Several weeks ago I went to Paris for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final repertory performances at the Théâtre de la Ville. My mission was to do recorded interviews with the many Cunningham affiliates who were in town for the company’s last European shows. The Mellon Foundation grant that supported both the Walker’s Cunningham Acquisition and my fellowship position also includes funds for this type of primary research, so, with a Walker portable recorder and collapsible light reflector in my suitcase, off I went.
The Cunningham company has been traveling to Paris since the early 1960s, largely because of the work of advocates such as Bénédicte Pesle, who has been the company’s champion and European booking agent since its early beginnings. In the early days, when French audiences were still resistant to Merce’s work, Bénédicte encouraged Merce to dodge the naysayers’ eggs and tomatoes and plow ahead to the next engagements. Now Cunningham has super-fandom in France, and it is always fun to watch the cult status take over. The shows usually sell out in a blink, and there are always scalpers and hopefuls waiting outside the theater. The audiences for these two weeks of performances were particularly keyed up. One woman wore an eccentric 3-foot-tall hat, a la Cat in the Hat, which she refused to take off even after the show started. A frustrated audience member took one for the team and shouted “CHAPEAU!” after which she finally got the message. The French audiences also have a unique way of clapping in synch to show their appreciation at the end of each performance. The applause organically goes from chaos to order in an unspoken shift, and it gives me goosebumps every time.
The company presented two repertory programs. In RainForest (1964), which was also presented in November here at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, all of Andy Warhol’s unattached Silver Clouds floated off into the musicians’ pit and the audience. For the rest of the dance, you could hear them being quietly batted around like beach balls at a football game. Composer Gavin Bryars was in town to perform his composition for the dance BIPED (1999) live with the other company musicians. I got excited about delving into the Mark Lancaster costumes in the Walker’s Cunningham Collection after seeing Quartet (1982) and Duets (1980), two pieces that the company recently revived (Lancaster helped provide design updates for these revivals).
With the videographic help of former Cunningham dancer Daniel Squire, who was already in town for the performances, I did seven filmed interviews and an additional four audio interviews for the Walker’s archive. We taped everything in a Phantom of the Opera-esque rehearsal room on the top floor of the theater, as well as in an ornate lounge on one of the lower floors. With the street din of Paris—lots of motor bike humming and gendarme sirens—providing a sound wallpaper, interviewees recounted these extraordinary stories about their connections with the Cunningham company. Carolyn Brown, a founding dancer with Merce, spoke of Robert Rauschenberg and other downtown New Yorkers transporting their paintings in her husband’s (composer Earle Brown) station wagon in the 1950s, and of the 1964 world tour when the company’s popularity skyrocketed in London, and the dancers subsisted on yogurt. Christian Wolff, composer, scholar and a Cunningham company musician, recounted stories of being a young student of John Cage’s and sharing a copy of the I Ching with him (from an edition published by Pantheon Books, headed by Wolff’s parents). How might the course of Cage’s compositional path been changed if he hadn’t met this teenaged music student? And vice versa? After speaking to composers, collaborators and former dancers, I was struck by the recurring theme of luck. Sure, hard work and discipline were common denominators among everyone, but so was serendipity.
In addition to the Cunningham interviews and shows, I was also able to check out the exhibition, Danser sa vie, at the Centre Pompidou, and to speak with Emma Lavigne, one of its curators. In an impressive 10,000 square-foot space, the show explores the intersections between dance the visual arts. One feature that I particularly enjoyed was seeing dance works on film projected in larger than life scale on the gallery walls. The Pompidou also had a Yayoi Kusama retrospective going on. While it was fascinating to see the breadth of her work, it’s definitely a safety hazard to enter her Infinity Mirror Room while jetlagged! Whoa.
As I mentioned, the Cunningham company has been traveling to Paris for many years, accumulating many stories, friends, and memories. One of my favorite tales is when Robert Swinston, dancer and Director of Choreography, left a roasting chicken unattended in his hotel kitchenette and the whole hotel had to be evacuated because of the smoking chicken. Upon being evacuated, Merce apparently asked gravely “Was it one of us?”