Over one-fourth of the audience walked out on the opening night of the Boston Ballet's Fall, 1974 season. The reason: a performance of "Winterbranch," a work by avantgarde master Merce Cunningham.
It was certainly not the first time a Cunningham piece has driven away an audience. In 1973, Clive Barnes remarked in a review in the New York Times that "there were so many deserters during the performance that one feels that the Cunningham company may have an amnesty problem facing it." The international press has grumbled at and applauded Cunningham for thirty-odd years. His efforts have been labelled "barefoot inconsequentiality," "a much-needed shot in the backside," "self-indulgent and camp," and "the principal creative force in America's modern dance." And Cunningham himself has been both scorned as a fraud and hailed as a revolutionary in the tradition of the Cubist painters. At this point, most dance enthusiasts would probably agree with Barnes that "it is easy to idolize or hate Mr. Cunningham, but terribly difficult to be fair to him."
Members of the Harvard community had a chance to judge for themselves Tuesday, when Cunningham led an historic Learning from Performers lecture-demonstration in the Radcliffe Gym. The Cunningham company is in Massachusetts on a five-week Pilot Long Term Residency program in which master classes, films, and exhibits of work by artists who have been associated with Cunningham complement the company's unique exposition of dance.
Neither the art nor the dance is likely to be predictable--a fitting tribute to the child of a family of Centralia, Washington lawyers who grew up to shock those who shocked the world with modern dance. But even outrageous art can only outrage within a context of respectability; for Cunningham, the background includes both sporadic ballet study and several years in the early '40s as a leading dancer with Martha Graham's company. Beginning with his first solo recital in 1944, however, Cunningham gradually drifted away from the objective, disciplined symbolism of modern dance's first generation toward his own radical redefinition. New York's early indifference gave Cunningham a reason to work extensively in colleges and universities in the '50s, as he slowly built a company of in- ternational stature. With his hardwon eminence now apparently secure, Cunningham maintains a Manhattan studio which provides a showcase for experimental art of all types as well as continuing to attract promising young dancers.
For all this, Cunningham's baffling, inventive choreography is almost as controversial as ever--and he himself, an intensely private person, has offered no comprehensive explanations on either philosophy or method. What is certain is that his 25-year collaboration with avant-garde composer John Cage has been of major importance. Cage's concern with reevaluating the whole idea of music, with both reducing its definition to an almost untenable minimum and expanding its material to an almost unlimited scope, is parallelled in Cunningham's approach to dance.
For Cunningham's dance is simply dance. It does not "mean," it is not symbolic, it does not tell a story or illustrate music or mood or feeling. It does not even display a thoroughly developed abstract technique. As Cunningham himself has remarked, "dancing has a continuity of its own that need not be dependent upon either the rise and fall of sound (music) or the pitch and cry of words (literary ideas). Its force of feeling lies in the physical image."
Cunningham's career has been devoted to an exploration of this "independent" potential of dance. It is a concept so radically simple that it has taken a quarter of a century for the dance world to realize that Cunningham, in the words of critio Don McDonagh, "was speaking the language of his creative time almost before the time was aware that a new choreographic language was needed." The achievement that the Cunningham company brings to Harvard is above all the divorce of dance from all elements but its own self-delighting process: motion and stillness, tension and release, weight and balance, the weave of bodies in time and space.
"I think basically it comes down to an appetite for motion...You just have to be interested in motion for its own sake," Cunningham has told writer Calvin Tomkins--but for all that, his art involves a number of corollaries to the essential belief. One is that such dance is by no means "meaningless": rather, it simply has no meaning beyond itself and what the individual spectator chooses to perceive. Elsewhere in his book "The Bride and the Bachelors," Tomkins quotes Cunningham as saying that "if the dancer dances, everything is there. The meaning is there if that's what you want." And in a 1970 interview with the Boston Sunday Herald's Joan B. Cass, Cunningham explained:
One brings one's own experience to anything...That's what it's all about. One doesn't have to be told how to react, one reacts. And I don't have to force people to feel something...What gets in the way is a mind saying 'Oh, no, that's wrong' or 'that shouldn't be done.' Well, what if you got rid of all those and just said. 'This is what it is. Maybe if I look at it for a while it might grow interesting.'
