Something Like the Sun

Cunningham and His Colleagues Recall 50 Years on the Road

"The most astonishing energy source" is how Merce Cunningham Dance Company veteran Valda Setterfield describes her former boss. "Like the sun. Get too close [and] you can get burned, but avail yourself of that fantastic energy and you can grow and flourish." The 83-year-old choreographer will circle the globe on a tour that uses New York as both starting point—at the Lincoln Center Festival on July 24—and finish line, at BAM

next year. Cunningham's summer season spans 50 years of work, stretching as far back as the 1956 Suite for Five, scored by John Cage, and fast-forwarding to the local premiere of his latest dance, Loose Time, whose decor was designed by Terry Winters.

With a single bag in hand, Cunningham was "barely 20" when he arrived in New York, summoned from Centralia, Washington, by none other than Martha Graham. "I stepped on the pavement," he remembers, "and knew this was home." Two months later he was dancing on Broadway with Graham. "Regardless of everything," he says, "I've never changed my mind about this place." Choreographer Mark Morris, like Cunningham and Trisha Brown a Washington State native who settled here, adds, "Merce is the most darling thing on earth and his work is thrilling to me. I think of it as one piece that's 50 years long."

For most of those years Cunningham has relied on what he calls "chance operations" to create his dance. He admits, "I love making steps," but everything that follows, from duration to direction—even sequence—is a coin toss. "I see a possibility and wonder if it would be possible," Cunningham says. "It doesn't have to do with expressing something." Carolyn Brown, who danced with the company for 20 years, expands on Cunningham's "I Ching" approach. "He thinks of dance as its own language," she explains. "It simply isn't just about the steps." Cunningham agrees: "It's amazing to me when something is extremely difficult for dancers to do in the beginning. Pretty soon, [it] becomes natural—I can't use any other word—they've got it in their bodies."

That viral language—a continual roll of the dice—spans nearly 200 works. Not the most stable foundation on which to build your house, but Cunningham is best understood as the gambler on a roll. And he's enjoying a lifelong winning streak, beginning with his early success with Graham and his company's cross-country tours in a Volkswagen bus. Cunningham's life partner, the composer John Cage, raised cash for the ride by knowing his mushrooms on an Italian TV quiz show. Brown describes those years in the VW: "Merce could not escape us. He was trapped in this bus knitting and studying Russian. John would play Scrabble while driving. Someone would sit beside him with the Scrabble board." Cunningham remembers "six dancers, two musicians, Cage and [David] Tudor, and one technician. For several years, that person was Robert Rauschenberg. Instead of thinking this whole thing was dreary, we found a way to show what we do."

Brown remembers the back of the bus being "primarily filled with food." Cunningham adds, "We didn't carry a trailer. Absolutely everything was in or on top of the bus." Brown laughs, "The costumes—we didn't have much more than tights and leotards—were strapped on top. If it rained it was terrible." Cunningham also learned quickly not to say no. "One year we went to Europe seven times on tours," he explains, "mostly France. Go for three weeks and come back. Two weeks to get your laundry done, then over again." He came up with the idea of "Events" for the company's first world tour in 1964. They took repertory and scrambled the sequence. "The first Event was in a museum," he says. "They didn't have a theater, but they had this space. We thought, 'Let's not say no, let's say yes.' "

Trevor Carlson, who booked the 50th anniversary tour, says it's a return to not saying no. Highlights include European site-specific Events, from a Greek castle in Kalamata to Parisian gardens at the Palais Royal. Closer to home, Cunningham will present Events on Venice Beach, and in Battery Park City on September 3, marking the return of the downtown "Evening Stars Music and Dance Series." Considering everything that could go wrong in an Event, Carlson reflects the company's Zen attitude that mistakes are impossible if they've never done something before. He does, however, remember a night at the ruins of Baalbek, in a remote area of Lebanon: "The company entered the arena in darkness, descending these ancient stone steps. The lights came up all at once and there were bats flying everywhere." Cunningham recalls an event at Persepolis, outside Tehran: "We were performing in this amphitheater with really tall pillars that we tied Andy [Warhol]'s pillows to, but a few of them broke and flew away. It was very beautiful with these [helium-filled silver Mylar pillows] waving against the stone pillars. When we were done, they said they had a room to [store] them. This was the time when the shah was probably nervous about his situation. When we went to get the pillows, they were in a room full of machine guns."

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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