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MMMerce Cunningham Centennial Blog


Interviews, videos, reviews and essays dating from 1977 to tomorrow.

This blog will remain here with all posts and active links, and occasional new material.
Thank you for reading.
photo: Penny Brodgen

Along Came Mary

Notes for A Eulogy

(for Mary Cochran’s Memorial, at the Paul Taylor Studio, January 13, 2018, with the dancers in the room in mind)

It is an honor to be among you, though it would be so much better for me if you were up here, I were out there....Rather the way it has felt as time has gone by and I’ve seen you dancers retire from the company one by one, and then return as part of the audience. There you would be—not only nearby in the house, but also in my mind’s eye still on stage, dancing underneath the dancers who filled your roles: layers and layers of you, like traces of earlier paintings underneath a finished canvas, right back to the divine originals Paul Taylor made the work on.

 And so it was when lovely lyrical Lila York departed Taylor's stage, leaving her beautiful shadow yearning into the wings in"Arden Court," and along came Mary.  Another of that type Paul christened "the runt," but this time a soubrette—so like Colette Colbert, that charmer of an earlier time and medium. So perfect in "Offenbach Overtures" as a can-can dancer. And so too, the very embodiment of Shakespeare’s most spirited runt, Kate. Though she be but little, she is fierce. Fierce and funny, as in "Funny Papers." "Sorcerer’s Sofa."  So many wonderful roles.

Ironically, she was adored by many in a part she told me she hated. "I stood in the wings dreading it every single time," she said to me about "Rum and Coca-Cola." But she nonetheless sashayed out from the wings with that smile and that verve, the consummate professional. That's something I saw in all of you when I visited the studio—there you’d be clowning around— Mary and Joe Bowie doing Graham moves on their knees!—stretching, chatting, packing away snacks and sweats and water. At ease, informal. Then your choreographer joined you and lit his cigarette, the smoke curled upward, and Bettie cued the music. You stood on the edge of the marley—your studio stage—finding your centers—slight contraction just at the join of the rib cage lifting you back, and up— and your faces changed along with your bodies. You were not just dancing the steps, you were taking on the Taylor persona. This was not without nuance. Nor was Mary without critique. And so it was in"Company B.The dark was there—that undertone—just like the lining of her skirt.

One day, I went to see Paul after he’d come back from seeing Jeff Wadlington—golden, handsome Jeff, who was dying, as Chris Gillis did, as did so many then. “I just think it’s the right thing to do, when someone’s leaving,” Paul said to me. “You go and say goodbye.” That’s not something you got to do with Mary. So we’re here today to try to do that. To hold her close, or to let her go, perhaps to sense a trace of her sparking free across the sky, a bright flash. Off stage.

You know that place in "Sunset"—where the women are both girls and angels—and we—your audience—sense impending loss? Darkness falls. The music—that plangent Elgar—stops. Nature takes over. Dusk, the cries of loons. A fallen dancer crawls away towards a central grouping. And then, in the next scene, the lights brighten, and we’re in heaven. 

That’s where you took us, Mary, when you were dancing. When you closed down "Esplanade" by inviting us all into the dance, and ended with a beginning. You made watching feel like doing. We all loved you so.

Esplanade,  1973  photo:Bob Shomler


Last Love Letter

Dear Trisha,

Remember that time you danced for me and only me, with Carolyn Lucas playing Bob's score on a cassette recorder? It was 1994, and you were about to premiere "If you couldn't see me," so I went to the studio to talk to you about it. (I think I must have been writing about it for "Goings on About Town.") And you took me into a nearby room, and faced away from me, towards a brick wall, and danced all of "If you couldn't see me," just for me. It was the most curious moment. This was before dancers started staring you down as you sat in the front rows at Danspace, before dance started occupying museums where dancers are two feet away from you. But there you were, and there I was ten feet away, all alone, watching you. You couldn't see me, but I could see you. I became, sitting there in the light, almost unbearably conscious of myself watching you. It wasn't the theater, in a cloak of darkness, in the solitary communality of watchers.  It was just daytime, and just me. And you were so beautiful, dancing just for me the same way you would dance for a full house. I've never gotten over it. I don't want to get over it. So much later, years and years, when we would meet and you knew you knew me but now not perhaps quite why, but yes, you would light up and say, "There she is." Yes there I was. And here I am.
Just outside this page, there is the faint music of a band, and you are glimmering, glimmery, shimmering, shimmery.... 

