A dancemaker emboldened by curiosity
The spirit of inquiry motivates the lifework of Merce Cunningham, whose longevity and vitality still inspires
PALO ALTO, CALIF.
Even if you didn't know that Merce Cunningham is one of a handful of luminaries who rewrote the rules of dance in the 20th century, you would still be drawn to the excitement in his voice, to the sheer passion of his curiosity, even after decades devoted to his art.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's about seeing movement in a new way," he told a starstruck crowd gathered in the Cantor Art Center on the Stanford University campus here. "It's about seeing unexpected connections between music and dance," he adds. And then he smiles gently, with a look that has held more than a hint of mischief from the earliest days of his career.
The legendary modern dancer was on campus for the final week of a month-long, campus-wide exploration of his life work, dubbed simply: "Encounter: Merce." During 30 days of interdisciplinary exploration, everyone from computer-science and biology undergraduates to medical-center personnel and music professors has participated in lectures, research projects, and "happenings" - the mixing of many art forms into a single event.
As Cunningham shared anecdotes about the founding of his company in 1953, it became clear that, while his passions have changed little, the world around him has. Many of his once radical ideas, including the role of chance in the artistic process that he and his fellow artists espoused many decades ago, have become well accepted in the art world.
"With Merce, you don't talk about where he fits into the landscape of dance. He is the landscape," says Diane Frank, a lecturer in dance at Stanford who teaches Cunningham's technique, adding, "he defined the terms of engagement for modern dance in the 20th century."
The program was sponsored by Stanford's Lively Arts program as a way to leaven the campus culture with deeper questions about the creative process. Cunningham was chosen because he is considered a "seminal artist," says executive director Lois Wagner. "Because he is so broad, he covers all the disciplines."
The choreographer - a recipient of the National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur Fellowship, among many awards - began his career with another modern-dance legend, Martha Graham. After six years in the company of the woman who expanded the lexicon and very shape of dance, Cunningham moved on in 1945 to explore his own ideas about movement. He began what would turn into a partnership of some 30 years with composer John Cage, who was exploring new concepts of sound. Their ideas about the role of chance in the creative process were honed during this period.
"I still use it in all the dances," says Cunningham from his New York studio in an earlier interview by phone. By using chance, the choreographer forces himself to rethink how dances are put together; he can't fall back on previous work. "By using chance methods, I get at something that doesn't come from my memory or feelings about how things should go," he says. "It comes from having to think another way."
Some of those chance techniques, such as rolling a pair of dice to decide the order of phrases in a dance, were employed during the visit to Stanford.
Cunningham also pioneered the notion of movement for its own sake, with a life independent of musical composition. "Dance can be what it is," he says, "it doesn't have to have a story or a reference to something else."