"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 danceviewtimes.com


#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. 

Of course Apollo's not dead. How could he be? He's heading the New York City Ballet. Which to his credit has some talented dancers who are choreographers, another being Albert Evans. Here's the best thing about the two pieces he had presented at his home company—this new one called "Broken Promise," and the previous "Haiku," made in 2002 to a score by John Cage. They are really musical, and not in a decorative way, but in their basic impulse. The Cage laid down a huge floor of sound under the dancers, and so does this new score by Matthew Fuerst, who is currently completing his doctorate at The Juilliard School. You never wonder why Evans is making a piece. You don't feel he is idea driven. You see his response to what he hears. This is all good, as is how good he makes his dancers look. They, in turn, flatter him. As indeed Ashley Bouder flatters everything, including her partner here, Stephen Hanna. They both look a bit like Evans as they dance, and that's a good thing, too.

In an interview with Sylviane Gold in "The New York Times," Christopher Wheeldon—whose talent I very much admire—points out that if he had "stayed dancing," he'd still be in his prime. "I was always kind of a showman dancer," he says. "I could always strap on that smile and look like I was having a good time, even when I wasn't." And this is exactly what his "American in Paris" looks like. Fake. Never mind what looks like the dubious desire to complete with Broadway's Susan Stroman, creator of a full length pot boiler for this company. Never mind the wholesale doom that settles on the remaking of Gene Kelly vehicles for the stage. (Did no one recall Twyla Tharp and "Singin' In the Rain" and express doubt?)

Because how about this for hubris? Says Wheeldon to his interviewer, "Gene Kelly was the master at doing nothing.....he just runs around. And the pas de deux is very simplistic. He and Leslie Caron do nothing...."  Say what? I'm not one for giving instructions to choreographers, but here's a memo to Christopher Wheeldon: Do more nothing.

Damian Woetzel and company in the finale of "An American in Paris." Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Because what a French poodle's dinner this ballet is. The Gershwin score's fine, of course, very easy on the ear, but the ballet is like a sojourn in one of those souvenir stands on the Rue Rivoli, where familiar icons appear on t-shirts, dish towels, and lunch bags, and the notion is proposed that the French still wear berets. Adrienne Lobel has whipped up some sets that owe a lot to Robert Delaunay, and costumer Holly Hynes has conjured Madeline and her little convent school friends. and Miss Clavel, the nun who leads them around Paris; and a hooker; and a whole flock of girls who appear to be Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face," with Carla Korbes as their dishy leader. Jennifer Ringer plays a beautiful love interest, which is no stretch for her at all—she is beautiful, and what's not to love? And then there is Damian Woetzel, who has turned choreographic dross into gold on more than once occasion, and is naturally splendid in anything naturally splendid. He's an excellent dancer, and he's full of manly ease, and if I had to pick someone at New York City Ballet to play Gene Kelly, I'd probably choose him too. But it's a thankless assignment. At least the choreographer didn't ask him to sing. 

It's strange how Wheeldon makes the occasional ballet that looks as if it were choreographed during the Eisenhower Administration. He told Sylviane Gold the Gershwin score "is accessible and exciting for an audience that doesn't normally come to the ballet," and I suppose that's what this ballet is meant to be. Accessible, and exciting. Yet to me this is a tragic misreading of the New York City Ballet audience, and culture. Alexandra Danilova, the prima ballerina assoluta of incomparable elegance who began her career by leaving Russia in a troupe headed by George Balanchine and ended it teaching at the School of American Ballet, was talking once about her years of touring the backwaters of the United States. "Even when there were chickens in dressing room," she said in her wonderful accent, "I never dance down."

