Primary tabs

Merce Cunningham’s Century

October 29, 2019

Hope Mohr Dance honors an iconic American choreographer with the forward-tilting 2019 Bridge Project, “Signals from the West: Bay Area Artists in Conversation with Merce Cunningham at 100.” Performances and events Nov. 7–9 at ODC in San Francisco provide opportunity to reflect on Cunningham’s history, lineage, and ongoing legacy. 

The Cunningham Legacy

Merce Cunningham just loved dancing.

During a seven-decade career, Cunningham was a dancer, avant-garde choreographer, film producer, multimedia artist, and teacher. His work not only shaped American modern dance and choreographic processes in the 20th and 21st centuries, but influenced music, contemporary art, and much more. He was curious about the human body: His movements rooted the lower body in classical ballet, while allowing the torso, head, and arms, and use of weight free reign. He recognized music and dance as equal-but-separate entities and, influenced by composer John Cage, his life partner and greatest collaborator, applied chance operations — coin tosses, rolling dice — to determine a dance’s visual frame, time, movements, and patterns in space.

A leading soloist in Martha Graham’s company, he formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company during a 1953 residency at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina.

Cunningham created over 180 dances, many of which are in the repertories of ballet and modern dance companies worldwide. A vast number of books and documentaries have been written and made about his work. The Merce Cunningham Trust, founded in 2000, offers a website with many features, including “Dance Capsules” that provide complete documentation of 86 key repertory works. He continued to perform in his works to an advanced age and died in July 2009 at age 90.

But Do We Want a Merce Cunningham Repertory?

Choreographer Douglas Dunn is the artistic director of the Douglas Dunn + Dancers company. Dunn studied ballet and modern dance at a variety of schools and dance venues, among them Jacob’s Pillow, Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Center, and the Cunningham school. In New York, he danced with Yvonne Rainer’s company, became a founding member in the 1970s of the improvisational group Grand Union and was a member of the Cunningham company from 1969 to 1973.

Launching his company and choreographic career in 1976, Dunn has received numerous commissions and is the recipient of awards and honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, New York Dance & Performance Award (Bessie) For Sustained Achievement, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and others. At age 77, following the unofficial Cunningham tradition, he continues to perform and choreograph.

In the 10 years after Cunningham’s death, Dunn says, “There’s a strange bifurcation going on. Merce always said he didn’t want the company to go on beyond two years past when he died. Now they’re selling his pieces all over the world. Within the dance world, he’s getting more famous, more known, after he’s gone. There are people making their entire living out of him now. But at the same time, you can ask people on the street in New York if they know who Merce Cunningham is and they say, ‘Who is she?’”

When Dunn, at age 26, first saw Cunningham perform, he recognized a place of escape. It was pure physicality, isolated and insulated from the weight of then-fashionable sociological or narrative approaches to choreography. Cunningham danced the way Dunn felt: Even the two dancers’ lithesome, lanky physiques and propensity for expansive, deer-like running and buoyant leaps were matched.

“I didn’t need philosophy from him, I just wanted to do the work. Intuitively, the movement was right for me,” says Dunn. “I had studied and loved the rigor of ballet — but not the uplift of the chest and being a prince. He was dancing with the body he had. I wanted to dance big and extended too, so that felt good to me.”

The dance artists he knew and worked with in New York were different than the take-it-or-leave-it people he had known in earlier years. “I had never met someone like Merce or people so passionate about what they were doing: Merce, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Trisha Brown, and others. They were all inspiring to me.”

Although Cunningham’s use of chance operations leads most people to assume the choreography had and has no storytelling, Dunn says an experience — and an epiphany he had — during the making of a new work, proves otherwise:

There was one piece called Objects that didn’t last very long in the rep, for whatever reason. Merce made it out of 22 different procedures. He had us sit in a circle and asked us to mime playing jacks. I wasn’t into it at all. We rehearsed and rehearsed, and then the last day before the show, guess who joined the circle? Merce. He sat down and performed jacks. I was so embarrassed I’d been resisting it. It was so beautiful. When he did it, there was commitment. It was like watching an early classic film.

