(HOST) The Merce Cunningham Dance Company brought its final area
performances to Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center last weekend. The performance
got filmmaker and Marlboro College teacher Jay Craven thinking about
his own experience with the legendary choreographer’s work.
Cunningham planned it this way – that after his death in 2009 at the
age of 90 – the dancers he mentored would tour the world one last time,
performing work from his remarkable 70-year career. It was an
emotionally charged, beautifully performed, and historically resonant
This final tour marks a fitting denouement for an
artist who never looked back. He didn’t have time – because Merce just
kept surging forward at age 80 and beyond, with experiments in new
technology, collaborations with the likes of Rauschenberg and Radiohead,
and always fresh choreographic insight.
Cunningham’s work could
initially seem too abstract. When I first saw the company, in 1972, the
dances seemed disconnected-especially to their music, which didn’t seem
like music at all. Indeed, Cunningham composer John Cage found sound
fragments in nature and others that flowed in through window from the
city street. It seemed like maybe this was a joke. I expected something
that conformed to what I already knew. Later, when I saw the company
again I found in it something essential about movement itself.
came to appreciate how Cage’s sound snippets reflected Merce’s own
fascination with the spontaneous. And I accepted how his dances existed
completely separate from his collaborators’ music and intersected it
only in unplanned ways. By choreographing in silence and not adding the
composer’s score until the final rehearsal, Cunningham altered dance
rhythms and created pure movement freed from historic dependencies on
I remember one performance at The Flynn Theater where
audience members were given an I-pod that played just one of a
half-dozen musical scores and were each cued to different starting
points. Perhaps none of us experienced exactly the same music for the
dance we all watched together.
Choreography director Robert
Swinston calls these independent, sometimes hostile, and often
surprisingly compatible elements, "either the ultimate collaboration or
no collaboration at all."
Dance scholar Robert Copeland writes
in his 2004 book, Merce Cunningham that "no one revised ‘the
fundamentals’ (of dance) more fundamentally than Merce Cunningham."
Despite his experimentation, Copeland notes, Cunningham "forged an
unprecedented rapprochement between modern dance and ballet," which had
been so firmly rejected by previous modern choreographers. Cunningham’s
technique drew unapologetically from ballet as he made "fresh
connections between the dancer’s head, back, pelvis, legs and feet." The
result produced graceful movement that never stopped breaking new
With this final legacy tour, Cunningham fulfilled his
belief in dance’s evanescence. He wrote, "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, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing
but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive."