Showing posts with label Merce Cunningham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Merce Cunningham. Show all posts

CUNNINGHAM STUDIES

9.28.2014

THE WAY OF MERCE


"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.

IN MERCE'S WORDS

9.05.2014

REMEMBERING JOHN CAGE
(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

8.06.2014

META: CUNNINGHAM CAPTURING WARHOL


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

CUNNINGHAM/WARHOL


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



MERCE CUNNINGHAM AND BARBARA DILLEY




ANDY WARHOL AND MERCE CUNNINGHAM BACKSTAGE AT THE BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC


MERCE CUNNINGHAM AND MEG HARPER ONSTAGE WITH ANDY WARHOL'S 'SILVER CLOUDS'




       THESE WONDERFUL PHOTOS ARE KIND COURTESY OF AND COPYRIGHT OF ©James Klosty

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

7.26.2014


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

4.16.2013

WESTBETH, JUNE 1971




   photo ©James Klosty

for MERCE CUNNINGHAM'S BIRTHDAY


HOW TO MERCE
Have an old soul, but a young heart.
Be open to change.
Love surprises.
Embrace the new.
Have friends both old and young.
Study nature.
Study Zen.
Avoid making value judgements.
Cast the I Ching.
Read the Tao.
Make choices by chance procedures,
and regard all results with even-mindedness.
Be clear.
Be uncluttered.
Have house plants.
Live and work in every direction,
so that whichever way you face is front.
Drink red wine.
Study languages.
Laugh often.
Travel.
Invent new ways of doing things, and new ways of thinking.
Never stop.

Nancy Dalva

RASHAUN MITCHELL

3.15.2013

 first published in

 The Brooklyn Rail

RASHAUN MITCHELL with Nancy Dalva


Interface | Baryshnikov Arts Center | March 14 – 15, 2013

One of the things that Western dance, and particularly here in America, has not explored in any formal or technical sense, is the disciplined use of the face. Every other part of the body has been subjected to many kinds of motion, the face left to its own devices.
—Merce Cunningham, “The Function of a Technique for Dance,” 1951
Enter Interface, choreography by Rashaun Mitchell, who danced in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 2004 until the company’s closure at the end of 2012. After the success of his Nox last year, Mitchell’s run at the Baryshnikov Arts Center sold out almost immediately, and a third late night performance was added. If there is something that’s “must-see” right now, it’s his new work.
Rashaun Mitchell. Photo: Nicholas O’Brien.
Nancy Dalva (Rail): How did you begin?
Rashaun Mitchell: We were at residency at the Dragon’s Egg in Connecticut, which is already a very magical and remote place. I felt that it would be necessary to bond on an emotional level. I wanted to foster and develop the relationships, get to a place of comfort with each other so that we could experiment without fear and self-consciousness. I asked them to walk with me into the woods during the day, to walk in silence and to take turns leading. Someone asked how we would know when to switch leaders. I replied with a shrug. It was a beautiful and intense walk. We got lost. That was the point maybe. Interesting things happen when one is lost. When we finally got back to the studio, I asked everyone to share their feelings. Tears are contagious. Then we danced. I don’t think any one of us will forget that day.
I decided to build the material from movement generated by the dancers. I set up a series of improvisational prompts, filmed them, and combed the footage for material. Then we began the meticulous process of learning the material and organizing it. About 70 percent of it was ultimately tossed. I also used certain techniques that I learned from Merce, applied them to different situations. For example, we experimented with separating the body, the way that Merce would build a phrase in layers: first the legs, then the torso, then the arms. We did this with the legs, the torso, and the face. We identified a list of emotions and each dancer was assigned a different part of the body to express a gesture pertaining to that emotion. They were then combined to make one total body gesture or phrase. This creates a movement language that isn’t naturally attainable. It allows for movement that is beyond my own personal tendencies. In this way I relate to Merce.
Rail: You use Merce’s dancers. (Silas Riener and Melissa Toogood from MCDC, and Cori Kresge from the Repertory Understudy Group.)
Mitchell: The use of Cunningham dancers in my work is mostly a practical choice. I started making this piece at the end of 2010. I made it during breaks in the Cunningham contract. I needed to work with people who had the exact same schedule as me. But certainly, there is an advantage to speaking a common dance language, to knowing someone’s dancing so well and finding ways to stretch that and push bodies and minds to explore new ways of moving. I think we were all kind of craving that. We kept putting the piece aside to continue the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour, and each time we returned to the piece, I had to reconsider my initial motives. Because of this, the piece changed so many times that its identity became confused for me. Instead of fighting this consequential result, I decided to incorporate it, to create a circuitous structure that reflected my state of being. In general, I find that most solutions masquerade as problems initially.

Each dancer is unique and has certain preferences, skills. I think it’s important to consider each individual’s interest in the project. Time is precious and there’s never enough money. These dancers all deserve to be paid buckets for their talents. This is why the extensive process needs to be something particularly worthwhile for them. But it’s difficult to satisfy everyone. Some people love to improvise. Others like to be told exactly what to do. I tried to strike a balance, to keep everyone engaged and invested. The dancers got used to me changing the entire piece with each new rehearsal period. They were forced to keep a distant relationship with the movement throughout. The piece has multiple-personality disorder, on purpose. But in the end, I’m the one to contextualize the movement, to place it in a particular space-time relationship, to draw out particular qualities. 
Function and necessity are important to me. I have to understand why something exists. And dancers bring their own set of stories with them, so my ideas have to be filtered through other people. This social act and transference is the part of the process that most excites me. It’s also the most difficult. In this way, Interface is autobiographical. Whatever the task is, it has to feel believable coming from that particular person. Melissa is the most talented mimic I’ve ever met. In addition to her exquisite technique, she’s very exacting, very reliable. Silas is completely committed to everything he does physically. He usually makes a choice that I wouldn’t make. This excites me. It creates a tension. His face is also extremely expressive. He dances like a knife. And sometimes it’s funny. I love this combination. Cori is very open, very sensitive. Her body is extremely malleable. She also adds a lot of conceptual information to the process and is an excellent improviser. I’m very lucky to work with these dancers.
Rail: In watching you perform in this piece (in Boston) and in Nox, I came to the retrograde realization that your extrovert performance in Merce’s work and in his roles really was performance. I saw you become a watcher, attentive and alert but standing back and allowing things to develop in a space you made for someone else to dance in. So, is this work of yours somehow more you, more Rashaun? More your own temperament?
Mitchell: I exist as a watcher in my pieces because of the practicality of having to view what it is I’m making. I love to dance and I love to make dance but I haven’t quite figured out how to do them simultaneously. I’m working on it and have spent the latter part of this process trying to re-incorporate myself as a performer in this piece. My plan is to deal with this problem head on, in another piece. I’m creating an evening length solo for myself for a future project. This is terrifying, so I’m doing it. Again, problems equal solutions.
Rail: When I saw an early version of this dance in Boston, some of what went on between the dancers and in the projected images seemed possibly to be about mirroring. Another clear possibility was that performing the physical act of a gesture absent the underlying emotion effected the same neural response in the brain as does feeling the emotion first. (Feeling follows form versus form follows feeling.) This leads us down many possible paths of thought about movement, about mimesis, and so forth.
Mitchell: I read a lot of writing from neuroscientist Candace Pert, among others. She states that evolutionary evidence suggests that we instinctively mimic other people’s behaviors in social situations as a way to communicate and express understanding. She writes “that the receptors on our cells even vibrate in response to extracorporeal peptide reaching, a phenomenon that is analogous to the strings of a resting violin responding when another violin’s strings are played. We call this emotional resonance, and it is a scientific fact that we can feel what others feel.” Basically there’s a lot of research out there about this stuff. It’s mostly geared towards healing techniques. I’m not trying to heal the world with my dance. This isn’t art therapy, but I do think the ideas are useful in thinking about the relationship between people on stage as well as the relationship between the audience and performers. When I go to see shows, I spend a lot of time observing the audience. I like to see how watching movement can affect one on a physical and visceral level.
Rail: So, your dancers learned their facial movements as choreography. Not as acting. Just the movements. How did this work, what kinds of feelings surfaced expected or unexpected? It seems like the opposite of method acting. It seems to be reliable, because technique based. You aren’t using sense memory to trigger emotion, or telling a story. You are relying on the movement itself—of the face—to generate narrative in two ways: by evoking the response in the audience as such a gesture does, and because the dancer him or herself is responding to the physical trigger.