Anyway, there was one real French deal on Gala night, and I will close here with it: Benjamin Millepied's duet for Maria Kowroski and Ask La Cour called "Double Aria." The score is a violin cadenza, composed for Millepied by Daniel Ott, and performed on stage. Thus the "Double Aria" of the title is about two duets—that between the dancers, and between the choregrapher and the musician. Millepied, who is actually French, gallantly puts the music first. His is a fine ear, and he is an elegant and modest choreographer who makes impeccable ballets. He draws from Kowroski a performance of great seriousness and no sweetness, rescuing her from the soubrette mode into which she is so readily cast, and she is well matched by La Cour, who is shaping up to be another in the succession of great Danes with whom the New York City Ballet has been blessed.

first published in  a slightly different version in DanceViewTimes, Volume 3, No. 18 May 9, 2005
copyright ©2005. 1015 Nancy Dalva




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.




"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 change 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.

Merce Cunningham in Mondays with Merce

Shortly before his death, I asked him this:

"How is it that without music, without narrative, with your use of chance procedures to remove yourself--to keep from imposing your personality on the movement-- that your dances are so passionate?"

And he answered:

"Because, I love dancing!"

FOR AN AUDIENCE, the result of such an approach--non narrative, and at times chance generated-- is freeing, yet demanding. (Still more so for the dancers.) For when is some small way the choices made in making a dance are made not by the choreographer, but by an impersonal agent, or fate, the viewers are temporarily freed from the tyranny of the artist's vision, and released into their own. In other words, the use of chance got Cunningham out of the dance and let us in, just as he had let the musicians into the pit to do what they would, and let various artists and designers superimpose their work on his own. Still, one might do well to remember that the chance procedures only offered answers to questions--How many dancers? Which part of the stage? Which wing to exit? Which foot to begin? and so forth--and these questions were always posed by Cunningham. He was enlarging his own possibilities, not letting the world at large into the work process. But into the seeing process, yes. Those possibilities are generated by the viewers.

According to the Cage-Cunningham dogma, the music and the decor and the dance are things apart--these other artists and their work stand independent of the choreography. But where a trinity is proposed--dance, music, decor--we, the audience, experience unity. Only by extricating a dance from its decor and score will we learn its own story and hear its own music. To see it separately is to see it the way Cunningham made it and probably always saw it. The way to do this sounds like instructions for meditating: You just concentrate on the dance and let everything else fall away.

With few (and these are marvelous) exceptions, Cunningham's dances look best with the simplest settings and costumes, and--though there are those who would argue that the music more than gave the decor a run for its money--it is arguably in the area of decor  that the Cunningham repertory was most often hoist by the Cage-Cunningham petard. Their gospel indeed yielded much that was splendid, antic, and beautiful over the years, and yet, also much that was not. Among the artists who  designed for the company early on were, in chronological order, Remy Charlip, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Mark Lancaster, and Morris Graves. During this time, the artistic advisers were successively Rauschenberg, Johns (who told me he took the job not so much that he wanted to but so that " someone else wouldn't do it," and who began the custom of inviting other artists than himself to design), and Lancaster. In 1984, Dove Bradshaw and William Ansastasi were named co-artistic advisers; they were followed, formally undesignated but de facto, by the Merce Cunnningham Dance Company's last executive director, Trevor Carlson.

Because we see their work not merely along with but actually on top of Cunningham's--that is, the dancers wear the costumes--there is a frequent assumption that these artists (however various) and Cunningham shared an aesthetic, when what they actually shared was contemporaneity. But living at the same time and working at the same time doesn't mean thinking in the same way.  Actually, Cunningham's painterly motivation, as it were, is previous to his own day, falling much closer to the early Cubists via Marcel Duchamp, whose famous nude always seems to have descended from a landing on which Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) are standing. Indeed, there is a jumping passage in Cunningham's Walkaround Time (1968) I long assumed to be an homage to the nude; only recently did he tell me that in that solo, he was dancing "the bride" in The Large Glass (1915-23), whose elements are deconstructed--and then just before the end of the dance  reconstructed--in Johns's decor for the dance. (This led me to realize that the dance is a flipped paradigm of the Duchamp, whose title in French translates as "The Bride Stripped Bare By her Bachelors, Even." With scant dancing for the other men, Walkaround Time is a kind of "Groom Stripped Bare by his Lovelies, Even.") Cunningham's and Duchamp's shared vision has something to do with breaking things up--whether the plans of the canvas or the increments of the dancing phrase. It also involves a passion for showing all of the sides of a thing at once.

Merce Cunningham and John Cage 
FRAGMENTATION, COLLAGE, SIMULTANEITY--these are also the concerns of modern literature, where language itself breaks down, and the characteristic gesture is erasure.

One finds such things in Cunningham's choreography; one finds them in a good deal of modern poetry, starting with T.S. Eliot; and one finds them in James Joyce, whose work was read aloud daily by John Cage, a Joyce adept. Seven titles of Cunningham's dances--the last via a speculation by Joseph Campbell-- are derived from Joyce, in particular Finnegan's Wake.  These are: In the Name of the Holocaust (1943); Tossed as it is Untroubled (1944); Sounddance (1974); Roaratorio (1984); Beachbirds (1991); Ocean (1994).  How much more of Cunningham's imagery and in fact his method are Joycean is a fascinating question. The importance of the everyday and a genius for epiphany are but two of the correspondences. Cunningham himself clued us into his affinity, indicating the kind of associative narrative and diction to which he was drawn, and placing himself squarely within the Joycean tradition. This is very far from being within the aesthetic of his most prominent artist collaborators. Cunningham's work is neither abstract, nor expressionist. As he said to me in an interview in 1988:

I have many reference, many images, so in that sense I have no images. because I could just as well substitute one image for another, in the Joycean sense of there being not a symbol but multiple [symbols]--one thing can build on another, or you can suddenly have something--the same thing--being something else....That seems to be the way life is anyway.

Just as the overlapping of dance and decor has led to certain assumptions about Cunningham's dances, so has the separation of dance and music. The dogma has given rise to the notion that the dances are somehow unmusical, or lacking music. In performance, Cunningham's dances usually are accompanied by live music, occasionally by silence. Sometimes (as with some scores of David Tudor) the music is a kind of dense aural fog that forces the viewer to concentrate on the dance the way dusk makes a driver concentrate on the road. [author's note: Both Cunningham and Tudor himself liked this notion, discussed, after I first published it, with each.]

Sometimes, as with Cage's accompaniment for Duets (1980) and Tudor's for Exchange (1978), the sound seems to support the dance. Sometimes, the set, decor, and dance combine with a fantastic unity of impression, as in the iconic Sounddance (1974). Occasionally, the sound suggests natural environments--water, crickety--and occasionally it is so loony and deracinated and overbearing that it diminishes one's experience of the dance. But whatever it is, it is not the experience of the dance, merely the music that happens at the same time.

THE DANCE'S MUSIC CAN BE SEEN BUT NOT HEARD, except in the footfalls of the dancers and their breathing. The dance's music is its rhythm. (Cunningham said to me in an interview that "rhythm is time cut up.") Perhaps the easiest place to see Cunningham rhythm is in his unison sections, and the easiest place to find such sections in the early video works choreographed first for camera, then transferred to the stage. Here one finds the dancers disposed in squads. To see one squad opposed against another is to see two unisons at once: basic Cunningham counterpoint.

Always--on stage, on film, in videos, and in rehearsal--the Merce Cunningham Dance Company  seemed to be dancing to something--keeping up with it, slowing down to it--their phrasing exquisite, and driven. By what? Not by any music added in the theater. Not by music at rehearsal--they rehearsed in silence. They are dancing to the sound--or the memory--of Cunningham's own snapping and  clapping, and the sounds of their own footfalls and breathing. This is the true music of the dance.

In studio and in the wings, Merce Cunningham worked with a stop watch. He was the White Rabbit ("You're late! You're late!) of choreographers, and in his own way the most musical of all. One could see this when he revived  Septet, made in 1953 to Erik Satie's Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire.
 Barbara Dilley, Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, and Viola Farber in Septet, 1964

To see that work was to suspect that for Cunningham, working to music must have been like turning on the radio when the your music player is already on. It interfered with music he already heard--or felt.

