Something Like the Sun

Cunningham and His Colleagues Recall 50 Years on the Road

Setterfield remembers Iran as "luminous and lyric. It smelled of roses everywhere." Poland was a different story. "No hot water," she recalls with a shiver. "We were taken to the opera house looking really scruffy, with makeup in our hair." Even breakfast—scarfed under "terrible neon-greenish lighting"—was a chance operation. "It was supposed to be set, but you never could find out why you got an egg one day and not another." Brown tells the story of a green dancer rehearsing with the company asking, in all innocence, " 'Do you have something in mind, Merce?' The rest of us just gasped. We knew he didn't tell us anything." Cunningham played his shuffled cards close to his vest. "The person who talked about it all the time was John," Brown says. "Merce didn't talk about it and it was not important that we know." Cunningham's increased reliance in the last 10 years on the LifeForms computer program and motion-capture technology to build steps, coupled with what company members openly refer to as "Merce's fucked-up hairdo," sets the stage for full-on "mad scientist." Brown says, "Merce rehearses his dancers like crazy. It isn't about perfection in terms of technique, but those demands are pretty real."

And they evolved independent of music and decor, elements that only came together when the curtain rose. Still, it would be a mistake to think that Cunningham's process removes him from those other elements or even from the emotional content of his work. "Merce is an unbelievably musical choreographer," Mark Morris says. "There are many people who choreograph directly to music who have no clue about what the eye and ear can take at the same time. His work is deeply musically structured. If that is attributable to randomness, hooray, but it's also his genius for relative tempo and his visual acuity." In 1958, Cunningham created the balletic Summerspace. The music was composed by Morton Feldman in New York and the decor designed by Rauschenberg in South Carolina. Cunningham was in New London creating the movement. All the disparate elements came together on opening night. "How is it that you can be here," a friend inquired of Feldman, "and Cunningham is up there and Bob is in South Carolina working on the same piece?" Feldman replied, "Suppose your daughter is getting married and her wedding dress won't be ready until the morning of the wedding, but it's by Dior."

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