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Remembering Choreographer And Dancer Merce Cunningham


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Later this month, on April 16, dance companies around the world will celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Merce Cunningham, one of the most influential choreographers and dancers of the 20th century. A highlight of that celebration will be the Night of 100 Solos, a coordinated performance event taking place at venues in New York, London and Los Angeles.

Cunningham's approach to dance as both a choreographer and a performer was unconventional, so much so that he's been called one of the true revolutionaries in the history of dance. Cunningham didn't choreograph movement to coincide with the rhythms of music. Instead, he preferred to have music and dance performed simultaneously yet independent of one another. It was an approach he pioneered and explored with his collaborator and life partner, composer John Cage.

Merce Cunningham died 10 years ago at the age of 90. Today, we'll listen back to an interview Terry conducted with Merce Cunningham in 1985 when he was 66. At the time, he still was a featured part of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which he founded in 1953.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Most of us think of dance as being done to music, you know, where it - where all the movements are in sync with the rhythm of the music that it's being performed to. But you came up with the idea of simultaneous but independent dance and music. What gave you that idea?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Cage had this way of composing music which involved what he calls time - called a time structure. That is not - music not based on harmony or based on modulations or based on various kinds of form - theme and variation - but a sound which could exist in a length of time. And the structure, how you structured it, was through the time, not through another way. And we both thought, well, that's the one thing that really connects music and dance, is the fact they both take place in time. And if you put them together, they can take place in the same time.

So in - even in those very first solos that I made, we developed a - for each dance a different time structure within which I made the dance, and he would make the music. But that didn't imply that he was following the dance strictly but that we would meet in the structure points. That is, the sound and the dance would meet at structure points, but in between that, we could be separate. But the music, the sound, cuts the time up differently from the way the dance does. The music cuts it for the ear, and the dance cuts it for the eye.

GROSS: When you and Cage were first touring together and performing, I mean, audiences were certainly - many still aren't used to it now - but certainly then, in the early '50s, no one was used to the idea of independent dance and music, and music and the dance not telling a story. What kind of reactions did you get? Did you get booed a lot?

CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yes. (Laughter) Oh, yes, and people leaving and (laughter) - of course. And - but we also, as we toured and as I began to work with dancers and have a company - we were to tour the United States - we began to also have friends. Not many, but every place there would be a few people who would be very interested in what we had done, what we were doing and wanted to know more about it and so on.

And we tried to not only have music by John, by Cage, but music by other composers who would be interested in working in the same way. They didn't have to compose the way John does, but in the sense of this separation between the music and the dance. When we found a number of them over the years, whom - with whom we have worked of course, who have - what do you say - who have used these ideas in their way. And we have, in a sense, a master repertory of this (laughter).

GROSS: During those times when you were booed, during those early years, did you have enough belief in what you were doing to not be discouraged by the negative reactions?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, it was and remains to me an extraordinary area to work in. It seems to me constantly one can constantly be refreshed. I - at least for my - and my personal feeling's that way as I work at it. And one only has to get one's mind out of the way and then - about deciding that something is good or bad and rather allow for different things to take place, different kinds of things to take place, so that you are - or I am constantly on the point of discovering something I don't know about rather than repeating what I do know about.

GROSS: So the boos were just part of that process for you and not a real obstacle?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, they - well, yes, of course, they were interesting sometimes and difficult sometimes. And sometimes we've even had things thrown at us and all of that kind of traditional thing. And I remember a program in - I think it was in Cologne, in Germany, once with the dance company where the audience was extremely unpleasant and difficult and booed and yelled all the way through the performance. And my - I thought the company, my dancers, were wonderful. I said, we'll just keep on going. (Laughter) They were marvelous. They did (laughter).

GROSS: I bet, though, you figured out some pretty creative ways to survive on next to no money during those years when you were touring in the Volkswagen bus and performing at colleges.

CUNNINGHAM: Oh, you mean money. Oh, well...

GROSS: Yeah.

CUNNINGHAM: (Laughter) Yes. Oh, yes. There wasn't any (laughter). No. We even managed to get from one place to the other and somehow keep it going. And I - in the very - in those days when there were a few dancers - of course, there were six dancers and two musicians and one technical person. And that's all we could get in the bus, so that's what we had. And I would pay all the bills because I thought that if I gave the dancers money, it would be so little that they would maybe try to save some and not eat properly.

So I decided, no, I will pay, and they can eat what they want. I will manage that, and I will - but I will pay for it so that then they will - more likely to eat well and not get sick (laughter). And I think, on the whole, it worked out. At some point, of course, it didn't work anymore, naturally. But for a while, it did.

So we would try - and we would also, you know, not simply eat in restaurants. We had very nice times, often, difficult - of course it was difficult - but we had very good times because we would stop and eat in the parks, buy food and cook in the parks if the weather was nice. And as Carolyn Brown said once, writing about it, she said there was an awful lot of laughing (laughter).

GROSS: Do you think of the male and female body as being very different instruments?

CUNNINGHAM: Yes. They're both the same and different. First of all, you start with the fact that they have two legs and two arms and one head. That's the same. But there is a physical difference in the woman's body. The structure is different. There are kinds of movements that she can do which the man can do, but they're not the same. I mean, they don't - he can do them, certainly, and equally so the other way - that the man has a different kind of strength in his body - the way it's knit, for example, physically knit together. There are kinds of movements which both can do. And I think that's quite clear and more probably in American dancing, say, than European dancing. Although, of course, now it's common everyplace - but that American women, for instance, do steps that originally were thought only for men, and the men probably do certain things which were originally thought only for women but which now both can do. But there still is a difference because the man does it in a different way than the woman, as each person does it different from the other one.

GROSS: Are there ways that you think of yourself as using men and women differently in your dances?

CUNNINGHAM: I use them both as individuals - that is, simply as - who may be doing the same movement but not necessarily at the same time, just as you might as you - if you look at a flock of birds, in a sense, they're doing the same thing. But they don't really do the same thing. They don't do it at the same time. Then also, I take for granted that there are certain differences that will come out with any - say that - say a male body is doing something, and a female body is doing the same thing. But there are certain differences that will simply appear, to my eye, anyway. And I think that's fine. It's human.

GROSS: Well, you've talked about how you don't want a frontal emphasis in your dance. And you don't want - you know, you don't want to be focused on the center, and you don't want to just be focused on the front. It should be interesting from any angle. Why is that important to you since, you know, in most theaters, there are just audiences seated in front?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, that's based on the idea of proscenium theaters - as they called it, the Italian theater. It's based on the idea of perspective where you have a point to which everything relates some way or another. And the classical ballet, it seems to me, is built on that. That means there's one point that's the best, and that's the point that's directly in front of the royal box so that the royal box can see it. Everybody else deviates slightly all the way out here where you can't see anything.

That doesn't seem to me to be socially useful now, certainly not in the face of the way we think about people all over the world. That's like colonialism in a way. It has another point of view, if you're going to speak politically. But I didn't think of it that way. Although later on, I thought about it. I thought, but there's no reason why you can't change the space. You do it in the streets. You don't see people from the front in the streets. You see them from any angle. Why cannot you do that on the stage?

Now, we have - we perform in many different places, of course. We perform in the perspective stage. We perform in gymnasiums and hallways, out of doors. We have done many performances where the audience is on four sides, three sides or two sides so that you can't fix which way you focus. So I'd make the dances with that in mind - that they could be done in different - not all of them - certainly not. But almost all of them are arranged so that they could be done either in a perspective stage, a proscenium, or they could be done in another kind of space. You only have to think now about putting yourself in outer space. You're going to have a center of interest there.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUNNINGHAM: How do you think about right and left when you're up floating around? How do you (inaudible) something out? The only thing you can do is think from yourself and each person in turn from himself. I'm going to my right. I can't say I'm going to go over there because at the time you get there, you've gone someplace else. You've shifted your - the - you've shifted where your body is.

So you have to think direction-wise differently. And I - in my work, ever since I began with Cage years and years ago when I got to thinking about space - and it was that remark of Einstein's where he said there are no fixed points in space. I thought, well, that works perfectly for the theater.

BIANCULLI: The late choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. This month marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.



Let's get back to Terry's 1985 interview with the late dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was born a hundred years ago this month. Cunningham died in 2009 at the age of 90.


GROSS: Many dancers start choreographing after they retire from dance. Now, you've always been doing both, and you haven't stopped dancing.

CUNNINGHAM: I do less.

GROSS: You do less.

CUNNINGHAM: (Laughter).

GROSS: But you still dance. And you're in your mid-60s...


GROSS: ...Now. Has working with your own body for dance as you've gotten older brought up any really interesting ways of using it that you hadn't thought of before when you were younger and had a more flexible body then?

CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I think so. I think the things about balance and about - since there are certain - many kinds of movements now that are not free for me to do - I'm not physically free to do - I find other ones. They're limited, of course. But - and I realize - I'm quite aware of that.

But within that scale, I keep trying to find new things, just for myself. This hasn't to do with the dancers in the company there. I've tried to push them as far as possible. You know, I don't think of dance or dancing as an object which is completed. I think of the whole thing as a process which I continue.

GROSS: Do you still do daily exercises?

CUNNINGHAM: Yes. I do what the dancers - what ballet people call a warm-up or a barre - I don't do as much as I used to, naturally not. But I do - I always do it when we're on tour. For example, I get up and go to the theater before anybody else, and I do my work, which is roughly an hour, certainly not more than that. Then I teach the company a class. Then we have rehearsal, and then we do an evening show.

GROSS: What's your mental attitude toward doing the exercises every day? Because it could become very tedious and a routine that you have to drag yourself through every day.

CUNNINGHAM: Oh, it's terrible.

GROSS: It's not enjoyable.

CUNNINGHAM: It is - I'm sure for many dancers, that's really the thing that perhaps really eventually stops them - the idea of having to do that every day because it is tedious. But I decided, OK, if this is what you have to do, you have to find a way to do it. So instead of thinking, oh, I'm going to repeat this every day, I adopted the philosophy that it was new each day. Even if I did the same thing, it was new (laughter). Even the simplest exercise was new all over again. It's simple to say and not not easy to do. But just the same, I keep finding new things then. Rather than just repeating exactly the way it is, I keep finding very slight ways - small ways, big ways. Hopefully with the dance company, it's big, big ways - for myself less so. But still, it's like renewing yourself. I mean, what if you decided that - you breathe a few times, and you decided you knew about that; you don't have to do that anymore (laughter).

GROSS: You've had your share of injuries - haven't you? - in dance?

CUNNINGHAM: Like all dancers, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. How do you...

CUNNINGHAM: It's constant.

GROSS: How do you know when it's OK to actually continue with the performance and keep dancing and when, if you do that, you're going to ruin that joint or that muscle forever and it'll ruin you?

CUNNINGHAM: I think that you shouldn't ask me that question 'cause I'm not sure I do know because I've danced under injuries which probably most dancers would have sense enough not to have done.

GROSS: Yeah.

CUNNINGHAM: (Laughter) So don't ask me.

GROSS: But you haven't suffered anything catastrophic from that. You haven't had to abandon dancing or...

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I thought at two points I was going to because I had a bad spine, a terrible back problem, sacroiliac lumbar like so many people have. And then I simply developed exercises that have kept me going and have helped that. And I put them in my dance technique in a different way but for the spine because I think that comes about when the lower back doesn't work. And most people don't use the muscles in the lower back. And then one day they do something all of a sudden, and it gives. I thought, well, there must be a way. There are muscles down there. There must be way to use them. So I developed exercises. And I've not had a serious back trouble since. And I have to be careful. I admit that. But I've not had serious back trouble.

GROSS: During those periods when you've been in pain because of an injury or just because of the toll that dancing daily takes on your body, have you ever taken painkillers or anything like that, or do you have a mental attitude that is - that can distract you from your own pain and take your mind off of it?

CUNNINGHAM: No. I was going to say yes and no. Once I took - I think it was when I had the back troubles. I took some - I don't know what they were. The doctor gave me something. But I realized that that was only an excuse and that I was not realizing what was really the problem, which was to get rid of the pain in the back, not not hide it. So I don't - I never - I just quit. I take vitamins pills, but that's - that - it's out of habit, and those are straight. But I'm not taking anything like that ever.

GROSS: You have challenged a lot of traditions and conventions of dance. Do you think it's important for artists to challenge conventions? Do you think that the act of challenging is important in and of itself? Or is that irrelevant and you just challenge things because that was your sensibility and that's the way it is?

CUNNINGHAM: I suppose it is important to challenge things, but I think in my own case, it was because I could see these ideas were possible. It wasn't the fact that I was doing something somebody else did or didn't do because although I don't know other dancers at the time who did it, there were visual artists involved in the ideas and certainly composers. So the idea that the - it was that these ideas were new ideas that were in the air, and these were possibilities that had never been tried before. And one could see there were possibilities even though wasn't - one wasn't sure how they might come out.

BIANCULLI: Merce Cunningham speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. The acclaimed dancer and choreographer died in 2009 at age 90. On April 16, dance companies around the world will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his birth, featuring performances of Cunningham's choreography.

After a break, the new sci-fi thriller "High Life" opens today, and our film critic Justin Chang has a review. This is FRESH AIR.

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