Archive for Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009): dancer, choreographer, and interdisciplinary collaborator

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , , on April 1, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

While many dancer-choreographers of the second generation (such as Jose Limón) continued to develop the traditions and techniques pioneered by the “Big Four” (Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm), there were some who chose to break away from these ideals and establish new and unorthodox approaches to dance. Several of these young avante-garde choreographers—including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Alwin Nikolais—apprenticed and established their careers in the pioneering dance companies, but eventually struck out on their own to create works that challenged the audience’s expectations and asked the question: “What is art?”

Among the most influential of these radical second generation choreographers was Merce Cunningham. He is said to have single-handedly invented aesthetics and philosophies that set the scene for the postmodern choreographers who would follow him (especially the Judson Church group), as well as new forms of performance art and avante-garde art.

Merce Cunningham in 1973

Merce Cunningham in 1973

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

  • Renowned as one of the greatest and most influential choreographers of the 20th century, Cunningham was also an accomplished dancer. He appeared onstage into his 60s.
  • He choreographed a total of over 150 dances and 800 “Events”—performances well suited to unconventional spaces (gyms, armories, etc), which combined elements of dance, scenery, and lighting in unpredictable ways.
  • Cunningham is notable for having impacted artists outside of dance with his progressive approach and through his extensive interdisciplinary collaborations with visual artists (including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) and musicians (including John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman). His collaborations produced an influential body of work in music and visual art as well as dance.
  • Cunningham was forward-thinking. Late in his career, he experimented with using a computer programs and motion-capture technology to create elements of his dances. Before he died in 2006 he created a “Legacy Plan” outlining how he would like his company to be run and left a thorough archive of digitized information, plans, and films preserving his work.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

  • Born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, Cunningham began dancing professionally at 20 years old with the Martha Graham Dance Company after having studied with her at Mills College. He admired and learned from Graham, but wasn’t convinced by certain aspects of her work—particularly the idea that every movement in a dance had to have a “meaning.” He was interested in exploring the mechanics of movement and the possibilities of the art form detached from specific emotional and psychological connotations.
  • His first solo show came in 1944, and he formed the Merce Cunningham Company in 1953. He left the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1945 after having originated several important solo roles with her company (including the preacher in Appalachian Spring).
  • Cunningham based himself in New York amidst a hotbed of avante-garde art and thought, and made a living by performing solo dances and music with his partner composer John Cage around the country. At first, his work was not readily recognized by audiences and critics. From the late ‘50s, some of his works began to picked up by noted companies, including the New York City Ballet, and his company appeared in international venues.
  • By the late ‘60s, his work was no longer considered the cutting edge: the Judson Church group had begun pushing radical experimentation and the question of “what is art?” even further.
Cage and Cunningham

John Cage and Merce Cunningham

Cage and Cunningham

  • Cunningham’s most important ongoing collaboration was with his life partner, John Cage (whom he first met in his late teens, when Cage was playing accompaniment for dance classes in Seattle.) They began working together in 1942.
  • Together, Cage and Cunningham explored a radical new approach to the relationship between dance and music: dance and music co-existed within their pieces, but were not directly coordinated or matched in time and were created independently of each other. (In this interview with Cunningham and Cage from 1981, the two discuss their collaborative methods.)
  • They both used chance procedures in constructing their works—that is, they used unpredictable factors (rolling a dice, tossing coins, etc) to make decisions about certain events within a piece (e.g. sequences of movements).
  • Cunningham’s dances abandoned conventional elements of dance such as narrative, climax, or associations with things other than the movement itself. Similarly, Cage broadened the conception of music to include a wide range of non-instrumental sounds (and even silence itself) and did away with traditional concepts of harmony, melody, form, and instrumentation.
  • Zen Buddhism was one of Cage and Cunningham’s major influences (before there was popular interest in Zen amongst young people in America). They admired Zen’s discipline, ideas about silence and void, and escape from patterns of thought.
  • Their philosophy and approach to the creative process were also influenced by the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text, and the German philosopher Nietzsche.
  • Both Cage and Cunningham wanted to create works in with the audience could become a part of experience—to leave elements of the dance or music open to the personal interpretation of the listener-viewer. Any number of different reactions to his dance were valid, as far as Cunningham was concerned.

Much of the above information is drawn from:

  • Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. Yale UP, 2003: pp. 354-370. Print.
  • The official Merce Cunningham Dance Company website.

