Merce Cunningham, who died on July 27th at the age of ninety, has been aptly described as the Einstein of dance. Much as Einstein questioned the interstices smoothed over by Newtonian mechanics, so Cunningham questioned the precepts of choreography. He released dance from its traditional dependence on music, and plot. There are no stories in his dances -- or rather, we are on that dream-like border where stories flicker in and out, like reading the embers or clouds. Stage space, too, which in ballet tends to a Palladian regularity and in expressionist choreography to writhing mounds, seemed in his work to be limning an invisible architecture which--if the dancers were writing instruments—might resemble the floor plan of the Sydney Opera house or the buildings of Frank Gehry well before his day. The frontality of traditional stage space was thoroughly upended. Watching his dances, I frequently had the sense of looking into an aquarium whose fishes have no sense of audience as they move.
His movement, more deeply classical than is commonly acknowledged, took Balanchine's segmentation of the body into new levels of complexity. If it seemed as if a dancer were going in several different directions at once, it was because they probably were. His ability to conjure living sculptures from two or more bodies was as compelling. And he treated his works, at least until this last decade, as recombinant, as if to be mixed like a salad with whatever ingredients were next at hand, including the sound. His dancers, consequently, were sometimes as surprised by the music as the audience.
The music was an additional source of controversy, being "musique concrete" or based on chance operations devised by his partner, the composer John Cage , and others in his sphere. Retrospectively, these have proven to be a very distinguished roster, Earle Browne, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma to name a few. Cage and Mumma, in particular, were blithely able to create the auditory equivalent of a katzenjammer or even a train wreck, and a few of Cunningham's strongest critical partisans never-the-less objected to the decibel levels that chance apparently decreed, preferring the mysterious silences punctuated with web-washes of sound that characterized Browne or Wolff. The point, however, was to violate the sense of inevitability to which music in the west has aspired, and open perception to the random.
It always puzzled me that Cunningham and Cage could break so many rules and reveal so much beauty. Perhaps this was because it was purposeful, not merely nihilistic, and if shocking not merely meant to shock. Cage's noise-music had the happy effect of making me hear my surroundings anew-the overtones of the dish drain! the Webern-like properties of the dripping faucet! And often after viewing Cunningham's dances, it would seem to me that the pedestrian traffic of a Manhattan intersection would be mysteriously elevated into a dance. Thus did the random come to make the random seem deliberate. The real underpinning of Cage's and Cunningham's work was not anarchy, but a Buddhist mindfulness transposed to the conditions of New York. This present-mindedness shook the pedestal of preconception and unobtrusively re-sacralized daily life.
Before Merce was hobbled by arthritis, he was also one of the most arresting stage presences I have seen, always as alert as an exclamation point. In the early days, he was frequently compared to a faun strayed from a satyr-play, which can be seen in his incredibly goofy wrestling bout with a five or six sleeved sweater documented in Antic Meet. This was a parody, it is said, of Martha Graham's self-regarding psychological strip-tease way of shedding clothes onstage. Others compared him to the Winnebago Trickster figure who at one point in the myth-cycle removes his penis, which grows a propeller, and chases him around a lake. Things like this seemed to happen to Merce, more or less. Later still, he became a bemused deity moving among his dancers haplessly making adjustments (making anarchy) in the midst of, say, an exquisite and intricate quintet. He was not like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, but something in his demeanor recalled the greats of silent comedy.
Many years ago, the choreographer Elizabeth Streb invited me to see an "event" at Cunningham's Westbeth studio. It was a sultry July evening, and soon a lightning storm blew across the Hudson; its progress could be seen through the great studio windows as a backdrop to the dancers. When it came upon the building the electricity went out, but the concentration of the dancers did not, and we watched them silhouetted in the dark or illumined by a sudden flash of lightning. They did not waver an iota, I recall, but somehow seemed monumental, imperturbable, as if we were permitted to spy upon the hidden workings of an angelic crew. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever pried my eyes to see. Then the lights came back on, and Merce did a cryptic, calligraphic solo. It didn't seem much at the time, but several hours after, back at my loft, I found myself impulsively standing up and repeating what I remembered of it. It was as if his little solo had gotten under the radar, and registered its impact without my knowing it. His work was like that.