Merce Cunningham April 16, 1919 - July 26, 2009
by Carolyn Brown
Published in Foundation for Contemporary Arts' 2019 Grants Booklet
He was born to dance: a strange disturbing mixture of Greek God, panther, and madman. An original. In his studio, alone, naked, often with music John Cage would not have approved, he would dance for the sheer joy of it. But on stage, in his prime, he was as though ignited by wildfire, impassioned, unknowable… then suddenly calmed into buddha-stillness. This is not dancing that can be learned or taught.
In the summer of 1953 Merce was invited to teach at Black Mountain College. He agreed if he could bring four of his students (who would receive room and board in lieu of any fee for himself). The students he chose were JoAnne Melsher, Marianne Preger, Remy Charlip, and myself. All four of us had performed Merce's work before. We were joined by three of his other New York students, Paul Taylor, Viola Ferber, and Anita Dencks—two on scholarship—to continue their studies with Merce.
And there in the back hills of North Carolina, the Cunningham Dance Company was born. “Willy-nilly"—by chance.
Previously Merce had worked with Martha Graham dancers, but now he wanted fresh young people, unattached to other techniques, who would be willing to adventure with him to discover a new path. He didn't expect or want his dancers to imitate him. (Impossible, in any case!) What he wanted was the accurate execution of the choreographed material in time and space and—above all—rhythmic clarity. He did not want “self-expression." He wrote, “We give ourselves away at every moment. We do not, therefore, have to try to do it."
John Cage came to Black Mountain for the last week of our residency to see the two performances we presented. He was elated. In a crescendo of optimism he predicted Broadway seasons, national and international tours. Merce was silent. As was his want. The day after our last performance the company—and suddenly there was a feeling that we really were a company—wended its way back to New York City and to what that might actually mean.
In the 1940s, encouraged by John, Merce had begun making dances, eventually choreographing close to 160 works for his own company by the time of his death. He said he made them so that he would have something to dance and with the exception of a quartet for Viola Farber, Marianne Preger-Simon, Remy Charlip, and me in 1957, and two solos for me in 1960, he danced in all his works until he could no longer perform. Then his passion for dancing turned to making dances, to choreography. His devotion to dance was absolute, a daily rite, a spiritual exercise. It was not a career. It was a way of life.
Merce was extraordinarily fortunate in having John as his champion. Later on, his artist friends Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns championed and supported Merce as well. In the early years the company traveled as a family, first in borrowed cars, later in the VW Bus John had purchased with his winnings from an Italian TV quiz show. Merce and John did the driving. A few of the dancers helped out. Merce booked the “tours" (usually just one night stands), paid the bills, did the book-keeping. If there was any money left over, the dancers received from ten to twenty-five dollars. It's doubtful Merce and John returned with a cent, and were probably in debt. Over time all this changed; the company acquired an office staff, a company manager, a Board of Directors, a European booking agent (the dedicated Benedicte Pesle), more musicians, a stage crew. The company traveled by plane and a hired big bus. They toured the world. John's predictions had come true, and Merce was freed just to choreograph, rehearse, and teach company classes.
About two weeks before he died I visited him at his home, a loft on 18th Street. He was very frail, his voice weak—still he said “I want to go to the studio. I want to work with my dancers." That very year he had choreographed Nearly Ninety. It was performed on the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House stage on his 90th birthday, with music by John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth; decor by Bennett Tagliabue; costumes by Romeo Gigli; and video by Franc Aleu. Until Johns's death in 2005, he and, after Rauschenberg left the company in 1964, Jasper Johns were in charge of aesthetic choices. Jasper preferred no decor but he selected a few notable artists, including Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Bruce Nauman, for that work.
Merce was not pleased with the artistic contributions of Tagliabue, Gigli, or Aleu. Their selection had not been his, but that of other much younger “advisors." Thus, Merce made Nearly Ninety 2, removing all the design elements. He requested the composers make new versions of their scores, and asked Anna Finke (his regular costume designer) to do new costumes. The dance was intermission-less, made for touring, with a few transitional passages added. It was the last dance he was to make.
For the next two years the Company toured under the dedicated, valiant direction of Robert Swinston, Merce's long time assistant. Robert had become absolutely essential to the preservation of the repertory and maintenance of the technical standard of the dancers, which he had been doing during Merce's declining years. The final repertory performances took place at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris during the last two weeks of December 2011. On New Year's Eve a spectacular farewell Event “exploded" on three separate platform stages in the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. The music was superb, the lighting dazzling. The dancers, though physically and emotionally exhausted, performed brilliantly. Auld Lang Syne could not have been more meaningful.
Throughout 2019 Merce Cunningham's life and work will be honored here and abroad with multiple stagings of his dances and other celebrations to mark the 100th year of his birth.
In the fall, James Klosty will republish his book Merce Cunningham, which was the first book ever published on Cunningham. It will be an expanded edition with about 50 pages of new photographs and will be titled Merce Cunningham Redux.
Carolyn Brown was a dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from its inception in 1953 to 1973, and wrote about those years in Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (Knopf, 2007). Brown served on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts from 1966 until 2001.