Recommended Viewing

  • Excerpted performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from the 2011 Legacy Tour on YouTube: Second Hand (197o) with music by John Cage and costumes by Jasper Johns. Roaratorio (1983) with music by Cage and decor by Mark Lancaster.
  • Changing Steps (1975) video version directed by Cunningham and Elliot Caplan: part 1 –  part 2
  • Mondays with Merce – a documentary TV show exploring Merce Cunningham’s work and guest choreographers.

Jose Limón, “The Moor’s Pavane” (1949)

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , , on March 27, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

DANCE IN PROFILE: Jose Limón, The Moor’s Pavane (1949)

Watch the full video of this piece, with the original dancers performing. [YouTube]

With The Moor’s Pavane, Jose Limón compressed Shakespeare’s Othello into a 21-minute, single-movement work featuring Limón himself as Othello along with his close collaborators Betty Jones (Desdemona), Lucas Hoving (Iago), and Pauline Koner (Emilia), with music by Baroque composer Henry Purcell as the score. The title and the style of dance allude to Renaissance court dance (Pavane).

Limón danced with Doris Humphrey‘s group for years before founding the Jose Limón Dance Company in 1946, with Humphrey as co-director, although he continued to be known as a dancer perhaps more than a choreographer because of his commanding onstage presence.

Limón’s dance method continued many of Humphrey’s principles of movement, including “fall and recovery” (see my post on Doris Humphrey) and a balance between weight and weightlessness. The characteristic movements of his dances, as seen in The Moor’s Pavane, follow the gravity of the limbs’ to their natural conclusion, with a combination of upwards movements emphasizing height (e.g. broad leg gestures) while the dancers maintain a grounded stability and a fairly static, upright torso. There is also often parallelism in the dancer’s limbs (arms moving in coordination with legs in opposing directions, for example in turns and circular movements) creating a graceful, broad, and clear effect lacking unresolved tensions.

In the introduction to the film of The Moor’s Pavane, Limón states that he seeks to tell the story of Othello through gesture. Accordingly, the structure of this dance is driven first and foremost by the narrative rather than by an abstract emotional concept or idea about movement itself. The gestures generally appear to focus on the relationships between the four characters, illuminated by their physical relationships and interactions with each other (aggression, tenderness, intimacy, suspicion). The dancers typically face each other, often making eye contact, rather than dancing outwards towards the audience. This format reminds me somewhat of classical ballets (e.g. Tchaikovsky classics), but here the story’s development is at a decidedly faster pace.

Clearly narrative gestures are fluidly interspersed with duets and quartets that bring Renaissance court dance to mind in their tight group coordination and graceful, statue-like poses. The broad skirts of the period costumes obscure much of the two female dancer’s lower-body movements, but by covering the dancer’s bodies in an unnatural way the costumes help to create character, drama, and historical stylistic allusion.

Limón’s dancing—as exemplified by The Moor’s Pavane—emphasized the depiction of emotions, literary inspirations, narrative, character, and is coordinated with music in a clear (but not irritatingly direct) way. It is interesting to contrast Limón’s direction with the path of Merce Cunningham, for example (only about 10 years Limón’s junior), who left the Martha Graham camp to establish a form of dance that broke away traditional concepts of narrative, emotional expression, and the relationship of dance to music in the way that his partner John Cage challenged traditional concepts of music.

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An Introduction to Modern Dance

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2012 by Nell

After a prolonged period of delighting in the occasional film or performance of contemporary dance (especially the work of Mark Morris) while bemoaning my lack of knowledge of the broader context of dance in the 20th century, I’ve begun an intensive self-directed crash course in the history of Modern dance. I’ll be pursuing this study through the end of May, alongside the similarly dance-interested John Resig. Our explorations will be thoroughly documented on this blog.

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan

Step One in our curriculum: survey the territory. Last night we watched hour-long documentary film Dancing: The Individual and Tradition (1993, directed/produced by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer). The film is available streaming online to Boston Public Library card-holders through the Dance in Video online archive.

I’ve also begun reading No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick (Yale UP, 2003), which looks to be an elegant and succinct overview of important choreographers and evolutions in 20th century dance. I will continually reference this text in future posts.

Dancing: The Individual and Tradition is a compelling, fast-flying survey of major themes and developments in Modern dance from the turn of the century up to the ’90s, which alights occasionally to focus on some seminal choreographers. Choreographer Twyla Tharp is among the film’s guides through the history of dance (along with a number of scholars) and the film features extensive segments of rehearsal footage from Tharp’s studio.

