“Our ecstasy in dance comes from the possible gift of freedom, the exhilarating moment that this exposing of the bare energy can give us. What is meant is not license, but freedom…” Merce Cunningham, 1952
Merce Cunningham, still from the performance ''Rainforest'', 1968
What is it about the thrill of the unknown? – the delicious uncertainty of the spontaneous actions one takes when having no real notion of the outcome. Is it the intoxication of the fleeting moment of abandon that prohibits us – or in the case of Merce Cunningham perhaps the ease of mind tossing a coin ensues “Saves you all kinds of mental harassment”.
For Cunningham – the grandfather of modern dance who left his choreographic process to the will of a rolled dice, chance was paramount. A master in his own right, Merce Cunningham was unquestionably a pioneer of abstract dance and one of the most innovative and important choreographers of our time, within the field of modern dance figures who have achieved anything like his éclat are few and far between.
His uncompromisable experimentation with both technique and his exploration with movement left conventional notions of dance couruing far behind him,the introduction of indeterminacy as an important choreographic device is just one example of how he fervently reinvented his craft.
Merce grew up in Centralia, a small town in Washington, surrounded by trees, the sound of birds and the smell of dirt roads. It was at the age of 10 that he first plucked up the courage to ask for dance lessons and began studying tap and ballroom dance with ex-vaudevillian Maude Barrett. He would then later go on to spend over 6 years dancing with the eponymous Martha Graham company where he made an enduring impression with his exquisite sense of rhythm and innate lyrical quality – as a dancer his presence was undoubtedly magnetic. In 1953 Cunningham left Graham’s company with an energetic curiosity to branch out on his own as a solo artist. In doing so he developed his own unique choreographic process which he utilised in creating and performing various solo pieces. Thereafter he established his own company, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It was here that together with his lifelong partner and muse John Cage, Cunningham explored the profound relationship between dance and music – how even though they have the potential to occur simultaneously, they can indeed be created entirely independent of each other. Along with Cage who composed the music for a large majority of the company’s productions, he also collaborated with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to name a few.
“Anything with movement, he caught it. His eye would flick as soon as he saw something. Who knows where it went in his databank? He was always collecting. You could tell.”
Never tiring in his endeavours, Cunningham was enamoured by pursuing new ways to create and explore movement and burgeoned in the feat of challenging his audience’s expectations. His motives for his work were however far from audience orientated and instead arose exclusively and perhaps narcissistically from an internal yearning to explore and express himself.
There’s an intrigue in Cunningham’s unapologetic inclemency towards the subject of this expression, which was always purely the movement itself “I’m not expressing anything, I’m presenting people moving”. This rejection of the narrative denoting that he was impatient or even perfunctory with the pursuit to discover meaning in art.
Although in some cases insinuating criticism in regards to a lack of emotion, one cannot deny that through employing his innovative methods for the composition and execution of movement he challenged how audiences viewed and interpreted dance and ultimately instigated a reconsideration of its very essence.
Fascinated with the process of separating the elements (dance, music and design) and how when manipulated and cumulated at random they could produce something exquisitely unpredictable – Cunningham thrived in the delight of creating and exhibiting something that in all likelihood had never transpired before. It was his strong belief that movement and music are equals that informed his oeuvre, where bodies need not dance in sync with sound or even on beat, where ultimately, movement is by no means circumstantiated by the music. Since his pieces are generally devoid of theme, the viewer is left to freely fashion and sustain a myriad of individual interpretations. And there lies a somewhat sense freedom in the abandonment of the narrative, in the celebration and embracement of the solitariness of the moment in space and time. There’s an undoubtable fascination in the knowledge that when one feasts their eyes on a Cunningham work that they are in fact witnessing an unanticipated rendezvous of sound and movement – a fleeting moment of spontaneous beauty.