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Sense That Defies Logic

Merce Cunningham choreographs apart from music and relies on chance. Not only does it work, it's liberating.

July 21, 2002|MARK SWED

Last year, Merce Cunningham was lured back to acting. He played Erik Satie, the quirky French composer, who was made to seem all the more quirky given that the play's text, from his writings, was assembled by chance procedures. The piece, "Alphabet," was a staging of a radio play by John Cage, Cunningham's creative and life partner.

After a performance at UCLA, when I complimented him on making Satie completely irresistible, Cunningham raised his eyebrows in mock horror. The lines were almost impossible to memorize, he protested. He was a dancer, not an actor.

"What about your student days in theater?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, "but that was performing playwrights like Chekhov. And they made sense!"

This week at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City, Cunningham begins a 1 1/2-year celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of his company in 1953. It has been an exceptional run for a radical artist tirelessly exploring dance with no story, no symbolism, no specified emotional character, no center.

Over the years, he has been admired and scorned, but seldom has he been accused of making sense--not, anyway, in the way that most people think about dance.

No one throws tomatoes at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company anymore (as they once did in Paris nearly 40 years ago). But even after half a century, it still goes against convention that the choreographer and his dancers work apart from music, that the dances are conceived and rehearsed in silence. The music, along with the decor, arrives at the dress rehearsal or first performance. And Cunningham's penchant for using chance procedures to order movement still strikes people as a scary, nonsensical way to make art.

In 1968, the cover of the Saturday Evening Post was taken up by a stark photograph of Cunningham, his face painted half white, half red. "Who is this man?" the headline read, as if he were an alien from another planet.

The image of Cunningham has softened considerably of late. His white hair an Einsteinian tangle, he has, at 83, a sagacious, avuncular presence.

He is regularly hailed as the world's greatest living choreographer: Then-President Francois Mitterand made him a Chevalier of France's Legion of Honor; the first President Bush awarded him the National Medal of the Arts. His portrait hangs in the company of Elvis, Marilyn and Jackie in the Warhol show at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Yet the question persists. Who is this man? And another: How is it possible that Cunningham has managed to survive and finally thrive after 50 uncompromising years in the avant-garde, that ever-shrinking tributary in the flood of mainstream popular culture?

I first saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at UCLA in 1963 and have seen it hundreds of times since. I first met him formally about a dozen years ago, requesting interviews for a book on Cage. It was just the kind of imposition Merce hates, and he was cool in response. But he warmed. Now the chats are informal, over occasional meals and social gatherings, and, once, we shared a train ride from Brussels to Bonn. Mutual friends keep me up to date.

That, of course, hardly qualifies me as a Mercist, as dance critic Anna Kisselgoff once dubbed the faithful. I'm an unsophisticated outsider in the dance world. I don't have a good memory for movement. Given how complex some of his dances can be, I often watch pieces I've seen many times as if for the first time.

Still, even my fragmentary view is enough to persuade me of this: Not only do Merce and his work make sense, but it is the kind of sense that really matters. And it is the secret of his genius, longevity and, now, celebrity.

One thing you have to know about Merce is that he is essentially a naturalist. Take a look at his drawings, just published in "Other Animals: Drawings and Journals." He began making sketches about 20 years ago on the road in Los Angeles, whiling away a travel delay by sketching a tree. He said the result was terrible, but he had become so engrossed in looking at the tree that the time passed in an instant. From that moment on, he was hooked.

Now he sketches as daily discipline in his journal, and also makes more formal color-pen drawings of the natural world he encounters on the road and of animals he finds in books. The style is somewhere between, say, Audubon and Saul Steinberg. To me, these wonderful drawings--an adorable reindeer, quizzical giraffe and goofy, self-possessed birds and insects--are idealized Cunningham dancers. In these superb, mysterious creatures, we can see ourselves and something completely outside of ourselves.

It is therefore ironic that for a long time his dances were interpreted as depersonalized and unnatural simply because they evade narrative and embrace randomness. In fact, Merce's dances, just like his animals, personify nature--mysterious, unpredictable (the function of chance)--as seen through the human eye, as rendered by the human touch.

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