“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”—Merce Cunningham
For more than 50 years, Merce Cunningham has been a driving force in modern dance. Working with the idea that dance and music should be able to exist independently of each other while sharing the same time and space (a concept developed with longtime musical collaborator and life partner John Cage), and making use of chance in developing choreographic phrases, Cunningham has challenged the way we create and view dance. He is also an avid student of new technology, and has embraced film, video and computer animation. As a result, a wealth of his work is available on video, as are tapes of his class exercises. Cunningham has created nearly 200 dances for his own company; his works have also been performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, Boston Ballet, White Oak Dance Project and others.
A strong sense of one’s spine is an integral part of Cunningham technique, which explores the way that the back works either in opposition to the legs or in unison with them. Space is also an important factor, as is a sense of direction. In his choreography and class exercises, Cunningham developed a way of referencing “front” so that dancers don’t think about movement in terms of moving toward a point in space (most often, facing the audience), but rather in terms of where each individual body is facing.
In the documentary Cage/Cunningham, Cunningham explains, “You have to think you’re going from yourself in a direction, and when you get there, that’s where you are. This allows the dancer to think in terms of multiple directions.” This ability to change direction at will is incorporated into class exercises, in which you might be asked to face to the side or back during a combination, or to shift facing midway through. Rhythm is another crucial skill developed through Cunningham training. “When Merce started dancing, he loved tap, so there’s a real focus on rhythm in [his] technique,” says Swinston. “We often talk about ‘frisky feet’ in classes, and play with a dynamic range of speeds from fast to slow and back to fast again.” Rhythms come from a dance, rather than a musical perspective, since the music and movement are often separate in Cunningham’s work.