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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Cunningham, ou le hasard comme nécessité dans la danse

by Muriel Steinmetz

Cunningham: On Chance as Necessity in Dance

Translated Thursday 3 September 2009, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Departed. Died on 27 July, the renowned American dancer and choreographer began his career before the Second World War. His influence on his art form will remain fundamental.

The great American choreographer died in his sleep at his home on 27 July. To the very end, while not actually dancing, he continued to set into movement hundreds of young people, and himself continued to move about, despite the pains of rheumatism, an aged man with the blue eyes of a child, with adolescent curls, sketching a salutation with one or two gestures of a rare elegance. The autumn festival in Paris [1] will render him homage. But, alas, it will be without his presence.

As early as 1942, the decisive encounter with John Cage

Merce Cunningham is born on the 16th of April, 1919, in Centralia, Washington, where he studies tap dancing as a young child, then dance and the stage theater. As of 1942, he has his decisive encounter with John Cage, an avant-garde musician who accompanies the dance classes on the piano. This collaboration ends only with the death of his friend on 12 August 1992. This work with Cage is carried on in parallel with Cunningham’s engagement in the troupe of Martha Graham, as lead dancer, from 1939 to 1945. He becomes famous for his extraordinary leaps. It is in this company that he begins to sense what constitutes the American soul in organized movement.

He teaches at the American Ballet from 1949 to 1950, then, in 1953, founds the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the mythical Black Mountain College. It is there that he works and begins to compose pieces with painters (Jasper Johns, who will become his artistic advisor, and Robert Rauschenberg) and musicians (Cage, as always, David Tudor, Morton Feldman) ... He also meets Andy Warhol, who will create the silver clouds, (pillows inflated with helium) for his piece Rainforest (1968). His works. in the United States, have only a modest success, and are appreciated only by an avant-garde public. Most of the time, he is booed.

In 1964 he creates in Vienna the concept of Events [2], which overturn the expectations of what constitutes a dance performance. Presented without intermission, these Events are, as he declared in June 1995, "assemblages of excerpts from the repertoire, old or new, to which one often adds sequences specially conceived for a site or a performance, which will be seen only once. It’s a question more of creating an experience of dance, rather than an evening of dance."

In all innocence a harsh critic of conventional ideas of dance, and by nature a rebel to any idea of system, Merce Cunningham learned early on to give luck a chance. The stage, thanks to him, has become a space where one can play on the roll of dice. This play of chance, Cunningham inherited from the fifties, and from John Cage, in turn particularly inspired by his friend Marcel Duchamp. It’s a simple and genial idea: to let chance guide the work as it takes shape, and let chance finish the work. How? Thanks to the use of the I Ching, the Chinese book of divination, which plays the role of an oracle, thanks to its hexagrams chosen by a throw of dice or sticks.

The inventor of an almost mathematical absolute

Another earthquake in the universe of dance: the concerted independence of the arts. Merce Cunningham knew how to impose the body those emancipating forces of chance, via a supple circulation of forms conceived separately one from another, each one working on its own but as part of a common design. Merce Cunningham, whom we had the pleasure to meet in November 2001, told us: "It was surely difficult for you, the public, but equally difficult for me and for the dancers, because there was no longer any measure external to the body. Each dancer had only himself to latch onto."

Paradoxically, this inventor of an almost mathematical absolute carried within himself the ardent desire to democratize his art. No more center stage, out with narration, little or no argument, no history, no anecdote, and surely no psychology. The body suffices. That’s all. The backbone is made central, and the back becomes the keystone of the arch of dance. It is Michel Guy, thanks to his Autumn Festival, who imposed Merce Cunningham on the French public, progressively enlarging the circle of his knowledgeable admirers. It is thanks to London and Paris that Cunningham is at last recognized for his true merit in his own land.

Among his major works we may cite Summerspace (1958), Un jour ou deux (1973) created for the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, Sounddance (1974), Roaratorio (1983), Un hommage à James Joyce, CRWDSPCR (1993), Ocean (1994), a work dedicated to John Cage, who had died two years earlier.

Fascinated by all that his epoch could offer, he was one of the first to use video (notably with Charles Atlas and Elliot Kaplan, in the seventies). An artist by instinct and by reflection at the same time, experienced in all disciplines of the body, Merce Cunningham becomes, voluntarily using new tools, a matchless technician of the image.

Keep enlarging the field of possibilities

The Simon Fraser University [3] put together, especially for him, beginning in the nineties, a choreographic computer program entitled "Life Forms", which again enlarged the field of possibilities. It was with the help of this software that he created Biped (1999), where real life dancers join their doubles in images in which their arms open at incredible angles and the torsos seem liberated from the rest of their bodies. In the interview that he was willing to grant us, he also told us this: "Everything always interested me, and from the very beginning, with John Cage. It was fascinating! The computer is a marvelous tool."

Merce Cunningham, who trained generations of dancers, had an immense influence on French choreographers, up until today. It is as if they have just lost an always youthful ancestor.

[1Festival d’automne 2-12 December.

[2Also known as Happenings

[3in British Columbia, Canada

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