When I joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1973, it was the center of an extraordinary community of composers, visual artists and performers all of whom seemed open, friendly and willing to talk to a teenager.
Two weeks after joining the company we performed a series of studio shows called ‘Events’. Consulting his innumerable stenographer’s notebooks, Merce would take his individual works apart on the day of the show and re-order them. Solos, duets and trios would be scrambled and re-arranged to create one of a kind performances. Each Event was accompanied by the work of a different composer who one after the other took it on as a personal challenge to be as obstreperous and transgressive as possible. Charlemagne Palestine used his appearance to manifest a traumatic psychodrama with his personal collection of dolls. He screamed. He implored. He broke down in tears. Robert Ashley interviewed an ex- girlfriend, while drinking a pitcher of martinis. As the evening progressed he got enormously drunk, slurred his words and fell out of his chair.
There was a sense about these performances that at any moment something could go terribly wrong … that we were always on the edge of disaster and anything was possible. It was the most thrilling experience imaginable.
The excitement of working with Merce quickly gave way to the realization that his dances were relentlessly difficult. What had seemed from a distance to have been accomplished with such ease required discipline and tenacity that I neither understood nor was prepared for. I launched myself into a Spartan life – dedicating myself to the elongation of my thighs and arms, the rotation of my legs and the curve and twist of my spine. The limits of the body in space and time were all that had interest to me. It was how I spoke and what I listened to. I subjugated myself to shape, the moment and the suffering of time passing. Around me young men and women in class and rehearsals shared this conspiracy of sensation – all pulling together to articulate the most complex angles and relationships of the body in space. Each dancer in their own manner surrendered themselves to the agility and organization of their physical experience – tilting off balance, contorting into extreme positions, leaning into and beyond their present into a more perfect future…… Every day I worked until I could no longer stand.
Merce’s dances didn’t ‘add up’ in any traditional way. There were no indications or sign posts to direct the audience to a ‘meaning’. That wasn’t the point. Each individual was intended to take from the experience whatever they wished. Dancing in his work you were not a character or a representation – you were yourself. Not knowing who I was at the time put me in some considerable difficulty and I under went a series of violent transformations. For purely practical purposes I learned to appear as a single person, existing in one body in a specific time and place…but I was more accurately a churning of humors and personae, a collection of paroxysms, visitations, visions, epiphanies, black outs, sweats, delusions, manias, irrational beliefs, sudden blinding understandings, great orchestral crashes. I had no idea how to think about or organize my inner life but Merce’s work promised a perfect solution. He had created an austere and elegant world without need or sadness. Inside of his dances or moving across the floor in the beautiful phrases he taught, the world blurred, edges fell away and my fragmentary being came into focus.
I was living on Delancey Street which stood like an arterial promontory, above the ethnic flood plain of the lower east side. It was a jagged shamble of fenced off buildings and fragmentary structures. Stretching from the Bowery to the Williiamsburg Bridge, it inhaled and exhaled garbage and produce trucks day and night rattling my windows like a tambourine. Threading north and south were interlaced warrens of Hispanic, Chinese and Jewish populations washing over and abutting each other.
The Chinese – haggled, yelled, hocked and spit in the street – crowding northward up Bowery and Christie.
The Hispanics lounged in their underwear, played loud salsa, drank beer and danced on their fire escapes.
The Jews with stove pipe hats and delicate tresses raucously traded in brassieres, buttons and overcoats.
Each morning I would walk out my door into the thrilling babble of downtown Manhattan and walk to the Cunningham Studio through layer upon layer of scrambled, shaken and squeezed experience. New York had every kind of aspiration, commerce and human misery. The streets were covered in the detritus of human life. Shit, feces, sperm, piss, rotten food, sweat and blood. The bridges and subways, the metal and stone, all let out a constant moaning roar… the sum total of every story told by everyone everywhere. I would arrive at the studio begin class and leave all of this behind, – stripped of meaning and narrative, I was magically transformed into a formal element.
As a dancer, Merce Cunningham no longer had the effortless ability to launch himself into the air that he had been so known for…but he remained a protean force. His whip like arms and upper torso cut through space with astonishing clarity. When he was onstage something happened and the world was different. He saw something that no one else could see– some very beautiful place in the distance. He was a ‘Voyant’, but not in the traditional sense – not detraqué, not insane. He had found his way into the elemental patterns of the universe through a total and exacting dedication to his vision. There seemed no part of his life that was anything other than work. He was relentless. Coming from Midwestern agrarian roots where hard work was a daily fact, I had never seen anyone work this hard. Never…
Merce was kind and encouraging to me. My body had always been tight and the steep learning curve I was on made it tighter still. He would come up to me in class and rest his hands on my shoulders as I was doing plies, keeping them there until my body relaxed. He had a beautiful soft voice which he raised only occasionally. He would stop class and say, “ If you want to dance you have to dance! There is no other way.” Everything he said was poetry.
At night I went home to Delancey street, locked myself into my fortress apartment where the doors and windows were shuttered and barbed wire festooned the roof. I lay on my bed and the charge in my legs from the days work would release with twitches and jumps. I thought about the strange new world where I lived… a world that encompassed choreographers shaking dice to determine my fate and holocaust survivors running delicatessens.
Maybe Merce was right – that we were random events bouncing into each other – strutting and blustering against the backdrop of the city. And maybe what Merce presented of himself was all there was. He seemed so calm with none of the darkness and complications, the specters, the bare naked wanting that I had. I couldn’t imagine him laying exhausted at night in bed and wiping away his tears as I so often did. I cherished this idea – that Merce had burned himself free and all that was left was the dancing. That’s what I wanted to be – just the dancing – to launch myself into a world of clarity and precision and never come out.