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.

Cunningham felt like a huge advance on Graham technique, like moving from a grunt to sentences. Those who’d been doing Cunningham for some time were incredibly quick and clear in their movements; to watch them dance was like watching Russian mouths negotiate their way easily through effortful groupings of consonants. Instead of Graham’s pelvic ‘middle’ with extensions, your body now began to feel like a collection of highly-strung bones tied to the ceiling. I could grasp this new idea of the centre as an infinite line burning through me vertically, but I couldn’t see how you were supposed to maintain that centre when one of your legs was stuck out at an angle perpendicular to your body. And even the best of our teachers could be seen gripping the floor strenuously with the supporting foot, which seemed to me to be cheating.

The next and final phase in this unwitting crash-course in the history of modern dance technique was Release, which emerged from the experiments in natural movement made by dancers who rebelled (from Cunningham mostly) in the 1960s and set up the Judson Dance Theater in an old church; at the Old Fire Station it was taught by, among others, a remarkable woman who I think was the choreographer Sue MacLennan. If Cunningham was about mastering the body’s weight, Release was about giving in to it. There were still strings attached to the room around you, but instead of suspending you along some taut vertical axis and helping you keep centred, these strings tended to come from the walls and pull you off balance, attaching themselves mischievously to different points on your body, tugging you hip-first towards the side of the room, or head-first towards the back of it.

I attended only a few classes with MacLennan, but I remember her liquidity vividly. Her hair often fell in front of her eyes and had to be tucked back behind her ears, and this fringe and its deft tucking back seemed to be inspirational for the rest of her, floppy in a vigorous way, like the slow-motion section of a shampoo advert, her limbs escaping from her and having to be folded in again, not entirely sure which part might escape next and whither. The extremities of hands and feet which had so often been subordinate to some powerful centre now frolicked off with a mind of their own, yanking the rest of the body after them on some capricious excursion; it seemed very similar to the way that deconstructionists might let an apparently marginal passage in a work of literature yank the rest of the text off balance. It was all Post-Modern.

Among other things, Release was a preparation for Contact Improvisation, a graceful, spontaneous rough and tumbling, ‘initiated’ by one of the Judson people in 1972 and quickly developing into a kind of New Age dance cult. A pair (usually) of dancers would fall about with one another, taking it in turns to receive weight and give it back. In the hands of experienced practitioners, a CI ‘jam-session’ looked like puppies gambolling or weasels weaving, risking jumps in the confidence that someone would be there to break the fall, rediscovering in the space between themselves the centre they had abandoned.

While we were vigorously encouraged to respond, yield and trust, however, there was next to nothing about initiating these movements which required response, receptivity, trust. As a result we produced something rather more lugubrious than puppies gambolling: toads mating, buildings collapsing – the dance equivalent of primeval sludge. Probably this was the fault of our imaginations, but I did get some sense that initiatory proactive elements were looked down on as unnatural, ideologically unsound even, a necessary embarrassment.

I had taken quite a few classes by now, but it was clear I was never going to be much good as a dancer and probably never would have been; my Achilles’ tendons were tight and resisted all attempts to improve their elasticity. This meant that when my feet were together and my heels on the floor, my knees wouldn’t bend very much. While my classmates sank deeply, I merely bobbed a bit, dropping no more than a couple of inches. And without a proper plié your centre was all over the place, your leaps had no lift and when you did get off the ground, you landed heavily.

That wasn’t, however, as much of a problem as it might have been, for my ambitions lay not in dancing but in choreography. I watched carefully when Old Fire Station people put on a show, including a solo by Judith Mackrell, in which she didn’t move, as far as I can remember, from the spot. I went to see London Contemporary Dance Theatre and Ballet Rambert at the Oxford Apollo and one of Michael Clark’s earliest forays at the Museum of Modern Art, barebottomed in Bodymap and long sleeves. There wasn’t much more than that going on in London but they did get Merce Cunningham at Sadler’s Wells every now and again, and that was a revelation. I went to see every programme and made notes of what I could remember, while waiting at Didcot on successive evenings for the last train home.

By the time I went to New York in 1989, I was fully aware that I was coming to Dance’s Very Centre and made the most of the opportunities. I was amazed to find that Martha Graham’s company was still around and performing, although the actual dances didn’t quite live up to what I had imagined from the myths and the black-and-white stills. I discovered Balanchine properly for the first time at the New York City Ballet and in an amazing video library in the Lincoln Center. In the new harbour near the World Trade Center I saw a piece by Trisha Brown which involved four women repeating a series of accumulating movements while lying on individual rafts, gradually getting more and more out of synch as the rafts floated off in different directions. In some nearly abandoned old theatre with a chanteuse, drinks and the audience sitting round tables, I saw Mark Morris for the first time, already widely acknowledged in this city of dance aficionados as the next big thing.

At Oxford I had become aware that dance could be profoundly ideological, that these were not just dance classes but enrolments in movement movements and I had taken on board, without noticing, the idea that stories were bad, dancing to music was childish, spectacle was vicious and there was something politically dodgy about Merce Cunningham. It was in the context of this ideologically informed narrative of dance history that Morris seemed so important, rescuing it from a cul-de-sac by breaking all the rules one by one, knowingly and ironically. Sometimes you suspected he even did movements for mere show.

There were of course links between the dance I’d been taught and the dances I watched being performed. With Graham the link would have to be metaphorical: the deepness of the abdominal contraction in the body linked to the deepness of myth in culture. With Cunningham the link seemed to have to do with the mechanics of composition. His technique transformed bodies into perfectly pliable objects for the choreographer to play with, movable one joint at a time, suppler versions of the wooden models used by artists to sketch the human figure, breaking the body down into segments, its movements into movement-segments, to be reassembled in novel combinations with the help quite often of a throw of the dice or some other randomising mechanism.

I still tend to see his dances as a series of joined-up positions and the virtuosity of his dancers as a virtuosity of control, of not wobbling, of managing somehow to bring movements that ought to have an irresistible momentum to a dead-stop, of close symmetries and synchronies without the aid of music – still stupendous, the dancers of his company seemed rather less concerned than they used to be with keeping their collective movements clean when they performed at the Barbican last month.[*] Whereas in the work of John Cage, whose music often accompanied Cunningham’s dances, randomness seemed a rediscovery of the sounds found in ‘nature’, most notably in the sounds of the quiet concert hall with which he filled 4l33ll, there was nothing natural about Cunningham’s dancers and randomness seemed to serve artifice, a colonising not a liberating method, a pathological mapping-out, mechanically to ensure that no joint or muscle, no movement, no combination, no inch of space would be left untouched thanks to lazy preconception. Randomness can’t be faked and Cunningham’s oeuvre must be one of the most almighty and sustained acts of abstraction performed in this age of abstracters. He makes Kandinsky look less than serious.

If the movements and the dancers were far from natural, however, that wasn’t true of the structure, and it was the structure, the randomised rhythms and patterns of movement, that lingered in the brain. The first time I saw Cunningham the world was transformed. Travelling back to Oxford it wasn’t my aural universe which was different thanks to Cage’s scores, but my sense of choreography. Watching passengers move randomly up and down the train, getting up and sitting down, entering and leaving the carriage, they seemed like dancers who might at any point raise their arms like an albatross or lunge. It was an effect that was completely unexpected and lasted for several days. Even in Sainsbury’s, watching shelvers shelve or shoppers bend down to the tinned tomatoes or reach up to the Oxo cubes or lean into a freezer to grab some frozen peas, there were graceful patterns and combinations of movement to which I was suddenly sensitised. I still have that sense, watching Cunningham, of watching a documentary made by Yves Tanguy, a journey through some unfamiliar environment where creatures you have never seen before go about their business on the planet floor and any pattern you seem to see is something you have discovered.

As for my own ambitions, by the time I graduated I’d been on a course at The Place in London, where I was forced to choreograph a line in a poem about a butterfly and a wave – much rolling on the floor; when I went home, in an excess of enthusiasm, I choreographed my parents’ garden furniture. A small audience at the Old Fire Station benefited from a solo called Triptych performed to the sound of a crowd-scene from an opera, which involved rolling neatly around the floor, describing the shape of each panel and then filling it with the image of a saint, gesticulating frenziedly. The Oxford Playhouse, meanwhile, had been treated to several masterpieces, including a Tanzteaterstück which involved covering and uncovering people with sheets to demonstrate something, and an avant-garde ‘experiment’ in which two dancers mirroring each other set up a field which caused all kinds of energetic things to happen to the dancer in between. After that performance a small group of American visitors who must have comprised more than half the audience ventured backstage to congratulate me on something so bold.

It took only three months, however, for New York to knock it out of me. I got as far as the reception desk at the Cunningham Studio in Tribeca, but the prospectus was all about dedication and commitment and I was supposed to be committed to postgraduate research in classics. The woman at reception asked if I wanted to watch a class. I sat at the side and watched. Although it was a beginner’s class, they were moving around the floor much more than we had ever done, with alarming uniformity and control. By some chance, Merce Cunningham himself entered and looked at me before moving on to an exit at the back of the room. A dramatic image of a true choreographer and a monument of commitment and will, it was like coming face to face with Everest or J.S. Bach. I quailed, and as the door closed behind him, I felt the door close finally on my ambitions. For a couple of years, dance was painful to watch, especially if the choreography seemed inadequate, but eventually I was able to console myself with the thought of Mark Morris. The future of dance was safe with him. Probably I couldn’t do better.

[*] 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.