(HOST) Commentator Jay Craven has been thinking about Merce Cunningham and the nature of dance.
(CRAVEN) I recently met French choreographer Heddy Maalem for lunch in Burlington. Heddy created the signature dance event, "From the New World," for our recent waterfront festival – and he was about to head back to Toulouse with his wife and two young kids. I wanted to apologize to Maalem for our spotty weather and say further what I liked about the piece he choreographed for our 60 mostly local dancers.
In trying to find words, I found myself instinctively referencing Merce Cunningham who did so much to expand our notions of movement and make visible the act of creative discovery – in the process achieving elegance and clarity within open-ended expression.
"I liked that your dance piece suggested meanings without stating them," I told Heddy. "Even with indigenous dancers and a Champlain figure on stage, you allowed audiences to imagine their own ideas – that’s also what I love about Merce Cunningham."
"Merce Cunningham died," said Heddy. "Just this morning."
I hadn’t heard.
Merce Cunningham was 90 years old and he lived a life as full as anyone. Still, his death marks the end of an era – as much as Picasso’s did or Miles Davis. Or, in dance, Ballanchine, Martha Graham, and Isadora Duncan. Each invented creative language.
One of my favorite stories about running Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury during the mid-80’s is about bringing Merce and his company to perform in the Northeast Kingdom. And it’s worth retelling here.
Early on the morning of the show, Cunningham stopped by my office. While reviewing program copy, my phone rang and a man’s voice bellowed loud enough for both of us to hear.
"I’m in the milking parlor," he said in a heavy Vermont accent.
"Up here to Barton. Just had to make sure you got two tickets for the dance show they’re putting on tonight down to Lyndon Institute."
"We’ve got a few," I said.
"Well, you better give us just two. But I don’t carry credit cards and never will. So you have to trust me."
Cunningham was tickled. "Ask him to come backstage after the show," he said.
After the curtain calls, the farmer met Merce and they both lit up. "I saw the whole thing," said the farmer. "Every bit of it."
And he did.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will now embark on a final two-year international tour. The Cunningham Trust will then prepare detailed records of his dances so that other companies may produce them. This suggests an apt irony, given a recent New York Times quote on Cunningham’s own views about the impermanence of dance. "You have to love dancing to stick to it," Cunningham wrote. "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 sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive."