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90 years of Merce CunninghamBY: Merilyn Jackson 08.02.2009
People I know who don’t quite respond to Merce Cunningham’s dance often complain that it looks too mechanical. Well, if it does, that’s what I always loved about it.
Merce Cunningham remembered:
Two photographs of dance legends hang above one another in my office: one of a brooding Pina Bausch, hair parted severely down the middle, with a cigarette touched to her lips, and one of a laughing Merce Cunningham, white hair haloed out, a mike in his hand and a glass of red wine at his elbow. On the morning of June 30, I walked into my office to find Merce’s photo had fallen off the hook and onto the floor. Only later that day, when I heard Bausch died, did I feel a Twilight Zone moment. Merce, at 90, wouldn’t be far behind, and the photo’s fall seemed an omen.
A week later, at a dinner in New York with people close to Merce, I mentioned the fallen photo with its glass front popped off. Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Foundation, had been with Merce that afternoon. “Well,” she said, “Merce sang ‘Summertime’ this afternoon and then fell asleep.”
People I know who don’t quite respond to Cunningham’s dance often complain that it looks too mechanical. Well, if it does, that’s what I always loved about it.
Cunningham originated his 1975 Sounddance for himself after a line from Finnegan’s Wake: “In the beginning there was the sounddance.” Anyone who’s ever seen it, whether led by Merce or, later, by Merce’s associate director Robert Swinston, cannot help but have their breath taken away by its mechanistically torquing bodies, propelled as if by some hidden tornadic force. The work seems to be about molecular structures, strands of motile DNA. It takes us deeply into our pre-human selves– the selves we were before we met our “other” and before our embryos were formed.
Loquacious but reluctant
As loquacious as Merce could be in interviews about his and Cage’s work in general, when I interviewed him in Arizona in 1998 he was reluctant to talk about the show his company would be performing at Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium. “I don’t like to talk much about that,” he said, but indulged me a little anyway. “Ground Level Overlay is a large, complex dance with a lot of richness in movement. I had seen a work by an artist [Leonardo Drew] at a friend’s house, and I asked him to design the set.”
Michael Cole, a dancer with Merce for nine years, had left the company that year to collect an MFA from Arizona State University’s dance department. He brushed in a little more detail. “The dance has an urban-chic look, lush duets Merce made with the computer program, Lifeforms— yet there’s not a mechanical bone in this piece’s body.”
‘You might find its beauty’
I asked that day what Merce might say to audiences who have difficulty with his work. “I hope they enjoy it,” he chuckled. “Let’s say that when people see the desert landscape for the first time, they may feel uncomfortable. But they shouldn’t complain that it doesn’t look like other landscapes. Even though it may be strange, it shouldn’t put them off. If you look and listen, you might find its beauty. I hope people will do that when they come to see our performance.”
Somehow we slipped into talking about food and fine dining, and he of course mentioned dishes with morels and other exotic mushrooms. His life-long partner, the composer and noted mycologist John Cage, had gone on mushroom forays, even locally outside of Reading with the Czarnecki family that operated the famous (but now defunct) Joe’s Restaurant there. Cunningham showed a sophisticated knowledge of food, yet he lived simply, mostly on the macrobiotic diet that he and Cage adhered to, believing it to be good for their arthritic conditions.
A health nut on the road
I wondered how he survived on the road? Did he bring his own food or make arrangements beforehand? Would he give me a recipe of some dish he takes with him?
“Well, it’s not macrobiotic, but I do like to eat chicken occasionally,” he replied. “I put it in a clay pot with slivers of fresh ginger and garlic, and a little miso broth in the bottom of the pot. I bake it with the lid on for about an hour, then I let it brown for another hour with the lid off. I often bring pieces of that with me. But it’s different today— you can almost always find a health food store where you can get something good to eat.”
Merce went on the ultimate endless road trip on July 26. Here’s wishing him the same good company he gave to so many of us.♦
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