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Merce Cunningham remembered

July 27, 2009 |  2:36 pm

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When a giant departs, the world often seems to shrink a little. That is especially true when a great choreographer dies. Little of the work normally survives, since dance is created for the moment and not easily preserved or passed along.

Still, the universe operates through expansion. Chaos is nature’s growth industr.  A true artist’s legacy need not be stuff but rather suggestions for new ways of proceeding. Merce Cunningham died Sunday night. He was not like other choreographers. He believed in nature and accepted its chaos. 

Merce did, in fact, also leave behind a huge amount of material.  He remained creative to nearly the end, celebrating his 90th birthday in April with the premiere of a 90-minute dance called “Nearly Ninety” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He said he wanted to make more dances, but his body gave out.  He had begun putting his artistic legacy in order, last month announcing a way to systematically end the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which he had founded 56 years ago and preserve his work the best he could.  He died of natural causes in his sleep.

Merce was Merce to everyone, those who knew him and those who didn’t. (Maybe he was Mercier to his mother, but I doubt it).  His work, the dance world pretty much now agrees, was without equal in concept or execution.  But once Merce began to be seen as the Einstein of dance, the outsider genius with hair askew, his name came to stand for doing things differently, always embracing the new and the unknown. 

I first saw the Cunningham Company at UCLA in the '60s, and, I’m afraid, what I remember most vividly is how angry Merce made the audience. Many disliked the movement, which was abstract and appeared to be without rhyme or reason.  Most were annoyed by the coincidence of music, dance, costumes and décor being decidedly without rhyme or reason. And even the majority of Merce’s fans found the music objectionable. John Cage, Merce’s collaborator and companion, was the company’s music director.  I’d say more in the audience left than stayed.

I’m not sure I understood what I saw or heard any more than the next guy. But I sensed something was happening, and went back and back. I’ve never since missed an appearance by the company that I could possibly get to. I have witnessed Merce’s work literally hundreds of times. I met Merce through Cage, and I got to know him after Cage’s death in 1992.

I’m still not so sure I understand what I see or hear any more than the next guy. But that’s precisely the point. Not only don’t I know what to expect when I see something I have never seen before, I don’t know what to expect in work I’ve seen many times before.

Merce is famous for having created the dance apart from music, sets and costumes. Everyone worked independently, and the whole came together at the dress rehearsal or the first performance.  No one knew exactly what would happen. And even with fixed choreography, Merce always found ways to keep his audiences, so to speak, on their toes. 

Cage and many other composers used by the company frequently wrote indeterminate music that would be different each night. Merce made what he called “Events,” in which he continually made new patchwork choreographic quilts from old dances.  He liked to perform in settings that changed the whole equation, such as putting on his magnificent “Ocean” deep in a Minnesota granite quarry last year. 

And Merce was always ready to embrace new technology, be it video, computers on which he choreographed, or iPods. He didn’t understand most of this, himself, but that only egged him on.

What I only first sensed with Merce and gradually came to understand as I got to know him, however, is how unhelpful the descriptions of his work as abstract, non-narrative or even chance-derived are. As I think about Merce, what vividly comes to mind is what an excellent and extravagant storyteller he was.  Every tale had the same punch line about how an extraordinary event or person had revealed something new to him. 

Nor was Merce an intolerant Modernist. He wasn’t. Once not long ago at a dinner party, a guest started to criticize Mark Morris’ choreography, insisting that his movement was so doggedly tied to music that there didn’t wasn’t any room to breathe. Merce got annoyed. Mark, he said, is my friend. And he makes me laugh.

Merce never lost his love of life, and living for Merce was being in a permanent state of openness to new possibilities. The minute you realize that, his work suddenly seems like the liveliest, most accessible on the planet, because it celebrates the life we live and the planet we live on. It helps us carry on. A giant has departed, but Merce lives.

-- Mark Swed

Photo Credit: Joe Tabacca/Los Angeles Times       

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