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.
"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."
The same democratic notions apply to the body, he adds. Every limb, each muscle - all are equally valid as a source of movement. All of this is in stark contrast to longstanding dance traditions. In ballet, movement interprets music and - just as there is a hierarchy in the ballet company (prima ballerina vs. the corps) - the ballet dancer's body is trained with a vocabulary of movements that emphasizes the beautiful line rather than the inherently interesting gesture.
Cunningham has also pioneered the use of a tool that helps expand his ideas about the human body even further - the computer. He works with a software program called Dance Forms that allows him to choreograph using computer-created figures. "For one thing," he says with a gentle laugh, "you can have [the figures] do it over and over and they don't get tired, as the dancers do. Then you can bring something into rehearsal you've already worked on."
Cunningham's love for the creative process has been a source of inspiration to others.
In 1993, Stanford music professor Mark Applebaum was a graduate student in San Diego when he was asked to create a composition for Merce Cunningham. The piece was an hour and half long.
"It was 90 minutes that changed my life," he says. The notion that dance and music could be put together in such a way opened his eyes to the possibility "that any two media could be put together, have separate but parallel worlds, and yet have felicitous results."
Mr. Applebaum coordinated several events for "Encounter: Merce." "What I like about Merce," he says, "is that his work has incredible beauty but also incredible complexity."
The dancemaker's unsentimental willingness to question traditions has inspired Stanford senior Jessica Goldman to further her education. For her part in the campus-wide encounter with Merce, the English major from Palo Alto compared Cunningham and ballet techniques using motion-capture technology.
"We are looking at the essence of Merce," she says, standing in the middle of the Motion and Gait Analysis lab at the Stanford Medical Center.
Her subject, Cunningham dancer Jonah Bokaer, is dotted with round rubber markers covered with reflective tape. He moves slowly and deliberately through a series of dance phrases, which the computer records and Jessica studies.
While no sweeping conclusions were reached about the ultimate value of either technique, Ms. Goldman, who already has a minor in dance, says subjecting her interests to such intense scrutiny has given her a new appreciation for asking questions. She's decided to add a new minor to her degrees, one with a focus on research.
Cunningham's relentless democratic tendencies have always been infectious, says Lewis Segal, dance critic for the Los Angeles Times. "His work has never been about dramatizing stardom or virtuosity for its own sake," he says, although technical skill and individual personalities are accounted for in the choreography. Rather, he says, Cunningham is interested in the process itself, the exploration of the potential in any given movement.
This emphasis pointed the way for the development of modern dance as we know it today, he adds. "There are relatively few people alive today who completely define an epoch. Merce is one of them."
Cunningham freed dance from the influence of centuries of European ballet traditions, Mr. Segal says, with their emphasis on creating dance stories and a rigidly hierarchical company structure. "In terms of dance," he adds, "there is before Merce and after Merce."