I love you (foret forêt) forever,

from Dance Ink: Photographs (1997)

After some thirty-five years of performance and dance making, Trisha Brown retains both her potent allure and her singular astringency. Sorceress, enchantress, the cool mind in the hot body; over and over, she sees us for what we are, sitting in our seats in the dark, watching: voyeurs, the invisible fourth wall of the stage our window. Sometimes, she steps though to talk to us, to look right back.

Mostly, she pretends she doesn't know we're there.

Trisha Brown, "If you couldn't see me" (1994)  photo: Kaus Rabien courtesy Trisha Brown Dance Company

In the theater, we are her tourists. We find ourselves in a place thoroughly modern, yet reeking of the ancient--of Crete, of Minoan palaces, of lost subterranean continents. If Circe were a choreographer, these would be her dances: Set and Reset, Opal Loop, Glacial Decoy, Foray Forêt.  Although she is long out of the loft and into the spotlight, Brown's basic concerns are consistnet. Over the years, her compositions have grown more formal, her vocabulary more subtle, her expression more veiled, and her taste in music more classical. For Trisha, whose choreographic stance is rooted in rebellion, something old is something new. Her collaborators--major artists all--have varied, albeit with Robert Rauschenberg the abiding Brownian other. He has cloaked her in roses, built her astral convertibles, composed music for her to dance to, and taken bows on her stages.

Nonetheless, while the choreography evolves in cycles, each amrked by a shift in tone and each reflective of the choreographer's intellectual passions of the moment, its abstract elements differ only by degree. Always, the dances seem to be asking questions. What must goes up come down? What happens to momentum when an object changes direction? Can a wall be a floor? A leg an arm? Cal the laws of physics be made physical? Can dance dissolve? The choreographer answers herself in a style that makes of solipsism a virtue. For however different they may be from each other, her dancers are all Trisha, replicating not only her movement, but her very way of moving.

Hers is a method combining sensuality and denial--lush and languorous, but springing from the Puritan I-WILL-ERADICATE-TECHNIQUE aesthetic that characterized Judson Church, the experimental outpost of postmodernism's heyday. Denial undeniably looks best on performers who have something to deny. In this arena of negation, where the characteristic gesture is erasure, Trisha is nonpareil. This, then, is the drama--the conflict--implicit in her style. It is not loose, but loosened. When the dances and the dancers convey this illusion of letting go, as Trisha herself does whenever she so much as walks across a room, the audience is seduced. Thus mesmerized, we may never notice the other tension inherent in the choreography, the conflict between the rules of the dances and their ineluctable unfolding.

Limpid. Deceptively easy. Impossible to remember. Impossible to forget. Only Trisha. And only Trisha's moves.

Email to Deborah Hay, March 19, 2017

Dearest Deborah,
I found out at the theater tonight that Trisha died last night.I didn't want you to find out hearing it on the radio or seeing it in the news.The first time I saw her was  dancing with you in Austin--in that white box room near the TruValue Hardware Store on Guadalupe.  You both wore white t-shirts with long sleeves, and white pants, and you danced around--the most delicious noodling I have ever seen--for about forty minutes, in silence, in the heat. It was divine.
Love, Nancy

as published in

With continuous thanks to Patsy Tarr, publisher, Dance Ink: Photographs

©1997 Dance Ink, Inc.
©2017 Nancy Dalva


Resuming her stage after a decade's absence.
Fabulously understated.
Bred-in-the-bone no frills glamour.
Authority. Witchcraft.

in background: Claire Westby, Brandon Collwes
photo: Gus Reed

JASPER JOHNS and the decor for "Walkaround Time" (après Duchamp)

 Working on the set pieces....
photo: Oscar Bailey, Walker Art Center Archives

Choreography by Merce Cunningham, decor by Jasper Johns after Marcel Duchamp
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company    photo: Oscar Bailey, permission of the Merce Cunningham Trust
photo: Penny Brogden



