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the simple fact of merce cunningham

maggi phillips on melbourne festival’s featured guest


Merce Cunningham Merce Cunningham
photo Mark Seliger
IN HIS EIGHTY-EIGHTH YEAR OF ‘FACTUAL’ ACTIVITY, MERCE CUNNINGHAM, SLIGHT AS ALWAYS, IF NOW PHYSICALLY FRAIL, CONTINUES TO EXERT A TOWERING INFLUENCE ON THE ART OF DANCE. HIS IS A MARVELLOUS LIFE THAT REFUSES TO STOP MOVING PERHAPS BECAUSE ABOVE ALL HE HIMSELF MARVELS OVER THE INFINITE POSSIBILITIES OF DISCOVERY THAT HUMAN LIFE CAN GIVE. CUNNINGHAM IS SAID TO BE ONE OF THOSE ARTISTS WHO CONCERN THEMSELVES WITH THE PROFOUND MYSTERIES OF EVERYDAY-NESS, OF THE PROFUNDITY OF THIS ACT OF MOVEMENT WHICH HE FONDLY REFERS TO AS A ‘FACT.’ ACT AND FACT FIGURE IN HIS PRONOUNCEMENTS AS IDEAS THAT RUN DEEP IN SPITE OF HIS INSISTENCE ON THEIR SIMPLICITY. IN 1952, THIS YOUNG MAN’S STATEMENT ON “SPACE, TIME AND THE DANCE” REVEALS SOMETHING OF THE INTRICATE PATTERN OF CONTRADICTIONS THAT A CONCEPTUAL FACT MIGHT REPRESENT:

For me, it seems enough that dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form, and that what is seen, is what it is. And I do not believe it is possible to be ‘too simple.’ What the dancer does is the most realistic of all possible things, and to pretend that a man standing on a hill could be doing everything except standing is simply to divorce—divorce from life, from the sun coming up and going down, from clouds in front of the sun, from that rain that comes from the clouds and sends you into the drugstore for a cup of coffee, from each thing that succeeds each thing. Dancing is a visible action of life.

That ‘action of life’ became astoundingly visible when I scurried to catch the Cunningham Company’s free performance event at Cottesloe Beach in 2001. The traffic jam, that I imagined was an infuriating encounter with Perth’s peak-hour, proved to be crowds pouring down to the same beach appointment as mine. They converged, as I discovered breathless and all-too-late, with their chickens and champagne, with the kids’ swimsuits, balls and bats, to witness or more acutely to become part of an experience which fused dance and sand, sunset and gossip in an unrepeatable combination. As I stood on the crowd’s edge, the dancers moved, mere specks on a manifold horizon, sweeping together the Indian Ocean, an exquisite interplay of cloud and reclining light, and people chatting, swimming and gnawing on chicken bones, I had a glimpse of what Cunningham conceived as an event. It had everything to do with fact and, at the same time, exposed the spun wheel of chance, of ordinary things coming together with extraordinary force. Sensuously, I was stunned. The tiny image of the man feted at the end of the performance on the constructed stage evaded many in the crowd. That too seemed an apt expression of Cunningham’s ability to provoke a coalescence of life and art and, then, eloquently exit the spectacle.
Merce Cunningham's eyeSpace Merce Cunningham's eyeSpace
photo Anna Finke
Chance, factuality, spirituality and wonder were all there in time and space, breaking effortlessly in and out of complexity. Dance performance achieved in a half hour or so at Cottesloe Beach more significance than ever before, moreso even than in the subsequent and ‘marvellous’ theatre performances of the company. Coexistence within the disparate ecology resonated with such lucidity that it was impossible not to ponder John Cage’s explanation of the Zen Buddhist perspective wherein arbitrariness is but another expression of interconnectivity. In the after-glow, movement, sound and design ebbed and flowed like the unfathomable ocean.

But who is Merce Cunningham and why should the Melbourne International Arts Festival celebrate him and his associates in a comprehensive residency programme? Bluntly, Cunningham and his long term partnership with John Cage established a precedent of artists who think. While this statement might appear counter-intuitive to current practitioners jealously guarding their licence to embody relationships with the world, Cunningham and Cage along with the constellation of artists they gathered into their orbit over the years, interrogated, analysed and proceeded to imagine what making dance, music and design might autonomously and democratically be. Though Cunningham protests its matter-of-factness, the approach exploded performance conventions. Influenced in turn by artists like Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce, by Cage’s immersion in Zen, by Cunningham’s affinity with Einstein’s pronouncements on the time-space continuum, by the growing affluence of the US in postwar conditions, the partnership provoked a quiet and unstoppable revolution.

Their radical point of departure concerns their belief in the innate expressivity of movement, sound and design. Moreover, echoing Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’, any action or noise could contribute to this expressivity if so composed within the art work. Lines, jumps and squeaks are, simply in their Joycean ‘thing-ness,’ without any recourse to external narratives or overlays, expressive. In order to realise this unadorned expressivity, choreographer, composer and designer would agree upon the duration of the work and then disperse to action their constructions separately. The process created performances whereby relations between elements operating as free agents were dependent on what spectators might detect as meaningful in their coexistence. To further eliminate habitual instincts and preferences, Cunningham’s choreographic processes gravitated around manipulating movement phrases by throwing dice or the I-Ching sticks to determine how units of the phrases were re-built by whom and where and when. The effect of stripping away personal feelings enabled Cunningham to paint the stage as if a canvas: “Imitating the way nature makes a space and puts lots of things into it, heavy and light, little and big, all unrelated, yet each affecting all the others.” Significantly, as well as predicting our current preoccupations with human beings as but one component in complex environmental systems, the compositional methods also foreground process over product, a motivating factor of subsequent postmodern approaches to art.

With Cage’s interest in technological interventions into sound production, it was inevitable that Cunningham would harness film/video and, later, computer programs into his projects. The camera became another dancer through which Cunningham could play with Einstein’s observation that there are no fixed points in space, shifting expectations of focus and increasing relationship variations between things. The LifeForms computer software program likewise provided him with unpredictable wire figures whose shapes and transitions proved ideal partners in his objective screening of choice. Together with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, Cunningham extended the computer’s transformational capacities into giant body sketches and graphic explosions which project into the spatial cosmos of BIPED (1999). If time has proven reassuringly constant throughout Cunningham’s oeuvre, space has been elastic, the tensile stretches encompassing black-box and proscenium arch, arena and now the promised sightlines of Federation Square.

Central to the conceptual unravelling of the Cunningham-Cage partnership lies the collaborative act, the one theatrical premise which, though given alternative parameters, has been reinforced rather than challenged in their life’s work. A host of the most celebrated names in North American art have collaborated with Cunningham across the 60-year span of his company. These musicians, designers, digital artists and filmmakers of past and present—Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Gavin Bryars, David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, Charles Atlas, Elliot Caplan and Nam June Paik constitute a random selection from the impossibly long list—have each left imprints in the traceries of relationships that propel the spatio-temporal imagination and the delightful, if deceptive, ‘fact’ of Cunningham. Everything and everyone are likely to turn up in a Cunningham exposition of the art of time-space. The Melbourne residency is a testament to the collaborative inventiveness and reinventions of this most thoughtful of artists: to the significance of his steadfast belief in the power of discovery within the ceaseless dance of our planet.


Cunningham quotations from David Vaughan’s Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, Aperture, New York, 1997

For program details of Cunningham performances and related Melbourne International Art Festival events, go to www.melbournefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 8

© Maggi Phillips; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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