seattle: merce cunningham passes away

Woke up to the sad news that Merce Cunningham passed away yesterday. Thank goodness he had the foresight to make plans for the future of his work and his company.

I’m sure there’ll be more info and many beautiful tributes in the next few hours, days, months about this Centralia-born, Cornish College-trained man who contributed so much to modern dance.

Here are a few links, though:

Alastair McCaulay’s short obit (more to come in the NYT)


Merce Cunningham website
…with the beautiful quote: “…only he who is willing to give his body for the sake of the world is fit to be entrusted with the world. / Only he who can do it with love is worthy of being the steward of the world.” – Tao Te Ching

And a poem I wrote a few weeks ago, at the American Dance Festival, where this modern dance maker was so beloved. It’s called “Finding Merce.” It includes Roger Copeland’s statement that back in the ’50s, “Merce threatened the concept they had of what it meant to be human.” How amazing is dance if it has that power!

Finding Merce

It took me 15 years to find Balanchine.

If I’d known what a great journey he was going to take me on, I’d have tried harder.
But memories of Carla Fracci and opinions about what ballet should be…
I wore these like a sweater set and did just fine, thank you very much.

Compare the unknown with the known.
That’s a basic learning tool for life, but
use it wisely when it comes to art.

One night, in the balcony during Concerto Barocco, as I sniggered
once again, “It’s all cold technique;
where’s the emotion, where’s the beauty?”
I saw them!
There they were, laid out in front of me, suddenly visible,
as though the world had shifted and everything had fallen into place.
Emotion and beauty lived in the movement and the form and the pattern—
and in how all three interacted with the music.
Goodbye, tree; hello, forest.
I’d been looking in the wrong place.

In a split second, my world expanded.

That epiphany in the balcony dropped me into a rapid current.
I found Balanchine,
then contemporary ballet,
then modern dance performed by classically-trained dancers.
What a ride! And yet, the speed of growth embarrassed me;
I seemed to be undergoing the unstoppable and awkward changes of an adolescence.

From an early age,
we’re encouraged to define ourselves
by what we like
and by what we dislike.
Is that why some of us resist opening up to new things?
Are we afraid of identity change?

I crawled out of the river at modern dance.
I couldn’t find a way to connect with ballet’s rounded, grounded, barefoot contemporary cousin.
Modern dance was rocks and trees.
Modern dance was running for no reason and stopping for no reason.
It collapsed under the burden of too much emotion or wandered aimlessly without any at all.
And why the intense, far-off gaze?
And why couldn’t they perform in a theater, rather than crossing over into the real world and making people uncomfortable?
And why the unflattering jumpsuits?

Or, worse: nudity?
And where was the beauty?

The theory goes, that if you like Modern A,
then you’ll like Modern B.

How could I love modern art and not modern dance?
And modern music? Hindemith, Arvo Pärt, and Thom Willems—
I learned to love them because Balanchine, Dove, and Forsythe
showed me their beauty.

These past two weeks, I asked for help,
and people who believe in modern dance
have loaned me
their eyes,
their histories,
and their hearts
so that I could see its beauty and its balance.
I run out of fingers counting the modern dance works I love already.
But when I move onto the podiatric digits, I stub my big toe hard on Merce Cunningham.
Dance merely coexisting with music?
Dance by chance?
What’s the point?

It’s funny to me that he’s a minor deity here at the American Dance Festival.
It’s funny to me that everyone calls him by his first name,
as though he and his style are their close, personal friends.
Merce! Merce! Merce!

There’s a rush being close to an artist,
Being with that creative energy.

How refreshing to find out that in 1958, this father of modern dance
wasn’t welcome at the ADF.
Roger Copeland, who wrote a book on Cunningham, said that
“Merce threatened the concept they had of what it meant to be human.”

We’re back to identity again.
But not the individual’s identity.
We’re talking about the identity of all humanity.
Cunningham’s dance is that powerful.

If the ADF could learn to appreciate this mind-blowing choreographer,
then so can I.
Why is it so important?
I have this feeling that Cunningham has a key to another world,
that he can make the world shift and fall into place…into a different place.

Find Merce,
and I’ll see things I haven’t seen before.

My two vehicles can’t handle the terrain:
neither emotion nor music is going to take me to Merce.
In the meantime, I’m hitchhiking.
Today, it’s a ride with Lewis Whittington, who doesn’t mind the hideous jumpsuits.

They’re unitards, you see,
and anything that shows the body is good;
any time you can present the body in a nonsexual way in our Puritanical society
it helps.

I love this.

Copeland said Merce had a need to release himself
from instincts and desires.

Why?
I think I like my instincts and desires.

What is left when we’re stripped of them?

Merce tried to escape his own conditioning.
That sounds like a worthwhile experiment.

It sounds like exactly what I need to do in order find him.

Apparently Merce believed in form,
believed in movement for movement’s sake.

That sounds like Balanchine. Maybe I’ll start there tomorrow.

I take heart that Merce was interested in
“a rapprochement of ballet and modern.”

Sounds like Merce is willing to meet me halfway.

I’m going to ask him to turn off his stopwatch for this one.