Captivating to some and confounding to others, Merce Cunningham's dance pushed boundaries, even for his students and acolytes.
Dancer/writer Judith Brin Ingber remembers the advice she received from Merce Cunningham. It was the 1960s, and she was thrilled to be in the modern dance pioneer's class, but the usual routine of standing behind the instructor to learn movement just wasn't working with him. Cunningham kept changing directions, and soon he was dancing directly toward his wide-eyed student. "Use your wits," he said, passing her by.
Simple words, but don't be fooled. Cunningham, who died at age 90 in 2009, was a master of complexity. His deft use of chance methods dictated movement phrases in his 150-plus works. Musical and visual contributions by the likes of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg were developed independent of the dancing, only to be revealed at dress rehearsal or on opening night. Story lines were nonexistent. Sound scores were whimsical or an aural assault.
"Part of his point was to make you as the audience member take responsibility for what you brought to it," said Leigh Dillard, chair of the theater department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University. "Other choreographers want you to see things a certain way. Merce was pretty open-ended."
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) will visit the Walker Art Center this weekend. While the choreographer's place in dance history is assured, even those most familiar with his work -- including four Minnesota women who spoke with us for this story -- will be reminded of how it both delights and confounds. Cunningham, after all, was no stranger to standing ovations -- and walkouts -- during his 70-year career.
What was interesting to him
"Nothing else looks like what he does. I really think Cunningham's an acquired taste," said Twin Cities arts writer Linda Shapiro. In the 1980s, she and Dillard ran New Dance Ensemble, a troupe influenced by Cunningham.
"I didn't love all his pieces the same," said longtime friend and MCDC board member Sage Cowles, who first viewed Cunningham's choreography in 1944. "I was just eager to see it because I knew I'd be seeing a mind at work. He'd show me what was interesting to him at the time."
Cunningham's creative process relied on keen observation. "He went at his work full of curiosity about how people move, how animals move. That interested him until the day he died," said Cowles.
Shapiro experienced this almost anthropological fascination while at his New York studio more than 40 years ago. "There was a period in the class when he was staring at me, really staring, I never felt so stared at," she said.
Seeing the whole
His movement style was dynamic, but not in a traditional sense. There were no grand leaps or acrobatic lifts. Ballet technique applied, but Cunningham often shifted around the body's orientation.
His pieces can be viewed from any angle, but so much is happening it can be difficult to take it all in. "When students ask, I tell them don't worry about seeing the whole," said Dillard. "People don't know what to do with that much freedom."
Some describe Cunningham's work as cerebral, in part due to his reliance on chance in dance-making. But look no further than 1958's "Antic Meet" in the Walker show to see his humor. Choreographic tools were meant to further, not limit, innovation.
"He was not an improviser. In his mind he arranged the movement and patterns. That was why he turned to the computer. He didn't want to be stuck with the limitations of his own capacity," said Cowles, referring to the DanceForms software Cunningham helped to develop.
This weekend's program (which includes 1968's "RainForest" and 1998's "Pond Way") will be one of MCDC's last before ceasing operations. A plan is underway to protect Cunningham's legacy through licensing arrangements and digital "dance capsules" documenting his works. The Walker is part of this process with its recent acquisition of set pieces and costumes that will go on display beginning this week.
Still, Cunningham's technique is not readily transferable; it takes time to absorb into the body. Cowles, Dillard, Ingber and Shapiro note this challenge but all promote preservation. "It matters who has given us road maps, it matters to discover where we've been," said Ingber. "We'll never have Cunningham's company again, but we can know about it and be inspired by it and we can watch something new evolve."