Merce Cunningham: a life larger than dance

The choreographer, who died Sunday, stretched to discover the 'next idea,' say those who worked with him.

Mark Seliger/ Merce Cunningham Dance Company/ AP
In this undated file photo provided by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, on April 16, choreographer Merce Cunningham is shown.

As the dance world marks the passing of a gentle titan, those who had the privilege of proximity – the dancers and teachers who learned from Merce Cunningham and, in turn, carved out their own careers – say his footprint was much larger than a single discipline.

"The world is a better place for his work," says Margaret Jenkins, a San Francisco choreographer and instructor in the Cunningham dance technique since 1965.

The lanky, crinkle-haired dancer, who died Sunday after a long career that included solo work with modern dance legend Martha Graham and who collaborated with some of the 20th century's biggest avant garde names (such as artist Robert Rauschenberg and musician John Cage), made a point of guiding young artists to find themselves.

"One of the hallmarks of his teaching was that he wanted us to find our own voice," says Ms. Jenkins. She cites the roster of dance luminaries who have passed through his studio – names such as Paul Taylor and Meredith Monk – and notes that not one is a miniature Merce Cunningham. "They are all distinctive and authentic in their own right," she says.

Even longtime dancers in the Merce Cunningham Company say the founder and sole choreographer of the troupe pushed his performers to find their own path through his works.

"He would be intentionally vague sometimes," says Robert Swinston, Mr. Cunningham's assistant for the past 17 years. While Cunningham would give "quantitative" directions such as "do it bigger, or faster, or slower," he would leave room for the dancers to make the movement their own.

In a 1984 interview with the Monitor, while resting in his New York studio, Cunningham himself remarked that he wanted a "democracy of movement." By that, he said, he meant that no element – neither the dancer, the music, nor the choreography – should be dominant. Rather, he said, they should feed on one another.

Cunningham's love of and appreciation for pure movement, one of his contributions to the evolution of dance in the 20th century, should not be mistaken for a lack of drama or imagery, notes Mr. Swinston. "He was a man of the theater and had an inherent sense of drama," he says.

Cunningham was born in 1919 in Pacific Northwest. While audiences came to expect abstract, complex, and seemingly intellectual dances from the choreographer who frequently tossed coins to set the order of movements in his pieces, "he also loved nature," says Swinston. He points to Cunningham's "Beach Birds," in which the dancers would evoke observations Cunningham himself had made, "things like a quick head movement like a bird, or even a body shudder, the way a bird might."

While the dance legend's great accomplishments and impressive intellect made him a formidable and influential figure in 20th-century dance, in the end it was his simplicity and humility that remain with those who worked with him most closely.

"Dancers have to be humble," laughs Swinston, "because they are always making mistakes."

In fact, he adds, this was another of Cunningham's perpetual themes. "He would say things, like, 'That's all very nice, but let's see you make a mistake.' " That edge of one's ability, says Swinston, is where discovery lies. "Discovering the next idea," he adds, "that's what Cunningham is all about."


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