Cunningham's dances are by no means characterless, either. Characters develop intrinsically within the framework of the dance rather than by external predefinition. Individual Cunningham works reflect a wide range of moods from the disturbing power of "Winterbranch" to the high-spirited kookiness of "Antic Meet" to the hints of loneliness and entrapment in "Place." Cunningham's work turns out to be not so much a denial of meaning as a trust in implicit meaning and in individual perception.
Another aspect of Cunningham's art, which New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff has compared to the Cubist principle of collage, is the relation between dance and such other elements of performance as music and decor. Here too the principle of dance-as-dance-only is carried to an extreme. In preparation for a typical performance, Cunningham meets with the composer and designer and tells them the general tenor of the dance, but not its specifics; then all three work separately, combining their efforts for the first time only in actual performance.
Particularly with regard to music, dance's age-old impetus, such an approach is startling: Cunningham's dance is set not "to" music, but "against" it. The two elements occupy the same time-period and physical space, but neither acts in response to the other. The musical background of a particular dance is not always the same, and even when it is, it functions merely as a "climate of performance," in Clive Barnes's words. As Cunningham has remarked, "the result is that the dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music. The music doesn't have to work itself to death underlying the dance or the dance create havoc in trying to be as flashy as the music."
Again, then, Cunningham's principle of elimination turns out to be affirmative and liberating: a respect for dance, and for music, and for visual art sufficient to trust the integrity of each as an independent entity, without the need to impose an artificial ordering. Perhaps this explains the paradoxical association between a choreographer who views neither music nor decor as a determining element of dance, and a succession of major composers (Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Gordon Mumma, David Tudor, Pauline Oliveros) and artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns).
If dance is concerned only with its own processes, then it cannot be circumscribed by definitions drawn from aesthetics, or history, or the other arts. For Cunningham, any natural movement is potentially the stuff of dance. To emphasize this, he often incorporates into his dances movements which have very little to do with traditional notions of dancing, such as the onstage change of clothes in "Walkaround Time." Movements which in isolation might appear clumsy acquire intriguing beauty in the context of a Cunningham dance: "I think dance only comes alive when it gets awkward again," he has said.
Just as "dance" is not, for Cunningham, a special kind of movement, but a special way of perceiving any movement, so any dance gesture is equivalent to any other. This dissolution of hierarchy, the refusal to impose any arbitrary order on the intrinsic patterns of movement, is reflected elsewhere in Cunningham's art. Tomkins has likened his use of the stage to "a continuum, an Einsteinian field in which the dancers relate not to fixed points...but to one another," and most Cunningham dances can be viewed to almost equal advantage from any angle. There is no hierarchy of dancers, either: they interact, in critic McDonagh's phrase, with "molecular individuality." As with Cunningham's approach to decor and music, this too is essentially a respect for the integrity of individual elements rather than a surrender to anarchy. Carolyn Brown, long an outstanding Cunningham dancer, points out that "the dancers are treated more as puzzles than works of art: the pieces are space and time, shape and rhythm The rest is up to us [the dancers] We put the puzzle together, making of it what we can, bringing to it what our imaginations allow."
The equivalence of all movement within a dance suggests another Cunningham principle, that any movement can follow any other movement. Cause and effect, "logical" progression, become irrelevant, here, as in the arbitrary simultaneity of dance, music, and decor, the processes of art overlap the experience of contemporary life. Cunningham explained in an interview last year:
There must always be many other possibilities. Just as there are in life. One thing must not necessarily follow another. Or rather, anything can follow anything...I was interested in the complexity, not the confusion, of our daily lives. Why not have this in dancing?...Always behind it there was an idea about flexibility, of not fixing yourself. It was an affirmation, not a rejection, of the life we were living. It was not a dislike but an affirmative sense of the energy to continue.
The operative principle of contemporary experience, in Cunningham's view, is chance juxtaposition. The application of chance to choreographic presentation has been one of the most controversial, and misunderstood, aspects of Cunningham's work; but for him, this represents no mere whim for the outrageous but an honest attempt to reintegrate art and life. In Cunningham's dance, as in modern life, the subjective ordering of individual experience replaces objective structure and continuity.
