Memories of Merce

Merce Cunningham, who died Sunday age 90, had a long and fruitful relationship with the dance community in Minnesota. He appeared here regularly throughout his career, and had a deep affection for the Walker Art Center, the huge stage at Northrop Auditorium, and the College of St Ben’s, where he visited to teach and finally last year to present his huge work “Ocean” in a quarry near St Cloud.

Merce Cunningham in 2008 at the Walker Art Center (Photo courtesy of the Cameron Wittig for Walker Art Center)

I was lucky enough to meet Cunningham several times over the years, and he was always kind and patient as I struggled to find a way to describe for a radio audience what he and his company did.

The first time we met was on the side of the stage at Northrop, where I was told I could have something like seven minutes with him as the rehearsal schedule was so tightly packed.

To be honest, I was having trouble getting my head around how Cunningham worked. His interest was in the moment. He explored the intersection of chance – often in the form of the music – with the beauty of the movement he created for his dancers, a process he usually did through “chance operations,” like the flipping of a coin.

Usually the dancers did not hear the music for a dance before the first performance. In the case of this particular Northrop show, the music was produced by a small keyboard attached to several cassette recorders. Before every show the keyboard player would rummage through a pile of pre-recorded cassettes and draw a few at random to put in the players. No one knew what sounds the score would produce on any given night.

As I naively tried to probe for meaning in his dances, Cunningham would giggle gently and keep explaining he didn’t know what they meant, it was all up to the audience to decide. I have to admit that as my seven minutes drained away, I felt more and more panicked, and the giggling made it worse. It was only afterwards when I talked to a dancer and really thought about the element of chance in all our lives that it became clear, and I was able to write my piece.

His last performance in Minnesota was a bittersweet event. “Ocean” was a project dreamed up by Cunningham’s long-time artistic and life partner John Cage. He wanted to surround dancers on a circular stage first by an audience, and then by an orchestra of 150 musicians. The idea was to bathe the audience in sound. When Cage died in 1992, Cunningham said he thought Ocean was dead too, but interest continued in the piece, and the St. Cloud performance became part of the effort to capture Cunningham’s major works on film.

Even as he worked on the performance, Cunningham was clearly fascinated in what he was learning from the challenges of the piece. The potential for the “Ocean” circular stage clearly delighted him.

“Because ordinarily with a conventional stage the focus is front and center, and with something in the round it’s all focus or there is no focus,” he said. And he laughed that laugh again.

I have to say the strongest image I have of Cunningham came at another event, “Fluxarama,” held in the fitness club in the Target Center in Minneapolis. The event was part of the “In the Spirit of Fluxus” show which explored the work and legacy of that iconoclastic group. The idea was to fill a non-traditional space with art, and Cunningham brought his company to perform on the basketball court.

It was a wild evening filled with enjoyable weirdness, but I have to admit I stood and watched Cunningham for several minutes. He was sitting on a folding chair courtside between performances. Few people seemed to pay him any attention as he sat just watching the crowds milling around him. Here he was, the man described as one of the most influential choreographers in modern dance, soaking in the ambiance of the waves of humanity around him.

He had a slight smile on his face, as if he was watching a beautiful dance unfolding before him. And being Merce Cunningham, a beautiful dance was probably what he saw.

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