For the New York Observer

Nathalia Arja and Miami City Ballet dancers in Symphonic Dances at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater.
Nathalia Arja and Miami City Ballet dancers in Symphonic Dances at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. (Photo: © Sasha Iziliaev)
What a triumph! The Miami City Ballet flew back into town after an absence (other than an appearance on a mixed bill at Fall for Dance) of some seven years. At home in the pit was the New York City Ballet Orchestra, under the swift baton of Gary Sheldon, Miami City Ballet’s principal conductor. I’d say it’s about time, but the timing could not seem better. The troupe—under the new leadership of Lourdes Lopez, gracefully following the founding director Edward Villella, and like him a New York City Ballet principal under George Balanchine—is marvelous.
If you lived in Miami, you’d go see this company regularly, you’d follow them, the way you go to see New York City Ballet here. They have a similar repertory, a similar range, and a remarkably similar ability to project in a lovely grand theater like the David H. Koch, where they were presented by the Joyce Theater. These dancers are ardent, direct, and connected, like both Villella and Lopez, a ballerina whose warmth and calm dazzle made me feel—as ballerinas can do—that she was my ballerina, so that when she entered—on this very stage—I would think, “There’s Lourdes!”

La plus ça change, la plus ça change....

reposted on Viola Farber's birthday


Merce Cunningham at his studio at  498 3rd Avenue     photo: James Klosty

PARIS--My last conversation with Merce Cunningham was at his apartment. There he graciously held what was in effect a series of farewells, courteous to the end. That afternoon I read this  to him, from the Tao te Ching:

Only he who is willing to give his body for the sake of the world is fit to be entrusted with the world. Only he who can do it with love is worthy of being the steward of the world.

 “This was you, Merce,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

For the past two years, on the Legacy Tour that began after his death,  his dancers have been the stewards of his world--the world of his dances, so various, so richly populated with all manner of beings, and all manner of things, as well.

Over time, Cunningham used his dancers as his every element: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Non-narrative as it may be, his choreography is a kind of story theater, teeming with images composed, in their entirety, by the people on stage at any given moment.
    "Ocean"                                                                                            ©Hugo Glendenning

Over the years, since he began his own company in 1953, there have been over 110 such dancers. They remain in the work in palimpsest, dancing underneath the dancers who have followed them in the roles that were first made for them, or that they inherited and then passed on to others.

There they are, and there they were, and here they are. There have been many Cunningham seasons in Paris. At the Théâtre de l'Odéon, the Théâtre de la Ville, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, at the Palais Garnier, at the Centre Pompidou, in the Cour de Palais Royal,  and then all “autour de Paris” as well.

La plus ça change, la plus c’est la même chose.

Because here in the coupole studio Robert Swinston is banging a drum and snapping his fingers, and the dancers are tilting and curving in their warm-up part of their class. Some have danced in the company for years, some worked with Cunningham only as members of the Repertory Understudy group. Of everyone in the room, only Robert Swinston danced on stage with him--although here in Paris too is Carolyn Brown, his onstage partner for twenty years. It was here in Paris that she danced with the company for the last time, and almost forty  years later, she is back, visiting old haunts, and revisiting the work she graced.

It is here that the company will dance its last evening of repertory, flying home right after to prepare for a final run of Events--an amalgamation of excerpts from a broad range of work of their own choosing and that of Robert Swinston--at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. They will be disposed on three stages, with runways in between, and the audience free to roam about them. Then it will be over, the clock will strike midnight, and like the glass slipper, only their unitards will be left behind.

These dancers will scatter, as the dancers always have, though never before all at once.  At times especially in his later years it seemed Cunningham regarded them with the same open interest with which he might regard a flock of pigeons. Some would fly away, others would land. Now they will take one last great sweep around the room, and disperse.
         "Beach Birds"   with Michael Cole at front                                     ©Michael O'Neill
These are the bodies Cunningham  used as a painter uses pigment, building up the fluid canvases that were his choreography. Pigment with a will and a life of its own, of course, but perhaps that is just as true for painters, as they step back to see what effect the paint has made with itself. Green has a life of its own, and blue, and violet....

He also used them as elements. For instance, in Cunningham’s  dance called “Loosestrife, “ the dancers were the very plants of the title,  rooted on stage, bending as grasses do. Tilt towards the sun,  bend in the breeze, gone with the wind. In a dance called "Five Stone Wind," one group of people  transmitted a way of moving to another group of people. But wait! Perhaps the dancers are also the stones, and perhaps they are also the wind. Sometimes, of course, they were animals--cats, wild beasts circling prey, and birds, birds, birds. In "Beach Birds," they are the setting, and the creatures within, human and avian alike.
                                 ©James Klosty

Merce was  himself protean--and so he regarded other bodies. He didn’t tell the dancers what they were. He told them what to do. He gave them the movement.