In a similar way, using a plot would have interfered with Cunningham's own story telling.  It is here that the dogma is most pernicious: that the dances have no obvious narratives or superimposed moods has led to the notion that they tell no stories. Yet study of Cunningham's choreographic notes finds ample evidence of metaphor, and simile, if not overarching plot, and watching the dances opens floodgates of imagery. However, the lack of invented roles and moods has led some viewers to assume that  the performers are somehow impersonal. The exact opposite is true. The work is in fact personality-driven, for what could be more personal, more transparent, more poignant than dancers who are always performing as themselves? As Cunningham said to me:

The idea of personality not being there isn't true simply because when the dancers do it, they in doing it take it on--it's like a second skin.

If there have been fads in Cunningham criticism over the years, one was a general trending in the 1980s away from calling the dances "abstract," though that notion would persist and resurface again from time to time, and continues to. But by 1990, the critically correct position was to call them "dramatic," in recognition of some inherent theatricality perceived in the repertory of that time. Cunningham himself, in conversation, often talked about "the theater" instead of "the dance." Generally writers were thinking about the actorly aspect of Cunningham's increasingly Beckettian performances, or referring to the overall "lightness"--as in for example Summerspace (1958), How to Pass Fall Kick and Run (1968), Roadrunners (1979); or "darkness"-- as in Winterbranch (1964),  Shards (1987),  Quartet (1982). This leaves out the entire category that falls under the rubric "nature studies," in which the tone is calm, sometimes elegiac, sometimes Chekhovian, often magical. And yet  in the summer of 1983, Noel Carroll and Sally Banes wrote in Ballet Review, "We don't paraphrase his dances into propositions about the nature of art...nor do we take them to be alchemical allegories."

Merce Cunningham in "Signals", Paris 1970 ©James Klosty
Maybe not, but nothing in the dances deterred this kind of thinking, this kind of seeing.They were certainly about the art of nature, and actually, Cunningham looked quite alchemical himself, more and more woolly and wizardly with every passing year. Where he once had looked like Prospero, he then looked like Lear, or, in his more lighthearted moments, Merlin. He said to me in late 2010 of his role in Signals, in which be brandished  what  a stick. "It really is a magic stick, the idea of a magician with a stick, with a wand if you want to call it that."

IN LATER LIFE, Merce Cunningham would have looked at home with an owl on his shoulder, or one of the rather odd birds he liked to draw. To a later generation, encountering him must have been like meeting Dumbledore, the wizard sage of the Harry Potter series.  Then there is this: wizards, T.H. White told us in The Sword in the Stone, travel backwards in time. Certainly you could believe that of Merce Cunningham, timeless, curious, an adapter of  new technologies that seemed to encounter a mind already prepared to employ them.

Merce Cunningham at his desk   photo: Mondays with Merce

Some time after he died, I got an ipad, and the first thing I did was bring up Mondays with Merce on the screen. (The series is available free, on line, 24/7, the title, a reference to a day he taught class, notwithstanding.) I widened the image to fill the device. There was Merce Cunningham, on the palm of my hand, brilliantly clear, via a wireless delivery system more slender than one of his customary Rhodia pocket notebooks. It was amazing. It was as if he had been waiting for that moment. There he was, and here he is still.

"Never trust the teller," said D.H. Lawrence. "Trust the tale."

"Never trust the teller, never trust the tale, trust the telling," amended the poet Richard Howard.

When he was dancing, Merce Cunningham was all three, and the music, too.
With thanks to  Lise Friedman, my wonderful longtime editor at Dance Ink.
 photo credits: ©James Klosty, with my thanks and gratitude.  ©The Merce Cunningham Trust for photos from Mondays with Merce.
©Nancy Dalva 1992, 2012, 2014 All quotations from interviews with Merce Cunningham by Nancy Dalva, except quotation from Carolyn Brown, which is from a panel conversation held at the Fashion Insitute of Technology.