Merce, he realized, “clearly had something going on in his inner loop. He wasn’t just blank.” The work was oblique, but Cunningham didn’t just throw coins and make steps. He used chance operations, then “went all over the place,” according to Dunn. Mostly, he made dances so beautiful other people wanted to dance them, or at least, observe. “It took me a long while to discover that some in the dance world thought of Merce as the scourge of the dance world,” he admits.

After leaving the company, having often been told he was “like Merce,” Dunn sought to establish his choreographic imprint as separate and unique. He deliberately made an all-still, anti-Cunningham dance. “Someone saw it and said right away, ‘That looks a lot like Merce.’ I decided I wouldn’t worry about it. I just made dances the way I liked to make dances.”

Dancers may not have needed philosophy from Cunningham but they absorbed it nonetheless. Like the people who participated in Judson Dance Theater in the early ’60s and Grand Union, Dunn’s dance-making creativity was triggered by Cunningham and Cage’s proposal of more than one way to make a work. “Choreographers don’t have to come from ABA or other musical forms,” Dunn says. “Everyone went off to make wacko dances and it just opened everything up. There was a feeling of openness and at the same time, there was a reaction against Cunningham. Explorations were rife. I made pieces that were totally still, then later, really dance-y dancing.”

He also carried with him the answer to a question he asked Cunningham while performing with the company. “Without pre-thought, I’d just wander in and ask him something. I said, ‘What do you do when you’re not enjoying dancing?’ And remember, I was dancing for him when I asked that, so it could have gone wrong. Instead, he said the simplest thing: ‘When you’re dedicated to something, when it’s not fun, sometimes you just do it anyway.’”

In light of activities connected to Cunningham’s legacy, Dunn asks if extending the works in repertory is sustainable, retains value. “We don’t know, that’s the thing with his work going everywhere. We have to ultimately decide if it’s still interesting. In the ballet world recreation is well-known, but in the modern dance world I sometimes think of it as forgery. Is it valuable in the world to have stuff that’s watered down?”

In the last five years, Dunn has realized the extent to which he remains connected to Cunningham. “Asking who am I? I’m still working in that vein,” he says. “What other vein do I know? It’s so deep in me. That’s my life. It’s the kind of inspiration I’m still following.”

Moving on From Merce

Among the many projects in 2019 celebrating the Cunningham centennial is San Francisco-based Hope Mohr Dance’s “Signals from the West: Bay Area Artists in Conversation with Merce Cunningham at 100.” The annual Bridge Project is  bicoastal this year, presented in collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Trust, ODC Theater, and SFMOMA’s Open Space. Included in activities held in August was a public workshop at which local dancers auditioned to learn and then perform excerpts of Cunningham repertory. A two-week residency for 10 artists selected from diverse disciplines will lead to commissioned new works made in response to Cunningham’s work. Subsequent open rehearsals and other community events will culminate in an artist talk Nov. 7 and performances Nov. 8 and 9 at ODC Theater.

The commissioned artists are Sofia Cordova, Maxe Crandall, Alex Escalante, Christy Funsch, Julie Moon, Jenny Odell, Nicole Peisl, Danishta Rivero, Dazaun Soleyn, and Sophia Wang.

At the Hope Mohr Dance website, director Mohr explains: “The intention behind “Signals from the West” is not to further canonize Merce Cunningham, but rather to create a space for contemporary cultural exchange. Teaching Cunningham’s repertory will be a point of departure for new artistic activity, not an endpoint in itself.”

Although the project is not focused on Mohr’s lineage, she studied at the San Francisco Ballet School and, from 1997 to 1999, at the Cunningham School, before joining the company of choreographer Lucinda Childs. “The fact that I have meaningful connection to Cunningham’s work has fueled my passion for making the work relevant to a broader swath of artists,” she says in an interview.