They were free to make things up, if they had the need. As later in the theater, so were we.

But--to use a phrase Robert Swinston, still teaching this class in front of me--uses all the time: Here’s the thing.

Merce knew what they were. When he choreographed his dances, he knew what he had in mind. The work carried his intention in its very architecture and pacing.

Now that we have access to his notes, we can check our selves--see if what we saw in the work is what he put in there. It turns out to have a remarkable transparency.

Take “Ocean”,  a dance which screened here on Sunday, with Charles Atlas in town to introduce this last of his Cunningham films. It begins with a man who enters the stage --which is a perfect circle--and makes an alphabet with his feet and body. A woman enters next, and does the same. Together, they have taught us the language of the piece, but also they have set the tone. They are arriving some place, and they seem to be discovering it, and they also seem to be alone. Who are they? He is Prospero, and she, perhaps, is Miranda.

Look in the notes. It says, “As if washed up on shore.”

Further into the dance--whose couples are dedicated, with the exception of one man (originally and still danced by Robert Swinston) who has a number of partners. One pair is so exceptionally ardent they could break your heart. Originally Frédéric Gafner  (now known as Foofwa d’Imobilité) and Kimberly Bartosik; in the film, Daniel Squire and Jennifer Goggans. At one point, she kneels on the floor, all the way across from him on the world that is the stage. He is turned away from her. She races towards him, her dress floating. He turns just in time, and catches her up in his arms as she wraps her legs around him. If there is something more romantic than this moment in any dance, I’ve never seen it.
Merce Cunningham rehearsing "Ocean" in 2007   (Robert Swinston partial view to left)  ©Hugo Glendinning

LOOK at the notes. “She clings to him for dear life,” it says.

This is what we do. We cling to things. But you can’t cling to dance.

You can hold it in your mind as best you can, you can summon it up from performances past even as it keeps painting itself, night after night in the theater. A continuous canvas, repainting itself.

And now it vanishes.

The work after this week will reside in a kind of perpetual present, or continuous past, in equilibrium, constant, whole, there to be visited in the mind.

                Jeannie Steele in "Biped"                                                             ©Tony Dougherty
And then in whatever performances other companies or projects will offer. Will it be the same? Of course not. Was it ever really? Perhaps not.

One night some time ago, Viola Farber, one of Cunningham’s originals, was in the opera house audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, watching an excerpt from Cunningham's galvanic “Winterbranch,” newly revived for an Event.

     Cunningham in "Winterbranch"      ©Max Waldman

“Was that what ‘Winterbranch’ was like?” I asked her.

“It wasn’t the “Winterbranch,” she replied. "But it was a version of 'Winterbranch,' and it was beautiful." It’s something to think about.

La plus ça change, la plus ça change.

I saw her together with Cunningham one last time after that. He was seated on a bench, cane in hand, in the upstairs lobby at City Center, a theater in New York, and she walked over leaning lightly on her cane. His face lit up, and he reached for her free hand, and kissed it. There they were. Hand in hand, the stewards of the world.
Viola Farber and Merce Cunningham rehearsing "Crises" (1963).  Photo: John Wulp.

 Special thanks to James Klosty and Hugo Glendinning
©Nancy Dalva 2011



  NEW YEAR'S EVE 2011 

New Year's Eve: Jason Lujon courtesy of The Park Avenue Armory
New Year's Day: Leon Dalva

Mirror, Mirror

Mr. B.  |  Merce 

photo: Dave Brullmann, 1978

photo: Penny Brogden, 1973


At the Théâtre de l'Odéon, 1970
Rehearsing "Rainforest" (wearing ankle weights from costume for "Signals")

dancers: Sandra Neels, Chase Robinson, Carolyn Brown
photo ©James Klosty 2011

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

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

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

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

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

"Because, he said, I love dancing!"

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




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


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

 originally published in

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

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

Mark Morris Dance Group. Credit: Ken Friedman.

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

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


PARIS, 1970 

photo: James Klosty

with thanks to the photographer for this beautiful and evocative image



PARIS circa 1900

Did Marcel Duchamp see this aircraft or one like it?

photo: Oscar Bailey

photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Before its accidental shattering and subsequent reconstruction:

photo of Carolyn Brown: James Klosty
Merce Cunningham: "I think it would be marvelous."

photo: James Klosty


(Marcel Duchamp was then 21 years old)