didn't. Who knows? How can you conjure three Muses and not have people think of Apollo? And who knew Apollo was a hairdresser? 

You should see those Muses! With Jared Angle filling in for Soto, there appeared—I am making this up from looking at it, this isn't in the program—the Muse of Gynecology, played by the magnificent Sofiane Sylve, sporting an Afro; Miranda Weese, as Medusa, her hair done up in corn rows and a French twist; and Darci Kistler, her strawberry blonde hair streaming, who did everything but lean on Angle and murmur "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." This is a better idea than depending on the kindness of Martins, who, after interminable comings and goings of this ill assorted quartet, has a penultimate moment when you think he is going to kill off his hero, in a kind of symbolic retirement. (That's what Wheeldon did with Soto.) But no. Wait. The girls are down. Bad news, Muses! You're toast. 




originally published in

Catherine Gund’s documentary of Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action Company is part biopic, part adventure film, and part travelogue, taking viewers from the company’s early years to Streb’s more recent one-day occupation of London, where she staged her own super high risk version of the Olympics. Before the film opened in New York, the choreographer met with the Rail’s Nancy Dalva.

Nancy Dalva (Rail): What we see up there. Is that you?
Elizabeth Streb: Yeah, it’s me. Does it look like me? Does it remind you of me?
Elizabeth Streb after cutting herself while cooking. photo: Born to Fly
Rail: It’s a movie about you, but you exhibit a curious absence of what usually passes for ego. Or perhaps it’s just a larger scale ego that dispenses with the trivial.
Streb: I like that. That would be the good news, right? It’s really more about the essence of my movements than it is about me or my persona. I’m unaware of my persona. I am not performing at any time. I am trying to be. At that point when the movie ends—I didn’t even sleep that night.  It was me in my most essential second-to-second existence.
Rail: Were you aware of the cameras?
Streb: No.
Rail: Did you edit yourself as you went, somehow?
Streb: No.
Rail: Did you have any involvement in the post-production, or have any approval of the final cut?
Streb: No. I gave Catherine and her team carte blanche. It was about getting outside the context of those who know me or my work. To get outside the context of me or knowing the work is really what this is all about. People stood in lines to see this film at film festivals. To be first in the season at Film Forum feels again like an absolutely thrilling chance to tell a wider audience about these ideas and the people willing to accomplish these ideas. Some of the people in this movie are the people the movement happened to. We had this experience of extreme movement.
Rail: That moment when you are about to walk down the curved facade of London’s City Hall—from so high up—were you scared?
Streb walking down London's City Hall: Born to Fly.
Streb: Yeah, I was really scared. More of failure or that my rope was going to break. Even with Trisha’s walk down the Whitney [Trisha Brown’s “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building,” which Streb performed in New York City, at the Whitney Museum] I knew that if the guys let go of the rope—
Rail: Is it about trust?
Streb: You abandon trust. It’s just a detail. But I did think, “This is going too far.”
Rail: Do you feel that way now?
Streb: It’s over; it’s immaterial.
Rail: Would you do it again?
Streb: I would do it again, yes. I pray for the next opportunity to be that extreme or that crazy. If you believe in the present tense as being the subject of any presentation of extreme movement, there is, for sure, no time for reflection, or to even notice that I am rather than I do. There’s the next step and the next step. It was the most outrageous experience—all I did to prepare for that walk was to get hung up on a wall. Why does movement have to be on a stage or in a place you go to see it? Movement! A flash in the sky as you walk down the street. A body where you don’t expect it.
Rail: In the beginning, your work was you. Does it feel separate from you now?
Streb: I guess the answer would have to be yes because I am trying to discover something in the world that is true, not something I suspect beforehand. I am not very sentimental or very hopeful, so I don’t care.  It can exist without me, but it’s nothing without the dancers who have helped build it.
Rail: Isn’t your work answering a series of questions you give yourself? What are you asking now?
Streb: How do we make movement relevant? What movement is relevant? I no longer believe you can connect moves, I believe they start and stop. Ballet and modern dance go up, but they don’t land. And this thing about dancing to the music is utterly idiotic to me—that just isn’t a good enough reason unless somebody loves music. When I poke at questions I don’t ever really feel I answer them—if the questions are deep enough. That’s my goal: to figure out what question.
Rail: Is the movie one of the propellers?
Streb: Again, the movie is not my work. It’s a really great introduction for the majority of the humans in the world who don’t know Streb. I am honored that Catherine decided to make it. She’s been graceful, and remains curious, and we’ve had a great time. I am curious about the audience, so I sit there and try to get a sense of what they respond to. I sat through every screening at every film festival. It’s been very informative. It’s really exciting—you can feel it in the audience. The movie encapsulates action.



(from interviews for "Mondays with Merce")
 with photography from James Klosty
At the piano at Westbeth
He was a man with a mind which was constantly alert to almost everything around him. Very--sharp tongued is wrong--but very bright. He worked constantly....Constantly composing or doing art work or answering letters, or writing books. It was simply what he did. And he may have said things that sounded as though he didn't do anything, but he was constantly at something. Patient? Not entirely. No.
Playing chess in Belgrade, 1972

 Mostly he was, I guess, patient--patiently he would listen to people--and make some remarks. Sometimes those were very funny. He liked talking with people who were interesting. It didn't make any difference whether they were osteopaths or whatever, it didn't make a difference. If it's someone who had an interesting mind, he'd want to know what that person's mind was like. I think he was just open, wasn't so much learning as absorbing.

Rehearsal at Westbeth in 1971

His mind was so bright it could hop from one thing to another, and in great detail. And he could take something which was unfamiliar and look at it or listen to it, or both, or whatever, and discern something about it that nobody else perhaps had even ever figured out.

Rehearsing Cunningham's "Second Hand" at Westbeth in 1972, Carolyn Brown and Merce Cunningham dancing

I remember  after one rehearsal  John Cage saying to one of these piano teachers, "Now you're playing everything absolutely perfect. Just go a little further and make a few mistakes." It was like some kind of eye opener. One had thought that one should do one's technique perfectly--the idea of perfection. And it isn't that he didn't want us to play the notes correctly. Just go a little further.  Risk! 

At the Merce Cunningham Studio in Westbeth
A very good memory, and because of the wideness of his mind, of his thinking, he absorbed things in ways that opened them out into other directions. He was bright, no doubt incredibly bright.

Touring in France

And funny, you know, marvelously funny.

Photos kind courtesy and copyright ©James Klosty, with thanks for this collaboration.
Text from the transcripts of "Mondays with Merce," ©Nancy Dalva, 2008, 2009, 20014



Andy Warhol and Merce Cunningham (with camera) backstage   

Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1972
                                                                                                                                                        photo ©James Klosty