Merce Cunningham's innovations have been especially controversial and influential. Born in Centralia, Washington, in 1919, he began to study dance locally at the age of twelve. Intending to become an actor, he enrolled at the Cornish School in Seattle, where he was encouraged to dance by Bonnie Bird, a former member of the Graham Company who was on the Cornish faculty. There he also met John Cage, a young experimental composer. Together, Cunningham and Cage developed unconventional ideas of dance composition.
Committed to a dance career, Cunningham attended Bennington's 1939 session at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he attracted the attention of Martha Graham. After moving to New York, he danced with her company, 1939-1945, and presented his first New York choreography in 1942 in a concert he shared with Jean Erdman and Nina Fonaroff. He also toured as a dance soloist in musical programs by Cage. After 1945, he devoted himself full-time to his own choreography, with Cage serving as his artistic adviser.
Cunningham could be dramatically forceful as a performer, both in the Graham repertory and in his own early pieces. In 1945, Robert Sabin of Dance Observer called Experiences "the most gripping thing" Cunningham had done and found that it "marks a new advance in dramatic realization. Its ferocity and body dynamics, its 'freezes' (in which the movement is suddenly arrested with tremendous effect) are not only exciting as examples of virtuosity but they show a spirit of creative experimentation which promises well for the future." In that same review, Sabin noted that Cunningham was blessed with a sense of humor and found his Mysterious Adventure "deliciously impish in flavor."
Cunningham continued to receive praise for his dramatic presence and whimsical comedy. But he put these qualities to unconventional use. Even at the beginning of his career, he stood apart from many of his choreographic colleagues. Reviewing a 1944 concert, Sabin presciently observed that the event was unusual for its "pure, unadulterated dancing. ...He is a classicist (if one may venture to use that dangerous word) in the sense that he absolutely believes in dance as an independent medium of expression with its own laws and objectives."
Printed programs for Cunningham's concerts often included this credo: "Dancing has a continuity of its own that need not be dependent upon either the rise and fall of sound, or the pitch and cry of words. Its force of feeling lies in the physical image, fleeting or static.
It can and does evoke all sorts of individual responses in the single spectator." Cunningham's dances were plotless. Nevertheless, they were perceived as having their own special choreographic personalities and atmospheres, possibly because the specific kinds of movements he favored in each prompted similar reactions in the-audiences that beheld them. Thus, no one ever called Cunningham's harsh Winterbranch sweet or his lyrical Summerspace savage.
Cunningham often commissioned new music, and his designers over the years included such eminent artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. Yet he made no attempt to have dance phrases coincide with musical phrases and the decor for his dances never literally illustrated anything in them. In 1959, when he choreographed Septet to an existing score-Erik Satie's "Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire"-some audiences were startled by Cunningham's treatment of the music-as, for instance, in moments when dancers stood perfectly still to loud chords that might have inspired other choreographers to devise passages of frantic activity. Cunningham has said, "It is hard for many people to accept that dancing has nothing in common with music other than the element of time and the division of time." In his productions, dancing, music, and stage design do not provide one another with mutual support; rather, they coexist.
Cunningham came to believe that any space can be danced in and that any point in space can be of interest. For him, stage space was an empty field. He therefore ignored traditional theories of stage direction that maintain that stage center is "strong," whereas movements at the sides of the stage may be "weak."
Just as any point in space can be significant, so, for Cunningham, any movement, however fancy or ordinary, can serve as a dance movement. This theory paralleled John Cage's belief that any sound can be used in a piece of music. Concertgoers found many of the sounds in Cage's early works beguiling, for he explored the possibilities of what he called the prepared piano: a piano with objects carefully placed upon its strings so as to alter their customary timbres. Cage's prepared pianos reminded audiences of unconventionally tuned harpsichords or Balinese gamelans. But as Cage continued his experiments, he alienated some listeners with electronic scores that were found loud, harsh, and grating. The music he composed for
Cunningham's Aeon outraged dancegoers at its premiere at the American Dance Festival in 1961. It "ran its fingernails over our eardrums," Doris Hering complained, and Louis Horst dismissed it as "shattering and ear-splitting noise." A scientist in the "audience even announced, "The sound level in that auditorium is dangerous for human ears."
Whatever sounds may have accompanied them, Cunningham's choreographic phrases were so lucid that his style was sometimes compared with ballet. Nevertheless, despite what could be called his “classical" tendencies, his choreography was often controversial. His theories regarding chance and indeterminacy helped make it so. These words bewilder some dancegoers, who regard them as synonyms for improvisation. But Cunningham's choreography is not improvised; his dancers do not invent their steps as they go along. Indeed, if he had not publicly announced that he employed chance in making some works, spectators might not even suspect that he had done so.
Cunningham first employed chance in 1951 when he choreographed Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, a work inspired by the Indian theatre's nine traditional categories of human emotions. Unable to decide which emotion should follow which onstage, Cunningham threw a coin to determine the order; but once that order was established, it remained unaltered. For Suite by Chance (1953), he prepared elaborate charts of possible movements, then selected the specific ones to be employed by tossing coins. If he had not said that he had done so, few (if any) spectators could have guessed it.
In contrast, effects of indeterminacy can be visible in the theatre- provided one sees more than a single performance of a given dance. In indeterminate compositions, the choreographer or the dancers can alter the order of sequences or omit some of them at each performance. But, once again, they do not have the freedom to improvise. Although Cunningham devised thirteen brief dances for his suite Dime a Dance (1953), only eight of them were ever presented on any night. The cast members of Field Dances (1963) were assigned a specific number of things to do, but were left free to do them at whatever speed they chose, as often as they wished, and in any order.
Cunningham's fascination with chance and indeterminacy had historical precedents, for the Dadaists and Surrealists had made use of chance. Like them, Cunningham believes that most people too easily become creatures of habit. Through chance, however, artists can discover images or patterns that their purely rational minds might not have invented. Chance also allows creators to ignore or transcend conventional cause-and-effect logic. Chance leaves room for surprise.
From Art without boundaries: The World of Modern Dance
By Jack Anderson