Mitchell: The dancers and I have definitely found that expressing an emotion physically can in fact induce the emotion itself. The most emotional part of the piece for me is Melissa’s solo. It’s the one part of the piece where the face is covered. The face is so expressive, but the body really feels. The face is the surface of emotions. It’s the part of emotions that is seen. So along with body language, this became my concern. The visual component of emotions became a really enticing tool for me to use. Expression is decoded and rearranged. To take that a step further, footage of the face is spliced and projected. I was thinking about making sure the micro movements were seen from afar, but it’s not narrative, so that doesn’t necessarily need to be followed chronologically. I am also exploring the idea that we are all connected. It’s very Buddhist. I am not a Buddhist. I do think it’s fascinating to think of the self extending beyond what is visible, what is felt. I tried to actualize this idea by creating material with conjoined bodies. I was trying to create an image of a utopian body, a body that is multidirectional, a body that has more. 
Rail: And the images on the film?
Mitchell: The idea for the décor came from a trip to Turkey. The mosques I visited in Turkey didn’t have representational images or iconography, but rather a series of abstract images, architecture, calligraphy. I admittedly know very little about the history of Islamic art, but from my personal and subjective experience, this did not concern me. I even prefer the not knowing because my imagination runs wild. Regardless, the transference of beauty and serenity and focus was very real and palpable. Each tile being different and bumping up next to the other tiles creates a whole that is larger than the parts and this notion reminded me of dance making in that there are a series of images or movements and depending on how they are arranged, meaning shifts slightly. Depending on where a given movement is placed in time and space and in relation to other bodies, the implications change, so I began thinking about alchemy, optics, psychology. I took photos and sent them to Fraser Taylor as inspiration for his design. We also felt that these patterns related to the visualization of the inner working of a brain or the cellular patterns that the experience of emotions might create. The result is a very graphic interpretation. The entire space is transformed. I’m treating the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Gilman Space like a site-specific space. This is an overarching interest of mine. I’m not presently interested in dance as a product that exists in a fixed mode with fixed coordinates. Why wouldn’t any space, with all of its idiosyncrasies, affect the identity of the piece? Dance is not in a conceptual vacuum. It exists in real time and space. All of the features of the space are considered.
Rail: The title? What does it tell us?
Mitchell: The title came to me suddenly, as most ideas do. When it came to me, I immediately hated it because it was almost too perfect. And it reminded me of a Cunningham title. But it was a persistent bugger. Even though I was making a dance that was utilizing the face as a tool, I was actually more interested in the moments that exist between the faces that are made. When people refer to the piece, they say, “Oh, the piece with the faces.” But the faces only make up a small portion of the material. It’s the in-between moments where the dance really exists. This is Inter-face. The piece is also an extension of my desire to connect with people and an examination of the successes and failures of those attempts. The point of connection between two or more things is the examined locale, which is an ambiguous and disorienting terrain. I refer to this place and moment (where one thing becomes another) as an interface. The points of connection between the performers and the audience and the outward reach of energy from the performers are treated as a palpable but ebbing part of the puzzle. The interfaces are the material that isn’t seen, the invisible strings of connection. It feels like a new way to approach the notion of authenticity in performance and conveying emotion and meaning. Because it’s kind of absurd anyway that we go to see shows expecting to learn something about our lives and hoping to be duped by the staging, but it’s what we do and we hope to be transformed. This is my way of making sense of all of that and poking fun a little bit too. I find that to create in this deconstructed way actually produces very whole, very inevitable results.