As a mover, Mohr loved the technique’s rigor and impossibility. It pushed her to take up space in a way ballet never had. The demands of the class and repertory were incredibly difficult. “It asked me to work at my absolute edge,” she recalls, “if not beyond.”

Mohr calls herself a curatorial activist, which means encouraging artists to challenge terms such as “canon” and “legacy,” or to scrutinize restagings in which fidelity is the priority. She believes there is an inevitable “conversation with ghosts” and “artistic ancestral forces” in creating unique, singular voices, but re-creation alongside inquiry into the values of the work allow bigger questions to be asked and situates the work in an expanded artistic field.

During the residency led by former Cunningham company dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, the commissioned artists — some of whom had no movement practice — mingled with highly trained dancers. Mohr says, “That shared experience meant everyone was engaged, everyone was onboard. It was joyful; people coming from so many directions to one similar practice.”

Mitchell, in an email, writes, “The artists responded to the complex systems created to generate material, [Cunningham’s] experiments with dance and the camera, the virtuosity of the bodies. But I think people were curious about what's behind the curtain, the subjectivity of the humans that performed the work, the slipperiness of transmission, what Merce said and did vs what the dancers felt.”

Working with chance procedures was intriguing in the way it concealed or revealed identity, choices and tendencies. “Mostly I think people were delighted to be experiencing their bodies in spaces with other people trying to make sense of a historical thing in the present moment,” says Mitchell.

Oakland-based Danishta Rivero is an improviser, performer, and sound artist. A firm proponent of collaboration, her project is a co-creation with Bay Area musicians Alexandra Buschman-Román, Rodolfo Córdova, gabby fluke-mogul, and Shanna Sordahl.

In answer to a request to identify the residency themes that most resonated, Rivero says that, in addition to collaboration, “I come up against the notion of neutrality. There is no such thing as neutrality. I have no way of escaping the way that I am seen in this world. So, instead of thinking of that which is neutral (which is based on a very narrow perspective — white, cis, male) and that which is not (everything else) I want to make room for a multiplicity of narratives, histories, and perspectives to take up space at the same time and see what comes out ... to allow that complexity to express beauty.”

As a vocalist whose practice is grounded in her body, the physical experience of Cunningham technique was surprising, transformative. “Having that small window where my attention was focused on what felt like every single inch of my body shifted something for me. I am mostly thinking of my voice through my body; what would it mean to flip this relationship? What would that look like? What would it sound like?”

Dazaun Soleyn is artistic director of dazaun.dance and an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. Initially struck by Cunningham’s investigation of technology, he began using randomized rules to develop movement phrases. “Rhythms and the syncopation of my work are normally something I develop intuitively but I wanted to test out this new way of working,” he writes in an email. Instead of separating logical and intuitive skills, Soleyn says the project’s freedom and lack of pressure to create a finished work allowed for an expanded, integrated choreographic approach. As dancer trained in modern dance, hip hop, ballet stepping, Caribbean dance hall, and who is currently studying Gyrotonics, the Cunningham technique classes he says will have less impact on his physical expression than will the processes.

Soleyn and Rivero are working independently of each other after sharing overall visions, much in the tradition of Cunningham working with Cage. Rivero says she is excited to see the chance operations approach “mess with my own structural schema.” Soleyn predicts the creative process of working separately may offer similar disruption and says, “We will not see how the works fit together until tech rehearsal.”

Although there is no blueprint for the artists responding to Cunningham’s work, there is a mindset that determined directions taken. People “good with unknowns,” eager to collaborate, and energized to “figure it out as we went along,” led to what Mohr suggests is a rewarding, multidisciplinary range of poetry, spoken word, song, dance, film, performative and multimedia installations.

Even so, the unknowns persist. “I’m not privy to their practices,” she says. “I haven’t seen what they’re making. Even if someone says it’s a solo, I don’t know what the work is going to be like.”

A Cunningham quote Mohr favors hangs on her wall: “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and read, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.