The film begins with the idea that dance comes from a primal place that goes beyond culture or social context. Historically, dancers and choreographers were seen not as artists but as craftsmen–and only in the 20th century did the choreographer become prominent as an artist in their own right. Historical dance styles originated in church and court and they focused on tradition–confirming the “existing order.” Tharp tells us that in lieu of the external pressures and expectations of the patron or the church, the 20th century choreographer has to set their own boundaries and demands. The way of the modern choreographer is to create new boundaries, to push those boundaries, and to define and redefine rules. The film later states that for choreographers to create “a language of their own” was “the imperative of modern dance”: hence the highly individualized perspectives and distinct vocabularies of the artists to come.

The idea that dance could be a form of personal artistic expression was revolutionary in America at the turn of the 20th century. Dancers had an extremely low social status, as art dance hardly existed in America and dance was generally low-brow entertainment (dancers were exclusively female and perceived as practically equivalent to prostitutes [No Fixed Points, 2]).

According to The Individual and TraditionIsadora Duncan created the first modern dance language. (Notably, the film overlooks Loie Fuller, who was extremely groundbreaking but perhaps less influential on subsequent choreographers.) When Duncan took the stage, free movement and loose clothing were revolutionary political statements. Women were typically bound in highly structured, layered clothing and played limited, closely defined roles in society. Duncan’s dance style can be seen as an expression of the beginning of women’s liberation.

Choreographer Ruth St. Denis drew inspiration from the sensuousness and apparent exoticism of Eastern dance. Her work was highly popular and appeared in Hollywood films (e.g. D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance [1916]). By this time, the study of dance by young girls had rapidly become mainstream in America.

Martha Graham broke from the established dance style created by Duncan. Graham developed a “stringent” movement style that could be seen as equivalent to developments in cubism by Picasso. She came to prominence in the 1930s in New York City during a highly politicized, progressive time, and she saw herself as individualistic and alienated from the mainstream, as did many  avante garde visual artists at the time. Graham’s father, a psychiatrist influenced by Jung and Freud, told her that “movement never lies”: the source of her movements was her own subconscious. She found new, sculptural uses of the body, and the weight of the body against the floor was emphasized in her dancing and choreography rather than denied (as in ballet). Graham also responded to the tension between sensuality and the Puritan tradition. In general, her work spoke about “being a woman, a performer, and art as the most important thing in one’s life.”

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham

Modernism was all about “finding your own voice,” and Katherine Dunham looked to her African roots to create a dance identity. An anthropologist as well as dancer, she traveled to the Caribbean and used ideas from popular dance she witnessed there to create a “fusion dance form.” Her major contribution to Modern dance was the “articulated torso,” which was completely unlike the straight torso of ballet and European folk dance. She successfully brought what was considered primitive folk dance into classical Modern dance, where it could be called “art.”

George Balanchine brought Modern dance aesthetics into his ballets. Balanchine grew up in St. Petersberg at a time when Russia was the major center of ballet, and witnessed the innovations of Vaslav Nijinsky and Ballets Russes. He knew that “ballet was flexible, and could be expressive of different things,” and it was a vocabulary whose possibilities had not been exhausted. After moving to New York City, Balanchine responded to his modern, urban environment by using “syncopation and hard edges,” and he “let fall away some of the exaggerated gentility of Czarist ballet” while incorporating a modern wit. Balanchine’s dances were also a form of intensely personal expression.

In the 1960s, New York became the mecca of Modern dance in a time of “creative anarchy.” Merce Cunningham sought to “strip dance of meaning,” and pursued numerous collaborations with avante-garde collaborators artists such as composer John Cage, artist Robert Rauschenberg, et al. He used chance procedures and often choreographed pieces that lacked a direct connection to the music–rather than miming music, his dance “occupied the same space.” Many other Postmodern choreographers also abandoned music, and created works that were anti-elitist, anti-artifice, and created irrespective of an audience.

Dance had by then fully split into two camps: Modern (barefoot) and ballet (pointe shoes). Twyla Tharp, born out of the New York avante garde scene, saw the need to unify the dances to include all forms of movement. Late Postmodernism saw the merging of all languages and cultures, and artists such as Garth Fagan take an inclusive, synthesizing approach.

In my next post, I’ll review exhibit Dance/Draw at The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston.