Face to Face with Merce Cunningham

James Davidson

Very occasionally, something like once every other year, a stranger, over-impressed by the way I’m standing, will say something like ‘you’re a dancer aren’t you’ and I will be enormously pleased. Any real chance of being a dancer was probably squashed for ever when I was ten and an audition with a proper ballet school in Manchester was cancelled in mysterious circumstances. Either I had flu or my grandfather, of all people, wouldn’t have been happy, or I wasn’t actually that keen. I can’t remember anything about the episode apart from the fact of its existence. Occasionally, I try to make my parents feel guilty about it, the chance of an alternative life story thrown away, a door allowed to slam, just possibly, on a brilliant dancing career, but they’ll have none of it and say I would have found a way if I’d really wanted it, which is an effective answer, though not necessarily true.

Something must have got stuck in the door, however, which prevented it from slamming properly and in my first year at Oxford I joined the Contemporary Dance Society and was sitting on my bottom, legs apart, on an over-polished wooden floor in Somerville doing ‘contractions’. This was ‘Graham technique’ apparently and it involved a lot of sitting on the floor, flexing various parts of your body. ‘Imagine you’ve been hit in the solar plexus,’ our teacher said, and several rows of mostly female undergraduates, dressed in pinks and clashing pastels, winded themselves and tried to use the energy of the exhalation to contract their bodies into the correct shape, which looked like some kind of four-pronged grappling hook bracing itself to catch a beachball. I could get into this notion of the abdomen as some kind of powerful centre with the limbs as paths leading away from it, bent crooked with the force, but I balked at cupped hands. I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea of abdominal contractions taking place in my palms.

I soon graduated, or rather moved on, for I hadn’t reached any particular standard, to Oxford’s Old Fire Station, which somehow afforded top-class teachers from London. Here I was introduced to ‘Cunningham technique’, which was a reaction to Graham and involved lots of standing up. You held your arms like albatross wings and worked the top of the back first, tipping forwards, then sideways, then back. The feet began in parallel and slightly apart. You would brush them forwards and back to parallel, with great rapidity, one at a time. After a while they tended to rise off the ground and were soon hitting points at some distance above it. By this time, elbows had been bent and knees soon followed suit to support the weight you’d moved over them, and you would gradually explore the points of the compass by lunging towards them or sticking a limb in their direction, but always returning to a ‘centre’ which came to seem like home. When, after thirty or forty minutes, you got to travel through space, you felt like a plant that had uprooted itself. You were supposed somehow to take your centre with you, as you moved across the floor, but, all too often, at this point mine got lost.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] The latest addition to Cunningham’s repertoire, the self-ironically titled Biped, is performed behind a projection of vertical lines, bands and abstracted dancers. It is spectacular and the audience loved it.