MERCE LAUGHING

2.14.2013

A PHOTO FROM JAMES KLOSTY
WESTBETH,  JANUARY 1972




Previously unpublished photo kind courtesy of  and copyright ©James Klosty
(For more  marvelous Klosty images, enter his name in this blog's search bar or click on his name in the sidebar.)

Nancy Dalva is the Merce Cunningham Trust Scholar in Residence

"IT'S BEEN A MARVELOUS EVENING"

12.03.2012

From 1974,  R. Couri Hay interviewing John Cage, Merce Cunningham & Louise Nevelson about the very party they are attending,a fundraiser for The Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Nevelson's Soho studio. Completely charming banter, and then content with bite....

GLASS HOUSE HAPPENING: JUNE 3, 1967


“Country Happening” Merce Cunningham Performance, 1967 from The Philip Johnson Glass House on Vimeo.

CUNNINGHAM'S "WINTERBRANCH": PHOTOS FROM JAMES KLOSTY

10.25.2012

On the occasion of The Los Angeles Dance Project's premiere of Merce Cunningham's "Winterbranch" (1964) with decor by Robert Rauschenberg and music by La Monte Young, photographer James Klosty publishes for the first time a series of  images from his 1970 shoot of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and another series from a year later. You can see from these marvelous photographs what an incendiary work this was--a tinderbox, a rumble, red hot, ice cold, with everything in the dark going up in flames of pure energy. Electric, intense, fierce, fabulous!
 1970










1971









The cast in its entirety for this January 1970 performance was: Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Jeff Slayton, Valda Setterfield, and Chase Robinson.
 
photo #1: Merce Cunningham
photo #2: Merce Cunningham
photo #3: Merce Cunningham and Sandra Neels
photo #4: Jeff Slayton and Sandra Neels
photo #5: Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown
photo #6: Carolyn Brown and Merce Cunningham 
photo #7:  Valda Setterfield and Jeff Slayton 
photo #8: Carolyn Brown 
photo #9:Chase Robinson,Jeff Slayton, Carolyn Brown (seated) and Merce Cunningham
photo#10: Merce Cunningham 

The second set of photographs (dated 1971) also shows Mel Wong. The sequence was made by the photographer to answer a question about the "tarp" you see in the first photo in this set. 

 All thanks to James Klosty for bringing to light this invaluable record of an iconic and indeed infamous work by Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg , so that we might have a sense of it during Cunningham's own tenure in the work.

 And thanks, too, to the cast members for recalling the dance and engaging with these photographs.

All photos ©James Klosty
©Nancy Dalva 2012
 Nancy Dalva is the Merce Cunningham Trust Scholar in Residence 

THE WAY OF MERCE

10.24.2012

Author's note: This text has been updated and amended to answer a question from one of the members of the Yale Dance Theater during a visit to their rehearsal studio. Where does Merce Cunningham fit into dance history? I had never really wanted to be an historian; I simply became one the night Merce died. So, thinking about this question launched me backwards in time --and then forward. Now, with no new dances to come,  we can see Cunningham's work as a whole, an enterprise grand and complete. Along with this short piece, this essay is the beginning of a response to that single question--not the answer, but only the beginning of answering. The links in the essay below lead to individual episodes of the free webseries Mondays with Merce, and to more detailed investigations of individual works. In adapting this piece, I have had to convert all the discussion of Cunningham to the past tense. (I may have missed a few places.) This was an inevitable yet sorrowful task, and it was good to undertake it in service of those new to the work as audience and as artists.
 
adapted from Dance Ink 

THE WAY OF MERCE

"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 who 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.

Discussing this shortly before his death, in his last interview for Mondays with Merce, the choreographer answered this question of mine:
Merce Cunningham in Mondays with Merce


"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, 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 has 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--there 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 dancer 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
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  
 ©The Merce Cunningham Trust for photo sfrom Mondays with Merce.
©Nancy Dalva 1992, 2012 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 in the book of essays called 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.

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