Essay originally commissioned by Patsy Tarr and published in her magazine Dance Ink; and later in Merce Cunningham, Dancing in Time and Space, Richard Kostelanetz, ed.; also published by Stanford University and reproduced at Ohio State University and New York University.

Nancy Dalva is the Merce Cunningham Trust Scholar in Residence.



(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

A PHOTO FROM JAMES KLOSTY: Paris, 1970, "Rainforest: Merce Cunningham and Meg Harper

   "Rainforest"  Merce Cunningham and Meg Harper  decor:Andy Warhol ,"Silver Clouds" costumes:Jasper Johns

photo: ©James Klosty, with thanks to the photographer


Rainforest, April 1969, New York City, photos by James Klosty





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



first published in

  The Brooklyn Rail
In Conversation


Stephen Petronio
Confessions of a Motion Addict
(Createspace, 2014)
Stephen Petronio—iconoclastic and iconic, subversive, game changing, elegant, with just a gleam of something slightly depraved glinting off his spiky ear studs—is celebrating 30 years as a choreographer with a debut as an author. Here, he discusses it all with his new reader but longtime watcher, the Rail’s Nancy Dalva.
Nancy Dalva (Rail): What do we learn about you in this book that we don’t learn from your dances?
Stephen Petronio: I wrote Confessions of a Motion Addict as text about my life and the forces that move me into action, both in the world and on the stage. While there is succinct discussion of my creative motor, dance works, and the collaborators I’ve worked with over the years, I wanted very much to verbally construct the back-story of my life.
It was important for me to create and perform with words: to paint my childhood and ascent into the New York dance/art worlds and the touring life that has been so key to who I am. So much of my dance is about the sound and force of motion, and Confessions is about the sound force rhythm of language.
I write quite a bit about the pleasures of the body (i.e. sex), that magic that is so outside of the dance realm. I suppose I thought it was important to track the stories in my body, repurposed for sensual, aesthetic, and spiritual interest. I also write frankly about substance (booze and drugs) use and abuse in Confessions. I thought it was important to parallel my interest in the extremity of these experiences and how they may or may not relate to my art making.
And you get a healthy taste of the crazy Italian family that I came from and how it impacted my social and professional needs.
Rail: I feel as if you have taken the same material and channeled it into two forms of performance art: one is choreography, the other is autobiography. Which one is more veiled? I am thinking here about the “truth.” Autobiography, in general, is seemingly so truthy, yet is a form rife with displacement, projection, selection, delusion, revision, and every other complexity arising from self-reportage.
Petronio: If you have the eyes to do so, you can see straight into my soul when you watch a dance of mine. They are always constructions wrought from mind, body, and taste—my taste, fueled by my desire. Most audiences read movement in other ways or don’t have the power to see that deeply into dance, but there are a few writers and viewers who can. I know this because they “read” me after a performance and I can’t believe they can see so clearly after one viewing. That’s rare though. How I ravel and unravel motion, my need for complexity or brashness, simplicity or cool, structural symmetry or disintegrating fields, speaks volumes about my nature.
I am aware that, in writing, I can give you a more traceable narrative and that I can record that text as history in service of my will—the picture I want to paint. I have tried to come as close to what I believe is an honest text as I can, without doing collateral damage to the players in my life. I also invest a great deal of energy in composing with words, as I might do in movement.
While I stretched my writing muscles in dialogue, poetic form, freestyle prose, and more “proper” narrative the same way I might express my interest in virtuoso, postmodern, or pedestrian forms in motion, it is always in service of some underlying, intuitive, and, dare I say, emotive reveal.
I approached the early childhood writing in Confessions as painting with words: images that I could see so clearly in my head. I really didn’t think of it as writing at all. I just had to step out of the way and capture what was already there. Of course, upon reading these writings, my brother had a very different idea of certain details of shared experiences. Needless to say, every story is the unique amalgam of fact, projection, and misunderstanding, and for that variety we are gleefully thankful.
