A mind for dance

As we sit before a bonfire or a waterfall, our eyes follow the changing shapes of flame or foam, so unique every second, yet so hypnotically familiar. This is a pleasure which continues as long as we let it, as long as we pay attention. Somehow the violence of burning wood or flowing water is a comfort, as well as one of life’s continuing enigmas. There’s a world of mystery in crackling fire or cascading water. And there’s also the sound.

But could one look at dance in the same spirit? Merce Cunningham, now 79, thinks so. He brings his company and an ever-challenging version of modern dance to Ann Arbor’s Power Center this weekend, providing a rare pleasure to the crowds who’ll attend — or a thorn in the aesthetic backside of an irritated few.

Their story

Dancer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage devoted more than half of this century to broadening the attention spans of whoever would look and listen, combining movement and sound into heretofore undreamed-of works of loveliness: dancers moving in near-darkness or hot glare to hidden pulses other than those of the dense or ethereal new music caressing the air.

In a relationship which began in the early ’40s and continued until Cage’s death in 1992, the duo brought out greatness in each other. The constantly evolving interplay between their disciplines — modern dance and experimental music — took up much of their time. But each also became a world-renowned — and often damned — master-iconoclast in his own field.

As a young man, Cage studied with the most controversial European composer of the modern period: Arnold Schoenberg, father of 12-tone composition, maker of atonality — or torturous noise, depending on who was reporting. Cage took Schoenberg’s interest in “all the notes” and moved past it, to an appreciation of all sounds as music. In the process, he invented the prepared piano, developed chance or indeterminate composition techniques — allowing him to avoid ego and the “mess of message” in music — and combined his interests in Zen, poetry and mushrooms into a joyful approach to the world of phenomena — artistic and otherwise.

Cunningham took a parallel route to the pre-eminent position he occupies today as the pioneer of a radical approach to choreography, performance and movement itself. His most important early experience was as a soloist with Martha Graham, the definitive modern choreographer who opened the 20th-century door to a liberated expressiveness of the body. Hers was a spiritual as well as physical revolution. But Cunningham soon began working with Cage and moving away from Graham’s intensely narrative emphasis, toward an approach which combined classical dance technique, everyday “awkward” movement, and a new concept in theatrical collaboration.


Cage and Cunningham completely overturned accepted thinking about the ways that music, costumes, sets and lighting supported dance onstage. Using some of the most exciting visual artists of our time — Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Nam June Paik, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman et al. — the Cunningham dance company commissioned costumes that the dancers would not wear and decors that they would not see until the opening performance of any new work.

Music by Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, Takehisa Kosugi, Conlon Nancarrow, Pauline Oliveros and numerous others was prepared independently of the choreography, again not played for the dancers until opening night.

“It’s a kind of anarchy, but it’s also trust among people,” Cunningham said at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center last September.

The length of a piece, once decided by Cunningham, is maintained down to the second in rehearsal with a stopwatch — with the dancers relying on a kind of muscular memory, since the music isn’t available as a reference point and since they aren’t “dancing to the music” anyway.

Carolyn Brown, a brilliant dancer who stayed with the company for two decades, writes in a memoir on Cunningham, “Merce’s way of working with a stopwatch … shocked the modern dance world (and) led to the company’s reputation of being cold, inhuman, impassive, expressionless automatons. But Merce worked with the stopwatch from the belief that rhythm comes out of the nature of the movement itself and the movement nature of the individual dancer.”

The result was a choreography totally dependent upon the bodies and commitment of the dancers at any given time. Membership in the company changed slowly, because Cunningham’s dancers were offered a unique dance world, one of infinite personal responsibility.

“Merce requires of his dancers that the rhythm come from within: from the nature of the step, from the nature of the phrase, and from the dancer’s own musculature; not from without, from a music that imposes its own particular rhythms and phrases and structure, or from a narrative or ‘mood,’” writes Brown in Dance Perspectives, no. 34.


These strategies produced spectacles that electrified or dumbfounded audiences in the States and abroad, depending on how much they were willing to open up to the aural, visual and corporal stimulation onstage. Cunningham, in a clear instance of Zen-mind, has always maintained that, for those experiencing his dance works, there are “no bad seats,” all vantage points in his audience universe — as in the interstellar, infinite one — being equally interesting.

A complaint which has followed Cunningham down through the years, however, is that his choreography lacks a narrative dimension, that it doesn’t present us with clearly identifiable drama, like Jim meets Mary, Mary loves Molly, and so on. But this misses the whole drift of Cunningham movement: the pleasure the body takes in dancing, and the sensual joy that the eye and mind of the beholder experience when immersed in one of his collaborative works.

Just think of dancing a polka or a waltz — what does it mean? What about the twist? the jerk? the hokeypokey? What does a square dance, a mosh pit or a Balkan kolo narrate to those forming it, or even to those watching? Few onlookers pause to concern themselves with the “stories” of such exhilarating forms of movement. We’re too busy enjoying the immediacy of the dancing — for its own sake.

In each case, a form has been given to the projection, the undulation, the elevation of bodies through space. And that is a pleasure which continues to fascinate us, like flickering fire, with its seemingly limitless possibilities.


What Cunningham’s work continues to create is an electrifying atmosphere in which humans move in uncanny yet elegant ways. Hands, feet and heads are used precisely. Strong limbs and torsos form combinations that shift and repeat, ebb and move on. Groups of two, three and four dancers make lilting patterns then disperse, like people moving through city squares, with that sexy, social aimlessness we know and love.

After all these years of innovation, Cunningham remains on track to the unexpected and marvelous. On the program this Friday and Saturday will be works created in synch with Cage, Brian Eno, Roy Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Tudor. Friday’s set will include the much-awaited “Scenario,” with music by Takehisa Kosugi, and lighting and riotous costumes by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo.

As Merce Cunningham said in London just over a year ago: “Just come and look. And listen. … it’s absolutely visual, and any philosophical ideas you want to have, that’s fine. But just come and have a different kind of visual and audible experience.”

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