In 1944, the New York Herald Tribune’s dance critic Edwin Denby reviewed the first solo performance by a young man he’d admired in Martha Graham’s company. Of the 24-year-old Merce Cunningham, who shared that April 5 program with his partner, composer John Cage, Denby wrote: “His build resembles that of the juvenile saltimbanques of the early Picasso canvases. As a dancer his instep and his knees are extraordinarily elastic and quick; his steps, turns, knee bends and leaps are brilliant in lightness and speed. His torso can turn on its vertical axis with great sensitivity, his shoulders are held lightly free and his head poises intelligently. The arms are light and long, they float, but do not often have an active look.”
For much of Cunningham’s dancing life (he stopped appearing in his pieces when he was 70), he still fit Denby’s description—although his arms soon became busier. That lightness and speed, his erect spine, fast feet, long neck, and alert gaze informed the movement style that he passed on to the dancers in the small ensemble he formed in 1953. Yet for all his Apollonian serenity, he could also appear struck with an indefinable Dionysian elation, a sort of divine madness.
His first dance training came in the form of tap lessons in his hometown of Centralia, Washington, with Mrs. Maud Barrett, of whom he always spoke admiringly. When he enrolled at Seattle’s Cornish School to study acting, his modern dance teacher, Bonnie Bird—she’d performed with Graham—steered him to summer workshops at Mills College. In 1939, the Bennington School and Festival temporarily moved to Mills, bringing the stellar figures of modern dance as faculty. Raw as Cunningham was, Graham liked the look of him and invited him to join her company, casting him as the lyrical counterpart to the masterful Erick Hawkins. On her advice, he also shined up his technique by taking classes at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. He decided, he said later, that ballet used the dancers’ legs and feet to brilliant effect, while modern dance focused more on their torsos and arm gestures, and that it might be interesting to combine them.
A few years into his choreographic career, Cunningham started to shake audiences up. Cage was experimenting with chance procedures in composing music, and in 1951, with Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, Cunningham followed suit—tossing coins onto charts to determine such factors as the order of sections, timings, and directions in space. Over the years, he refined and varied the way he used such strategies, although when he could no longer adequately demonstrate movements to his company and was using the Life Forms (now DanceForms) computer program to aid him in designing choreography, he still kept a little dish of pennies handy.
This use of chance jolted him out of his habitual choices; it accorded with a saying by Chuang Tzu, one of several Eastern philosophers he and Cage were drawn to: “Let everything be allowed to do what it naturally does, so that its nature will be satisfied.” The music, choreography, décor, costumes, and lighting for Cunningham’s works are composed independently of one another (first Robert Rauschenberg, then Jasper Johns became his collaborators) and come together in performance in unexpected ways. The dancers play no roles beyond themselves as dancers, and the choreography challenges the conventional hierarchies of the proscenium stage by presenting the space as an open field through which they come and go, meet and part. In the 1960s, Cunningham began to extract, mix, and layer snippets of his dances to produce one-of-a-kind, unpredictable Events.
Some spectators have been disturbed by music that’s often abrasive, and by the absence of dramatic build. They find the dancers detached, passionless. For others all over the world, watching a Cunningham piece is a thrilling event—a little universe in which amazing people go about their complex virtual lives with intense concentration, and where time is elastic and charged. A dancer may pass with a rapid sputter of footsteps, then stand and slowly unfold a leg high into the air. A man may take a woman’s hands and tug on them for a while, then turn away and move on. Cunningham offered us the freedom to interpret what we saw however we wished.
His dances vary in tone and atmosphere. They may be as peaceful as Pictures (1984), as full of submerged drama as RainForest (1968), as witty as How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run (1965). Often, you sense that he has set himself a new area of investigation: What can the arms do if . . .? Or, as with the stark, verging-on-calamitous Winterbranch (1964): Let’s take a look at falling. Some later pieces obliquely acknowledged the vicissitudes of aging. The dancers who worked with him in the 1950s, such as Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber and Remy Charlip, were perhaps 10 years younger than he; those of the 1980s and 1990s were young enough to be his grandchildren. In dances like Gallopade (1981), you could see him as the watchful teacher-guide or a catcher in the rye keeping these recklessly energetic young people from falling off the edge of the stage.
Like many great artists, he never stopped being fascinated by how one could see and experience the world. When he could easily have coasted along, doing what he did so wonderfully, he got interested in filming dance and the ways it might influence the way he worked on a stage. Then he investigated the constraints of television’s black box. In Biped (1999), motion capture was an element of the stage design; audiences for eyeSpace (2006) were given iPods on which they could hear parts of the score, shuffled variously.
One of the geniuses of our age, he tuned up our eyes and ears and changed the way we saw dance. Once, he wrote: “You have to love dancing to stick to it. [It] gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that fleeting moment when you feel alive.” That intense feeling of life—for life—permeates the dances and the memories of dances he had to leave behind. Hail, Merce, and farewell.