Initially, Cunningham used such chance procedures as coin-tossing only to determine the order in which dance sequences would appear, not as a method of composition. Chance-directed composition is still relatively rare in his work. Yet even when chance processes direct the evolution of the dance itself, such surrender to chance is not at all the same as abandonment to chaos. Cunningham sees this technique of composition as "a mode of freeing my imagination from its own cliches," as he told the Herald's Cass, as a liberating activity which permits the dance to respond to the discipline of natural process.
Cunningham's methods of chance and random juxtaposition culminate in those stage presentations designated "Events," which his company has performed periodically since 1964. In an Event, Cunningham combines a series of discrete sequences from previously-choreographed dances to form a continuous whole, with one sequence often beginning before another has ended. The music and costumes are seldom those used with the original dances, and although the program lists the works from which the sequences are extracted it is rarely possible to tell what is being performed when.
It is an enormously flexible format: each Event is tailored to the specific performing situation, while the range of the Cunningham repertoire and the almost infinite possibilities of sequence combination insure that no one Event will ever duplicate another choreographically. And as the Times's Barnes has pointed out, each Event is a beautiful demonstration of the integrity and continuity of Cunningham's works; the frankly arbitrary flow of sequence to sequence creates a startlingly organic whole.
Yet Cunningham's reliance on Events continues to provoke controversy. Ballet Review's Jack Anderson accuses him of disregarding the audience in the name of practicality, and a number of critics have pointed out that a ninety-minute Event, without intermission, can become thoroughly tedious. The final verdict is not yet in, but Cunningham himself upholds the validity of a format which allows for "not so much an evening of dance, as the experience of dance."
For all its strongly intellectual overtones, however, Cunningham's dance is an art of the body, not of the mind. He once described his choreographic process to Tomkins:
I don't have ideas, exactly; there's no thinking involved in my choreography. I work alone for a couple of hours every morning in the studio. I just try things out. And my eye catches something that looks interesting, and then I work on that...it's all in terms of the body, you see. I don't work through images or ideas--I work through the body.
The result is a choreography of clean structures, animal grace and dense concentration, humor and delicacy and flashes of madness.
Cunningham is himself a dancer of extraordinary subtlety and power--"he really does seem to have more in his little finger than most dancers have in their whole bodies," the New Yorker's Arlene Croce has remarked--and the movement of his dances, radiating from a center of balance in the lower spine, demands a firm technique. Despite the disjunction between music and dance, another key component of Cunningham style is rhythm. But as former dancer Brown explains, "Merce requires...that the rhythm come from within: from the nature of the step, from the nature of the phrase, and from the dancer's own musculature."
The decor and stage props accompanying a Cunningham dance are often as inventive as the choreography. "Variations V" uses bicycles and magnetic wands, "Rainforest" fills the stage with silver helium balloons designed by Andy Warhol, and in "Tread" the dancers move behind huge electric fans blowing cool air at the audience. Cunningham's revolution in the conception of dance has been accompanied by a revolution in dance's stage environment.
But Cunningham's primary contribution remains the redefinition of dance itself. It is a vision that has inspired a host of younger choreographers, most nourished in Cunningham's own company: Paul Taylor, Judith Dunn, Deborah Hay, Jack Moore, Dan Wagoner, Yvonne Rainer. In a century when painting has turned inward to explore the grounds of perception, and the "meaning" of poetry has become the relation of word to word and mind to language, Cunningham has created dance centered on nothing more than the activity of movement--and in so doing, in McDonagh's words, he "clearly demonstrated that dance was not a frustrated mate yearning to verbalization but a kinetic discipline capable of its own wordless truths."
There are those who have found any art of such absolute reduction too self-restricting, something abstracted beyond either beauty or meaning. Yet unlike painting or poetry or music, dance can never really be "abstract," because the shape of both instrument and perfected form is the familiarity of the human body. The essence of Cunningham's art is in the end not reduction, but the affirmation of the body in the simplicity of its own life. Perhaps most of all, his is an art of celebration