Tired of going for the burn with Jane Fonda? Now you can practice the intricacies of cerebral, non-linear, avant-garde modern dance in the privacy of your own living room. No traditional music or recognizable structure. Just pure modular movement. Relax. Leave it all to chance.
Merce Cunningham certainly has, and now he's the first modern-dance choreographer to put his codified technique on videotape and offer it for sale. "Cunningham Dance Technique, Elementary Level" is expensive--$200 for 35 minutes--but, like most of his tapes, it will find its way to libraries, dance departments and festivals. (For film and video rental/sales information: Cunningham Dance Foundation, 463 West St., New York 10014.)
Directed by Cunningham and Elliot Caplan, the tape introduces elements of basic Cunningham technique. Movement exercises are demonstrated sequentially and clearly by four dancers and are intercut with scenes from actual classes. Cunningham, who provides the commentary, sees the tape as "a kind of pilot."
"What's shown is not even elementary. It's more like rudimentary," he says without apology. "I tried to keep all of the exercises on the simplest level, to point out that these could be done in different ways and still be valid."
And here lies Cunningham's misgivings about the project.
"My purpose has not been to make a technique but to make exercises which are useful for the purpose of training dancers. Dance technique is flexible. The way it is shown is not the only way it can be done and be useful. That's hard to get across on video.
"I think that once ideas get into books and on video, they immediately get rigid. The whole point in art, in life, is flexibility. When you try to pin something down, it loses its life."
Cunningham was one of the earliest participants in the PBS "Dance in America" series and today has more than a dozen films and videotapes of his work available for sale or rental. Some are simply documentaries and records of his stage dances, others specifically created for the camera, an instrument which has fascinated him for at least two decades.
His first experiment in video was "Westbeth," in 1974, a collaboration with film maker Charles Atlas, with whom he went on to create a whole series of works. Four of these pieces ("Fractions," "Locale," "Channels/Inserts" and "Coast Zone") were eventually reworked for the stage.
When Atlas left the Cunningham Foundation in 1983, Caplan (who had begun working with Cunningham and Atlas in various capacities in 1977) became director of the technique tapes and a PBS-funded documentary examining the long collaboration between Cunningham and composer John Cage.
In October, PBS aired Cunningham and Caplan's newest video dance, "Deli Commedia" (also available for sale or rental).
Cunningham's works on film and video display continual innovation and experimentation, from the multimedia experience of "Variations V" (1966), to the chroma-key techniques of "Studio: Five Segments" (1975), to experiments with deep focus in "Coast Zone" (1983).
With all of this media activity, beyond his grueling stage and studio schedule, one might assume that Cunningham is concerned with having his work reach a wider audience. Indeed, after seeing him appear with the likes of Carol Burnett, Bob Hope and Chevy Chase when he received the Kennedy Center Honor for Life Contribution to American Culture in December, one might well ask if this bastion of the avant-garde might be "going Hollywood."
"I don't see how that would be possible," Cunningham replies with a smile. "I can see how it would look like I'm interested in more exposure, but I never thought of the videos in that sense at all. Video is a visual medium and it interested me in an experimental sense. The fact then that somebody says we have to get it out--well, all right. I don't mind. They haven't been things I've thought a public would or wouldn't look at. That's not where my interest lies."
Still, he admits that public acceptance concerns him for economic reasons: It means supporting his dancers. Up until recently, his company toured more in the small towns of France than in the United States. And, while the Kennedy Center Honor was a pleasant surprise, Cunningham's company had never performed at the Kennedy Center until the Honors gala.
"I'm sure that most of those people may have heard of me, but they hadn't seen me," he says of his fellow guests at the event, telecast over CBS. "I took the evening as a kind of an act, a performance," he says mischievously. "From that point of view, I found it interesting, and I did enjoy the movie about Irene Dunne." In turn, Cunningham arranged for videotapes of the gala to be shown (along with his video projects) during intermissions of his company's current season at New York City Center.
Even someone blase about the Kennedy Center Honor is sure to lose his cool at the mention of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, right? That's what Cunningham was awarded in June--$350,000, tax-free.
The news was a total surprise--there are no announced nominations for the award--and he received it by phone when he was busy writing down the movements for a new piece. But Cunningham took the news calmly, he says.
"I put down the telephone after thanking them and I looked out the window at the river, which is so beautiful, and I thought, 'Well, I'll just go back to work.' So I did.
"I'm delighted I got it," he admits. "It's amazing, extremely marvelous and generous. It's superb."