Merce Cunningham

by Allen Robertson

Choreographer Merce Cunningham at work

The author of The Naked Ape, anthropologist Desmond Morris, recently said on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that, at 76, he figures he has maybe four years left before his enthusiasms run out and his creative energies begin to deteriorate.

Someone should introduce him to Merce Cunningham. Now 85, Cunningham continues to revel in new ideas and new approaches to choreography; approaches which constantly astound (and sometimes confound) his audiences.

‘The trick is to try to see what it is. Look at it,’ he insists. ‘Don’t worry about what it is not.’
Cunningham, who is one of the major groundbreakers of our time, is sitting in the corner of his studio on the top floor of Westbeth, a huge 11-storey block of artists’ flats located in lower Manhattan. At the opposite end of the space, his senior dancer, Robert Swinston, is rehearsing five young apprentice dancers in one of Cunningham’s works from the 1970s. These dancers, some of whom will become the next generation of company members, are affectionately referred to as ‘the rugs’ (members of the company’s Repertory Understudy Group).

‘One of the nice things about dancing is that you watch people change. It’s never the same thing. It’s always different,’ Cunningham says. ‘There are so many – countless – possibilities.’

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. This autumn, thanks to the Dance Umbrella festival, the company is in the midst of its first tour of the UK. It will culminate in a world premiere in Edinburgh, Oct 29-30.

A version of that premiere, currently known as Views, has already been choreographed. Cunningham created it as a work for video over the summer. When he first tried this approach, back in 1981, the result turned out to be one of his greatest masterworks, Channels/Inserts.

At that time, confronting video was a radical departure for any serious choreographer. In the early 1980s most choreographers, to say nothing of the majority of viewers, were still exceedingly leery of video and of the ways in which it tends to distort stage movement. Cunningham proved that it could be a valuable new way to approach, arrange and articulate dancing.

‘We look faster now,’ he says. ‘That’s thanks to TV. It allows the eye to see things in a different way.’

And different ways of seeing have always been at the centre of Cunningham’s career. He loves taking chances, loves capturing the unexpected:
‘I don’t see the point of having it all plotted out before you begin,’ he says. ‘It is interesting to me how chance works. It keeps producing things that you have to deal with in a way you never have before. It’s in the moment.’

Cunningham’s moments have produced things that no one else had ever imagined. His dances can take us somewhere we have never been before. He retains his claim as the most radical, fresh and progressive kid on the block. The whip-lash alacrity and agile daring of his choreography often makes his creative great-grandchildren look like a bunch of fuddy-duddies.

He bursts into a raucous chuckle as he tells a joke on himself about his own lack of imaginative creativity. He’s recounting the days when he first started working with video. ‘Charlie [Atlas, designer and video director] kept saying “look at this,” but I would…’ Cunningham does a fast little bob and weave demonstration as he recalls that while Atlas was urging him to look through the camera’s lens, he would continue to pop up from behind the camera to see what was happening in the studio instead. ‘It’s all about learning. Learning how to see. And there are so very many different ways of doing that, aren’t there?’