The Cunningham Aesthetic


Roger Copeland writes about Merce Cunningham with the zeal of a cultural polymath and an enthusiasm that has remained undiminished since Copeland saw his first Cunningham dances in the spring of 1968. The essays in his Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance shape a mission: to sever Cunningham’s aesthetic from that of his forebears in modern dance such as Martha Graham and José Limón and from members of the larger art world, and to link his ideas with contemporary phenomena and artists whose inclinations he shares.

The essays are dense with provocative comparisons, analyses, and descriptions, written in language that is refreshingly free of jargon. Copeland compares Cunningham’s deployment of objects and people in space to the visual style of Alain Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad, and links the sudden, high-speed movement changes that Cunningham dancers can articulate without apparent transitions to the jump cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (although I quibble with his attribution of “continuity without flow” to Cunningham’s choreography; what I!psee in a Cunningham dance is the performance of discontinuity as flow). He evokes Wylie Sypher, William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Duchamp, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, and numerous others, as well as artists Cunningham collaborated with, such as his lifelong partner and musical director John Cage, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Some references make only a superficial point; some omit points that don’t fit Copeland’s theses (such as the most un-Mercian didacticism that often informed Brecht’s plays); but most take us deeper into Cunningham’s work and ideas.

This radical master choreographer’s non-hierarchical use of space, his de-emphasizing of causality, his use of chance methods in composing a dance, and the Apollonian serenity that dominates his onstage worlds indeed distinguish him from Graham. Copeland points out that while artists like Picasso turned to the “primitive” as a spearhead to the future, Graham and other choreographers excavated the primitive and ritualistic dimension long missing from Western dance (he doesn’t, however, credit Graham with using some extremely modern techniques to do so). He also firmly separates Cunningham from the emotionalism of the abstract expressionist painters, pertinently quoting Cage on the subject: “I wanted them to change my way of seeing, not my way of feeling. I’m perfectly happy about my feelings. . . . I don’t want to spend my life being pushed around by a bunch of artists.”

To my mind, in separating Cunningham from Graham et al. and identifying him as a classicist, Copeland pushes him too far toward ballet—primarily George Balanchine’s plotless works. Cunningham may favor equilibrium and an elongated spine, turnout, fast feet, and high-swinging legs, but nothing he does looks exactly like the danse d’école. I also become impatient with the lengths to which Copeland goes in applying ideas from Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Dandy” and Moira Roth’s 1977 “The Aesthetic of Indifference” (whose point of view, however, he disagrees with) to Cunningham’s oeuvre. When he quotes Baudelaire on dandyism’s “air of coldness” and “unshakable determination not to be moved,” or relates Cunningham to “the icy, dandified virtuosity of ballet” (Copeland’s words), I quail; “dandy” in its familiar sense is seriously misleading in relation to Cunningham. Too, Cunningham’s avoidance of depicting inner turmoil, and the cool, fully invested alertness that his best dancers reveal, don’t mean that his work doesn’t have feeling tones (something Copeland is, I know, aware of). Cunningham’s own words express a sense of dance’s mythic underpinnings and unavoidable human dimension. Writing in 1955 on the supposedly distancing process of chance, he noted, “The feeling I have when I compose this way is that I am in touch with a natural resource far greater than my own personal inventiveness could ever be, much more universally human than the particular habits of my own practice.”

Mark Morris once said, “If Cunningham’s work doesn’t add up in a linear way, that doesn’t mean it’s abstract. It means that life doesn’t add up in a linear way. . . . It may not look like Red Riding Hood and the wolf, but that’s still who it is.” Copeland includes this quote on the page that precedes his acknowledgements for Merce Cunningham, but his own essays rarely affirm the thought. However, if the book provokes controversy, it also, more importantly, spreads a wealth of trenchant and illuminating insights for readers to ponder.

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