I had first heard of Merce Cunningham in college. When I went to Barnard, it was with every intent to be a human rights lawyer, forgetting that throughout junior high and high school what had most enraptured me was performance. I began as an English-Theatre major, feeling both had their place in litigation, but soon enough dance took over and I graduated a religion and dance major.
I was in New York. Home to Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon, Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris — the list goes on and I hungrily devoured each one either at their own schools or through Barnard’s brilliant dance faculty. It was not difficult for me to be pulled away after one disillusioning internship into what law was like on a daily basis.
I was especially inspired by the words and approach of Ms. Graham (“Blood Memory”), Mr. Ailey who was one of the first to give the rest of us permission to bring our own traditions into modern dance (run to see “Revelations” if you haven’t yet), and Mr. Cunningham.
It was choreographers like Mr. Cunningham from whom I realized artists could make as big if not bigger impact in the areas of justice, human rights, empowerment, and freedom of the spirit. I was inspired by how the dancers and choreographers I met, no matter what their age, retained a youthful spirit free of the cynicism adulthood seemed to take on for others, not to mention just ripe, active old ages. Ms. Graham died at 90. Mr. Cunningham was 80 when he danced with Baryshinkov at BAM in 1999 and 90 this past April when he performed a 90 minute solo.
It is not the dance that is the elixir of youth but the love that fuels it. To dance is to always follow your love, and that is truly all you have. Dance is a profession where no connections, no charm, nothing but sole merit can get you a job. It carries absolutely no chance at fame or money. It does not require beauty, it makes you beautiful. Through it, the spiritual and physical become inextricable. It is not just for performance, but community celebrations, rituals, and personal expressions. And political statements as Mr. Cunningham well knew.
Dance uses the body, and within that all the societal and political constructs and burden of the bodies of a man or woman (or man and woman’s or man and man’s or…). Taking pointe shoes off, releasing the bun was a rebellion in 1905, not accepted until the 1960’s. “Rite of Spring” caused a riot in 1913. Hip-hop, before turning its attention to booties and bling, was a revolution. It is the artists and academics first targeted and killed or exiled whenever a public needs to be squelched. Still, they persist. And Mr. Cunningham did.
Mr. Cunningham died this past weekend, Sunday July 26, leaving a legacy on par with the most celebrated artists and thinkers of the 20th century. He had bridged ballet and modern, the first truce between the two forms. He separated music and dance with his longtime collaborator and of his publicly known off-stage partner, John Cage, a rare, brave acknowledgement of for that time period.
Mr. Cage was himself a revolutionary, a composer distinguished for introducing the concept of silence as a composition and non-standard use of instruments. Needless to say, between these two geniuses, it was one of the most fruitful artistic collaborations of the century. Mind-blowing may be the right word if you were one of the first to see their results.
Mr. Cunningham was an artist unafraid of technology. In his 60’s, he began exploring motion capture technology. Though starting when he was an octagenarian, he left a legacy for digital music that is heard in the sounds of bands like Radio Head. In this mp3 he discusses the appeal of the eradication of bars and beats, and throwing of the shackles of the almighty Count through electronic music.
I personally chose not to continue studying Cunningham, perhaps due to my early initiation into Indian classical arts that combines dance, drama and music. Intellectually, I understood his approach; artistically it was exhilarating. But, I thrived — and still do — on hard, good-old fashioned rhythms. I mainly studied with Ailey, alas, having the back for it though not the extension. But Cunningham expanded my notion of dance, and I’ve always regretted not meeting him though opportunities did abound. Time is a wasted commodity, an illusion of infinity when young. But, thankfully, meeting one’s inspirations is not a necessity.
His inspiration continues as I revise a dance script and look again to the words and life that moved me at 17 to look really at Dance, that “bastard of the arts.” In this over-stimulating, reality-show driven environment where dancers are supposed to be acrobats and contortionists more than artists, it does well to remember what made Mr. Cunningham or the Bob Fosse’s of the world rise above those accidentally born with double joints. Sheer physicality may awe but it can alienate (ooh, look at that other) whereas art pulls you in, causes you to identify, stirs something deep, leaving you tapping both your soul and your feet.
Mr. Cunningham, as quoted in the short video featured in the obituary linked above: “When you’re doing something that you want to do, may not even know how to do it but you still try…that seems to be a part of courage. But also to keep something up for a long long time as dancers do with the kind of courage, physical and mental…is remarkable.” None can have been as courageous as Mr. Cunningham personally and professionally.
As I lament my aging body (sigh…no more splits every which way), it is an angst that has nothing to do with wrinkles perhaps only athletes and dancers can empathize. Yet, I keep dancing due to constant reinforcement from gurus like Mr. Cunningham. I thank him for enriching my life and profession through my own work that aspires to be as honest and courageous as his.