What Merce Cunningham Taught the Judson Dance Rebels
In modern dance, even more than in most art genres, each generation of practitioners has rebelled against the one before. By 1960, a canon of top-tier American modern dance choreographers was widely acknowledged: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, José Limón.
Early in the 1960s, an emerging generation of dance rebels — Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hay — began to fight off the constraints established by those giants, presenting a new and alternative tradition at Judson Church in New York. (Twyla Tharp, part of that generation, presented some early work at Judson Church, too, but her work developed so differently that she is usually placed outside the category.) What they began to make was later labeled postmodern.
Between these generations came Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), whose centennial is being celebrated this year. Modernism had taken dance where it had not been before, yet Cunningham took it further. He separated dance from musical accompaniment; in an art otherwise shaped solely by the creators’ intentions, he dared to used chance procedures as part of his compositional process; he employed a technical rigor as austere as any other in dance, opening up new possibilities of spinal movement, spatial address and rhythm; and he created startling polarities of slowness and speed. All these created shock waves.
Several American dance critics began to review Cunningham’s work respectfully in the late 1950s and early ’60s, even when it perplexed them, which was most of the time. But John Martin, a longtime dance critic of The New York Times and champion of America’s modern dance tradition since the 1920s, never reviewed it at all — an omission that seemed pointed to many.
Cunningham’s status within modern dance began to change when he and his company taught and performed for four summers, 1958-61, at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College. Even so, Mr. Gordon said in 1958, “Not only was Merce the lowest on the totem pole that summer, he was a joke to the serious modern dance people.” Mr. Paxton recalled that Limón, after watching a Cunningham piece, said, “I never saw anything like that before!” His tone, Mr. Paxton said, was not kind, but “he was too highfalutin to be more explicit.”
By contrast, the younger generation that would soon become the Judson experimentalists were immediately receptive. And they all took Cunningham’s class. Ms. Childs said, simply, of Cunningham, “He changed my life.”
“Modern dance at that time was about emotion,” she said. “You were being asked to be happy or sad. Merce’s teaching and his work was in line with the abstract art of that time. It completely changed the aesthetics and taste of dance.”
The Museum of Modern Art’s recent exhibition, “The Work Is Never Done: Judson Dance Theater,” brought revivals of Judson’s early offerings. Ms. Brown died in 2017, but in a series of interviews during the MoMA run, Ms. Childs, Ms. Hay, Mr. Gordon, Mr. Paxton and Ms. Rainer spoke of how Cunningham, their onetime teacher, opened up revelatory new possibilities in time and space.
Ms. Rainer defined the Judson generation with her “No” manifesto (“No to spectacle, No to virtuosity, No to transformations and magic and make-believe” and no to much more, in 1965) and her seminally anti-sensationalist, anti-phrasing dance “Trio A” (1966).
In an email, she wrote: “Merce always said that we were John’s children” — John being the composer John Cage — “and not his, but of course, since we all studied with Merce, his work inevitably rubbed off in some way, on some of us more than others, especially me, I think.
“Technically, I was using everything I learned in Cunningham and ballet classes, especially Merce’s idea of pitting one part of the body against another, while others were abandoning or temporarily putting aside their training and going in the opposite direction of pedestrian movement,” she said in the email. “So I would say that Merce’s work was at once inspirational, energizing and something to bang your head against.”
Mr. Gordon had begun watching Cunningham in New York in the mid-1950s, before others of his Judson generation. He recalled being introduced to Cunningham’s work by the less renowned but also influential choreographer James Waring, for whom he danced, as part of a wide artistic education. He also recalled watching the movie “Sunset Boulevard” and discovering the to-him unknown generation of the renowned silent film actors Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Buster Keaton. “Well, Merce was like that to me,” he said. “From the beginning, I behaved with Merce as if he were some mysterious traveler from another planet.”
“The thing I was most interested in — and I wouldn’t have been able to talk about philosophically — was that Merce rearranged the focal point of visual presentation,” he added. “I was looking at the way Renaissance art arranged space. But with Merce you could not guess where he intended you to look at it. And it was an adventure.”
Mr. Paxton recalled his discovery of Cunningham in the late ’50s, at the American Dance Festival: “I took Merce’s classes, and brilliant classes they were — in an enormous gymnasium. There was a feeling of tremendous respect and awe for him and the company.”
Mr. Paxton continued: “So I came to New York, and I thought about Cunningham a lot. I finally decided that, first of all, his technical approach and his choreographic approach didn’t have to be the same thing. About six months later, I accepted his choreographic. I was drawn to the company — I did fall for them — and the work. And that’s what pulled me through to finally accepting the chance procedures. They seemed so inhuman, so un-what I thought of as artistic at that time.”
Mr. Paxton saw Cunningham’s “Rune” (1959) many times — rehearsals as well as performances — in the summer of its premiere. “By the end,” he said, “I was relishing it rather than being surprised by it.”
He also singled out Cunningham’s “Suite for Five” (1956), in which he danced while with the Cunningham company. “Again, it posed a problem,” Mr. Paxton said. “I didn’t know how to give it full value. Not to elaborate in any way, to make it just purely classical. Can I do it? Am I doing it purely enough? I love that kind of puzzle.”
“Since I danced it, I’ve seen it,” he said. “And it’s just the purest thing. Sets of crystals just reflecting off of each other. It gave me a sense of great isolation. You’re in front of people, but you feel as if you’re moving in Antarctica. Just great austerity, great isolation. I just found it an experience of great depth.”
Talking about Cunningham — “I never reacted against Merce’s work” — Ms. Childs was marvelously precise. “The Judson Group applied John Cage’s methods,” she said. “We were aware that the chief difference between him and Merce was about vocabulary. They weren’t our only influences: We studied with, and talked to, James Waring and Robert Dunn.”
“I had a scholarship at the Cunningham Studio,” she added. “And for a year I’d be the first there every morning, and would register everyone for class. So I got to know Merce then. The matter of vocabulary came up in an important conversation I had with him.”
“Merce did come to see Judson performances,” she said, “and told me he liked what he saw. But he said to me that the Judson way of dancing and his way of using a technique were at odds. He didn’t think I could be a Judson dancer and a Cunningham dancer. The way he said it was helpful. At that time, I very much wanted to be a Judson dancer.”
Deborah Hay recalled her first views of Cunningham and his company in 1961: “I came from a conventional dance background: I’d studied ballet, tap, toe, modern — conventional and wonderful. I had never seen anything like this! And I immediately became a devotee. It just made me so aware of everything I didn’t know. I didn’t even know how to look.”
Like Mr. Paxton, Ms. Hay danced in the Cunningham company, though only for a few months in its 1964 world tour. “His aesthetic was so compelling to me,” she said. “That clean slate! I was used to the rich, gorgeous texture of more conventional modern dance; and here was this other!”
But it was never in her mind to stay in the company. Ms. Hay said that while she admired the “quality of technique” that the great Cunningham dancers Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber had, “I knew I could never reach that level.”
“Really,” she added, “that became the deciding factor for me in my own subsequent choreography: never to use that kind of technical mastery, to explore other aspects of movement.”
Rebelling against the rebel
Inevitably, in the mid-1960s, Cunningham became in turn a figure for some of these rebels to move on from. Improvisation, generally antithetical to Cunningham dance, became appealing to Mr. Paxton. Virtuoso technical rigor became what Ms. Rainer, Ms. Brown, Mr. Gordon and Ms. Hay needed to avoid to some degree.
Whole areas of music omitted from the Cunningham-Cage experience, from Bach to Fanny Brice, became important to Mr. Gordon, Mr. Paxton and others. Musical responsiveness, exiled by Cunningham, gradually came in from the cold in their work.
Yet the bold achievements of these postmodern choreographers never made Cunningham’s modernism look conventional, accessible or old-fashioned. To some degree, their work was a move away from the precipice to which he had brought dance — and where his work remains: taxing, challenging, complex.
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