Posted tagged ‘Merce Cunningham’

Seeing and Being Seen

July 29, 2009

“He made us realize that dance is a way of seeing as well as a thing to be seen.”
– choreographer Margaret Jenkins, reflecting on the life of Merce Cunningham, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle

I came home from campus this evening and, after rolling around on the floor with Mason a bit, checked my email. There, along with a fair amount of junk and a few notes from friends, I found an article that Deanna had sent, informing me that the modernist choreographer Merce Cunningham had died.

Cunningham was, as the New York Times put it, a ‘revolutionary American choreographer.’ One could be forgiven for looking at that phrase and wondering how a man who was designing dance in 1776 could have lived so long, but clearly that was not their intent. Merce was undeniably modern, and a modernist, no less. His art was constantly surprising, and sometimes even shocking.

I don’t suppose that anyone who has heard my music or read things I’ve written would call me a modernist. Only a few who have sat up late at night talking politics and/or theology with me would brand me as a revolutionary. And, with the dubious exception of an occasional waltz, I’m a pretty bad dancer. It may be surprising, then, that I’m dusting off the neglected keyboard to write about Merce.

Merce Cunningham intersected my life in three ways, though, and I’m grateful for all three. The first was simply that he had lived for a time just a few miles up the road from my house in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It was there, in fact, that the Merce Cunningham Company first performed. Merce was part of the Black Mountain College, a wildly innovative gathering of artists and thinkers who, in the fifties, made their home in the same little town in the Appalachian Mountains that I consider home now. Other bright lights of that experiment included Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, and on and on. I’m told that Einstein came to visit. I’d like to think that the same creative spirit that they tapped into and fostered is still swirling around in that valley like wine in a glass.

The second connection through my friend Polly Parker, who I used to go out with for an occasional lunch a few years ago. I enjoyed hanging out with Polly for lots of reasons, but one was that she had some great stories to tell. Polly, at the time I new her, was in her early nineties, and though she had been an abstract artist of some renown, had traveled all over the world, was a close friend of Zelda Fitzgerald’s, etc., she was also a ‘local.’ She had grown up right there in Black Mountain, and being somewhat of a rebel in her own youth, used to go hang out at Black Mountain College. She knew these legendary figures personally, and I enjoy imagining the conversations and adventures they must have had. So I’m grateful to Merce for being one of the people who inspired Polly, an artist who inspired me.

So with the legacy of Black Mountain College looming large in the local lore of my little town, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to see the Merce Cunningham Company perform in Washington, DC a couple of years ago when Deanna and I took a weekend mini-vacation in the capitol. We bought cheap balcony tickets and thoroughly enjoyed a strange and wonderful performance. I remember the dancers’ bodies jerking and twisting in strangely mechanical ways, interacting with evocative and intended awkwardness, but with exquisite control and intention as well.

The night we went to see him we were provided with iPods upon entering. They each had the same music on them, but they were all set on ‘random,’ so that the songs might play in any order. In one section of the performance, we were all instructed to start them at the same time, but as the dancers moved through the piece, each person in the audience was listening to their own individual soundtrack.

Much of the performance was thought-provoking more than beautiful. It didn’t just make me think, though, it also took me somewhere else, and I think that’s as good a test of art as any.

If we find something engaging, I think it usually engages us in one of those two ways – through the head or through the heart; either we are fascinated or we are moved. My favorite art does both, but given the choice, I’d take the latter. In fact, I would argue that art that doesn’t move us from one psychological space to another may not be art at all. Art may be poignant. It may be inspirational. It may be infuriating, insulting or baffling, but if there’s no reaction beyond intellect, I don’t think it can really be called art. Merce’s work, for me, was more fascinating than moving, but it was both.

Implicit in that idea, of course, is the subjectivity of art. It may move one person and not another. That interplay between audience and artist was one of the things that seemed to fascinate Merce Cunningham. He tried to involve the audience in the performance, and to introduce some element of randomness as well.

I confess, though, that the moment in the night that brought tears to my eyes was not during the performance at all. It was after the first curtain call. The moment that got me was when the principal dancer left the stage while the audience applauded and returned pushing a wheelchair with Merce in it, graceful and confident even in his infirmity.

What moved me was the communal celebration of a lifetime of art — of pushing the boundaries, seeking to connect and to challenge, asking, as the New York Times put it, “what if?”

There isn’t much sadness for me in the end of a long and authentic life. I celebrate Merce tonight, and I’m grateful to him for a fourth time. This time for the reminder of what a well-lived artful life looks like.


Cherry Blossoms

March 30, 2008


Washington, DC

Current Earworm (song stuck in my head): Ellis Paul, “Washington, DC, 5/91”

Given all the traveling I do, you’d think I’d be a more skilled tourist.  Like, for instance, if I were going to go to a major city for a few days with my wife for a little vacation, I might realize that a major festival was happening there on the same weekend. 

Since I missed the first part of Deanna’s spring break on tour in Australia, we thought we’d make the most of the last half and head up to DC to poke around for the weekend, hit a few museums and relax. What we didn’t know was that a million other people were also heading to DC for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. DC is designed to hold lots of extra people, so the crowds have been more fun than troublesome. And the cherry blossoms are beautiful. The best they’ve been in years, apparently.

We went to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the American Indian Museum, caught a Merce Cunningham dance performance and enjoyed some good culinary art as well. Merce taught at Black Mountain College in the fifties along with Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Jasper Johns and a bunch of other luminaries of their time, and I’ve always been interested in the people associated with Black Mountain College. The performance was fascinating, and though modern dance isn’t an art form that I usually connect with deeply, we both enjoyed the show. The third piece involved passing out iPods that were loaded with ten tracks that played randomly, so everyone there had a different soundtrack to the piece. What we didn’t expect was that Merce would actually be there.  He came out on stage in a wheelchair for the final bows.

We stood in line for a long time to view the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. It was worth the wait, and actually encouraging to me that so many people were passionate enough about seeing those documents that they were willing to stand in line.

I think we both agree, though, that the best part of the weekend was the kite festival on the National Mall. There wasn’t much wind, so the kite flying efforts were valiant but sometimes comically ineffectual. Our favorite vignette, we both agreed, was watching a father trying to show his eight-year-old son how to fly a kite, most certainly for the first time. The dad held the line and the boy held the kite and after a few shouted bits of instruction, the boy launched the kite into the air while the dad tugged on the line. 

The kite went up for… maybe fifteen seconds, then nose-dived (nose-dove?) into the ground. The boys’ eyes were lit up and his head swung eagerly back to his Dad as he shouted “Did it work?!”

Deanna and I cracked up (from too far away to be noticed) but it wasn’t really a dumb question in retrospect. If the goal was to have fun, I’d say it worked. 

The goal for Deanna and me was to have fun, too, and to spend some time catching up with each other in a brief window between tours.  It worked.