“He made us realize that dance is a way of seeing as well as a thing to be seen.”
– choreographer Margaret Jenkins, reflecting on the life of Merce Cunningham, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle
I came home from campus this evening and, after rolling around on the floor with Mason a bit, checked my email. There, along with a fair amount of junk and a few notes from friends, I found an article that Deanna had sent, informing me that the modernist choreographer Merce Cunningham had died.
Cunningham was, as the New York Times put it, a ‘revolutionary American choreographer.’ One could be forgiven for looking at that phrase and wondering how a man who was designing dance in 1776 could have lived so long, but clearly that was not their intent. Merce was undeniably modern, and a modernist, no less. His art was constantly surprising, and sometimes even shocking.
I don’t suppose that anyone who has heard my music or read things I’ve written would call me a modernist. Only a few who have sat up late at night talking politics and/or theology with me would brand me as a revolutionary. And, with the dubious exception of an occasional waltz, I’m a pretty bad dancer. It may be surprising, then, that I’m dusting off the neglected keyboard to write about Merce.
Merce Cunningham intersected my life in three ways, though, and I’m grateful for all three. The first was simply that he had lived for a time just a few miles up the road from my house in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It was there, in fact, that the Merce Cunningham Company first performed. Merce was part of the Black Mountain College, a wildly innovative gathering of artists and thinkers who, in the fifties, made their home in the same little town in the Appalachian Mountains that I consider home now. Other bright lights of that experiment included Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, and on and on. I’m told that Einstein came to visit. I’d like to think that the same creative spirit that they tapped into and fostered is still swirling around in that valley like wine in a glass.
The second connection through my friend Polly Parker, who I used to go out with for an occasional lunch a few years ago. I enjoyed hanging out with Polly for lots of reasons, but one was that she had some great stories to tell. Polly, at the time I new her, was in her early nineties, and though she had been an abstract artist of some renown, had traveled all over the world, was a close friend of Zelda Fitzgerald’s, etc., she was also a ‘local.’ She had grown up right there in Black Mountain, and being somewhat of a rebel in her own youth, used to go hang out at Black Mountain College. She knew these legendary figures personally, and I enjoy imagining the conversations and adventures they must have had. So I’m grateful to Merce for being one of the people who inspired Polly, an artist who inspired me.
So with the legacy of Black Mountain College looming large in the local lore of my little town, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to see the Merce Cunningham Company perform in Washington, DC a couple of years ago when Deanna and I took a weekend mini-vacation in the capitol. We bought cheap balcony tickets and thoroughly enjoyed a strange and wonderful performance. I remember the dancers’ bodies jerking and twisting in strangely mechanical ways, interacting with evocative and intended awkwardness, but with exquisite control and intention as well.
The night we went to see him we were provided with iPods upon entering. They each had the same music on them, but they were all set on ‘random,’ so that the songs might play in any order. In one section of the performance, we were all instructed to start them at the same time, but as the dancers moved through the piece, each person in the audience was listening to their own individual soundtrack.
Much of the performance was thought-provoking more than beautiful. It didn’t just make me think, though, it also took me somewhere else, and I think that’s as good a test of art as any.
If we find something engaging, I think it usually engages us in one of those two ways – through the head or through the heart; either we are fascinated or we are moved. My favorite art does both, but given the choice, I’d take the latter. In fact, I would argue that art that doesn’t move us from one psychological space to another may not be art at all. Art may be poignant. It may be inspirational. It may be infuriating, insulting or baffling, but if there’s no reaction beyond intellect, I don’t think it can really be called art. Merce’s work, for me, was more fascinating than moving, but it was both.
Implicit in that idea, of course, is the subjectivity of art. It may move one person and not another. That interplay between audience and artist was one of the things that seemed to fascinate Merce Cunningham. He tried to involve the audience in the performance, and to introduce some element of randomness as well.
I confess, though, that the moment in the night that brought tears to my eyes was not during the performance at all. It was after the first curtain call. The moment that got me was when the principal dancer left the stage while the audience applauded and returned pushing a wheelchair with Merce in it, graceful and confident even in his infirmity.
What moved me was the communal celebration of a lifetime of art — of pushing the boundaries, seeking to connect and to challenge, asking, as the New York Times put it, “what if?”
There isn’t much sadness for me in the end of a long and authentic life. I celebrate Merce tonight, and I’m grateful to him for a fourth time. This time for the reminder of what a well-lived artful life looks like.
Hey there David! Thanks for this, and for prompting me to procrastinate from my grading to look into Black Mountain College a bit more. For instance that Vera B. Williams went there (if you don’t know here wonderful children’s books with people in them who actually work hard for little pay and still celebrate with great joy, then you will soon enough) — and named her youngest child Merce!
And, um, Mr. “World Changing 101” — not revolutionary? Then again, I have enjoyed many, yet still too few, late night conversations on both politics and religion. Here’s to many more!
I didn’t realize until I read your post how many wonderful artists have lived at Black Mountain.
Merce Cunningham was an original. I am sorry to hear of his passing, and grateful for your notice.
A couple of things that you have said caught my eye and imagination:
First, that Merce Cunningham, at the performance you witnessed might not only have been confident not only in his infirmity, but also in his infinity.
Second, the issuance of iPods during the performance reminds me of my favorite thing at Bonnaroo, the silent disco. A hundred or so participants are all listening to the same sound track on headphones, all dancing. A D.J. is conducting the experience, and at random moments instructs everyone to simultaneously raise the roof.
To the random observer, it’s a powerful moment.