Over the past few days, several staff have been writing on their memories of Merce: Julie Voigt, Senior Program Officer for Performing Arts, recalls working with him here at the Walker, while Phillip Bahar, our Chief of Operations and Administration, tells how watching Merce’s performances over the years totally changed the way he thinks about dance. Finally, watch for a tribute by Philip Bither, McGuire senior curator of performing arts, in the upcoming issue of Walker magazine (out in mid-August).
Julie Voigt writes:
I am one of the lucky ones to have had the extraordinary pleasure of working with Merce and his company over the years. I will never forget his grace, generosity, and strong yet quietly humble presence. I have many fond memories of Merce, but my favorites ones are of some of those unusual small moments that engaged my artistic imagination and gave me a glimpse into this man’s spirit.
There was Fluxarenarama in 1993, where we turned a downtown health club into a performance site to wander through and experience chance performance. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) took on the challenge of performing in the workout area, with their final dance presented on the basketball court.
There was that moment of joy on Merce’s face when he and his company first walked through Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones, a Walker exhibition that recognized the critical contribution he and the other artists made to the history of 20th-century performance.
There was also the 10th anniversary of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 1998, when MCDC performed a special Event for the Garden on an unusually hot fall day. The company’s shoes were literally melting onto the scorching dance floor, but they continued to dance beautifully across the stage as Merce proudly and calmly looked on.
But my fondest memory was this past September, when we produced Ocean in the Rainbow granite quarry in Waite Park, Minnesota. This site-specific production was by far the largest and most complex performance that any of us have ever done. Not an easy task to take a completely empty rock quarry and turn it into an outdoor performance site for 1000+ people each night. After months of hard work turning this seemingly crazy idea into reality, on the last few days it poured rain on many of the afternoons. All of us were on the edge of our seats, hoping it would stop in time for us to do the performances.
Luckily it did – until the final night, when, toward the end of the performance rain began to fall hard and we had to make the unfortunate call to stop the event. We were all feeling frustrated and very disappointed that the final night was cut short. But Merce just smiled and said to me – in an almost consoling way – that he actually embraced the uniqueness of that evening’s performance and that is was just Mother Nature stepping in to change the ending for him – a chance encounter with forces over and above us all that made that final artistic call.
I loved that moment. Merce told us that this performance experience was one of the highlights of his career. It was one of my personal highlights as well and I’m so very glad to have been a part of it.
“A Dancer Breathes”
Merce Cunningham once said that as long as he was breathing he was dancing. I’ve always thought that this was a remarkable way to live in and experience the world. Of course, the dance and cultural community all mourn the loss of Merce, one of the great choreographers of the last hundred years. Merce reshaped modern and contemporary dance: how it was created, how it looked, how it was experienced. He re-envisioned with some of his closest peers—Cage, Rauschenberg, and Johns to name some of his closest associates—how movement, music, light, and décor could come together to create something wholly new, intentionally unintended, and something that allowed each of the art forms to breathe at its own pace within a larger, more complex organism.
My first experience with Merce was through art history — you can’t take a post-war art course without coming across his innovations, often through the lens of his visual arts peers. However, my first true understanding of his work came a few years later. As a new transplant to New York, I found myself with nothing to do on a Friday night. I came across an announcement for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company season at City Center; out of curiosity I attended. I sat in rapt absorption through the entire show; I had always enjoyed dance, but until that moment I had never experienced it in such a visceral and engaging manner. I returned on Saturday. I returned on Sunday. In those three nights, Merce Cunningham changed my understanding, appreciation, and passion for dance, opening me to a vocabulary about which I was uninformed and which I breathed in wholeheartedly ever since.
While living in New York I never missed a season. From that first performance on, if Merce was in town, wherever I happened to be visiting or living, I was there. I can unequivocally say that I’ve seen more performances by Merce Cunningham (well over a dozen) than by any other single performing artist, and over the past few days I’ve been wrestling with what life will be like now that he’s gone. For nearly 20 years I’ve looked forward to my next experience of the athleticism and magic of his work. I never knew what to expect and relished the anticipation. Would the music be ethereal or intense? Would it be Cage, Tudor, Kosugi, Eno, Bryars, or someone fully unexpected? How would he make his own appearance (I remember the first time I saw his “chair dance,” and also the first time I realized that he would no longer be performing in that way)?
I once had the privilege of sitting at the back of an empty theater, watching him conduct class with his dancers — he was at the barre making subtle movements and directing the dancers, who understood implicitly what he was searching for and more often than not delivered it as intended. (The Company began a series called “Mondays with Merce,” which provided enthusiasts and dancers alike an opportunity to see inside his classes and gain insights into his thinking and working process; they are well worth a look.)
A force of contemporary art and performance has left us and all that’s left for us to do is breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
— Phillip Bahar
More coverage of Merce:
- We just uploaded “Merce Cunningham’s Working Process” on the Walker Channel and on YouTube
- The New Yorker has a dance reviews going back to 1976 on its site, including one on the performance of Ocean, which the Walker presented this past year
- The Cunningham Dance Foundation’s Legacy Plan — the Foundation had only recently established “a precedent-setting plan delineating the future of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) and ensuring the legacy of Cunningham’s work”
- Interview with Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt