The Gambler

How Merce Cunningham changed modern dance--and my life

In 1966 I moved from Wisconsin to Manhattan to teach junior high school. After three months in the big city, I could claim the following among my list of accomplishments, dubious and otherwise:

1) Walking into the Gramercy Park headquarters of Con Edison (New York's Xcel Energy), where I attempted to open a bank account.

The choreographer also uses an aleatory method in styling his hair: Dance great Merce Cunningham sporting the famous "genius do"
Courtesy of Merce Cunningham
The choreographer also uses an aleatory method in styling his hair: Dance great Merce Cunningham sporting the famous "genius do"

2) Picking up a psychotic flute player in Central Park.

3) Trying to teach proper usage of the verbs "lay" and "lie" to double-entendre savvy eighth-graders.

4) Attending, by chance, a concert by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

I survived numbers one through three, but four changed my life. I had been a ballet baby until age 16, with a few forays into modern dance of the gut-clenching Martha Graham variety. Cunningham's work had the look of ballet--the elongated line, the buoyant uprightness, the highly articulated footwork. But his dancers moved like some sublime breed of athlete, ferociously devouring space while pitching their torsos way, way off center, or standing still (often on one leg) with the coiled alertness of animals ready to spring.

So I signed up for classes. A Cunningham class was a 90-minute ordeal in which I felt like a test pilot breaking through barriers of time and space in the rickety aircraft that was my body. I'd never experienced such intense communal momentum, everyone pushing the limits as if dancing on the edge of a precipice. I was seduced by the action, but also by the ambiance of the Cunningham studio where, unlike in the rest of New York, serenity reigned and people behaved well. Cunningham himself set the tone. He often puttered around the reception area watering plants or chatting with dancers and staff. He seemed more a solicitous host than a revolutionary choreographer who had collaborated with other iconic postmodernists such as John Cage and Andy Warhol.

Only later did I learn about Cunningham's radical compositional methods, which he employed, he said, to free his imagination from the tyranny of its own clichés and to liberate dance from its traditional role as a handmaiden to music and drama. Einstein famously said that God would never shoot craps with the universe, but Cunningham has been doing it for over 50 years by randomly tapping into a universal pool of motor impulses. He uses chance methods to determine movements, order, and the placement of dancers in space, and he insists on the total autonomy of dance, music, and stage design. In "Split Sides," for example, one of the dances to be performed at Northrop this Friday, two pieces of music by rock bands Sigur Rós and Radiohead; two dances by Cunningham; and two sets of lighting, decor, and costumes were created independently of one another for mix-and-match use. I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2002, where the works came together for the first time. Cunningham and four colleagues tossed dice to determine which music went with which dance, as well as which sets and costumes--a maneuver with 32 possible outcomes. The crowd, including many who knew nothing about Cunningham and were there to hear the two celebrity bands perform live, went wild.

Often accused by his detractors of employing mechanistic and inhuman methods, this 86-year-old maverick continues to explore the infinite possibilities of human movement and its relationship to other art forms. "I am no more philosophical than my legs," he wrote in a 1955 essay, "but they are infused with energy that can be released in movement. The shape that movement takes is beyond the fathoming of my mind's analysis, but clear to my eyes and rich to my imagination."

Cunningham's vibrant and ongoing curiosity about life in general and dance in particular infected me as his student and kept me going through a couple of decades when I made my own dances and ran a company. Friday I get to cast the die for "Split Sides." I can't imagine a better way to pay my respects.

 
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