Rail: When I look at your work I don’t so much see influences as characteristics. Your own style is clear via Trisha—you were that anomalous element of testosterone that charged everything in its path, back in that day—and also one can see certain elements that might indicate an affection for a clean, clear technique, a Mercean 360 degree front, a stage perhaps multi-focal but never crowded, and with the viewer given, at times, a choice of where to look. Or not. Yes, no?
Petronio: I’ll roll with the above. How speed and assault have been shifting architecture has been on my mind for years. Assault has receded and shifted to formal exposition of state, emotional or otherwise.
Rail: Is there such a thing as bred-in-the-bones glamour? Something not superficial, but intrinsic? And if so, where does that come from? Mom? Dad?
Petronio: Glamour had a starring role in my early ’60s childhood. From my little perch in family life the view was thrillingly cinematic. This is from the book:
There’s a whiff of glamour. Camera pans right onto phantomlike relatives adrift in a stylish celluloid limbo. Here is my perfect Italian family and its sprawling extended web. We are caught at birthdays, communions, and weddings…where every woman’s makeup is perfect and hair coiffed to the nth. They float on monochrome peau de soie stilettos that match their narrow-waist dresses while the men wear muted awkward grins and stand in proper trousers and dress shirts.
Rail: You performed part of this work as the text for your incarnation of Steve Paxton’s Intravenous Lecture. Are you otherwise still dedicated to writing and choreography being separate activities?
Petronio: Since Intravenous Lecture, I’m enjoying the problematic joining of movement and text. I’ve always experienced the proposition as troubling: words engaging the narrative mind while also dominating the part of the mind that reads non-narrative, kinetic experience. If I speak a sentence about nature, does all action immediately following have to illustrate that thought? Can we shortcut to that result if we so desire? Conversely, if I perform an action and then speak, can we stop the speaking from being a comment on the action? Can words and action float together free of rational narrative meaning if we desire to surpass the basic assigning of accepted meaning of words on movement and visa versa?
My general feeling is that it’s impossible to use the delivery systems of language and motion without the storytelling part of language superseding the movement. I’m currently working on a solo for the American Dance Festival in July, in Durham, North Carolina, that employs writings about my father from Confessions. I will speak them live in this dance, but am still grappling with the formal delivery of the two kinds of information.
Cover by Ted Henigson.
Rail: You once said to me, “I love the mise.” As in mise-en-scène. I love the work in practice clothes in the studio, without the decor, the costumes, the glamour extrinsic to the choreography and its embodiment. What is the mise adding that I am not getting?
Petronio: The dialogue between the inside and the outside, the deeply felt and the outward expression, the immaterial, dare I say spiritual, and the surface, material, quantifiable world, is completely intriguing to me. The internal and external at first glance seem to be at odds. The fan clubs surrounding process and product, inside and out, are deeply suspicious of each other. I love the schism and maintain that these polar worlds can enjoy incredible synergy and heightened union. And if you understand anything about me, you sense the desire for union—communion through union.
Rail: Well no wonder you chose a designer called Imitation of Christ.
Petronio: Of course, this conversation about costuming is predicated on an assumption that the proponents of these polar worlds are sophisticated and savvy players. When the lights go up on a performance, that first glimpse of a magical world—still or in motion—reveals a surface that is a vehicle for an idea, feeling, sense. What that world is dressed in can work wonders in this transmission. Or it can get wrongly, superficially, and sadly in the way. Let the surface deliver and heighten the immaterial world in perfect flight! How can I not reach for this possibility? Cloth has revealed the consciousness of culture since clothing was invented.
Rail: Has writing your book revealed anything about you to yourself that you didn’t fully know or acknowledge before? Or suggest a different way to work?
Petronio: Writing has rules of engagement but can be exciting and open-ended as all hell. Writing is a very different proposition than composing with motion, but can lead to comparable mental and physical states. Editing is so easy to remember in writing as it is on the page in front of me. In the studio, revisions slip and slide in the process. So, writing makes me look for more editorial rigor in choreographing.
Rail: Has writing played into your choreography in any other way?
Petronio: You’ll have to keep looking and tell me.

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