Right now, in Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, there’s an an exhibition of the artifacts of stage design. Amongst the sketches of billowing costumes in soft pastels and complicated, charcoal mise-en-scene, there’s a single sheet of graph paper. It’s marked into a grid of eight by eight squares, with numbers and triangles roughly added in ballpoint pen. It is, in fact, a chart of entrances and exits for Merce Cunningham’s Suite by Chance from 1952. Surrounded by so many eye-catching designs, you could be forgiven for wondering how something seemingly so strict and rigid could have created art that changed the face of contemporary dance. How could it generate movement on stage that was so striking, so idiosyncratic, that it “abounded in non sequiturs”?
Merce Cunningham died this week. He was 90 years old. His passing has given license to repeat many of the grand anecdotes that circulated around any cultural figure that has been so endlessly discussed. How could anyone resist retelling how Cunningham’s musical collaborator, John Cage, publicly admittedly to their decades-long romance? (When quizzed about their relationship during an interview in 1989, Cage simply replied: “I do the cooking, and Merce does the dishes.”)
When Cunningham and Cage joined forces with painter Robert Rauschenberg in the 1950s, they toured America while taking delight in not revealing their creations to the dancers until the dress rehearsal. His interest in so-called ‘events’ – site-specific, theatrical collaborations – resulted in his celebrated use of Andy Warhol’s ‘Silver Clouds‘ in 1968’s RainForest. It’s true that Cunningham might have found more popular success if he’d choreographed to familiar classical pieces. Instead, he chose to work not only with Cage but with a wide variety of musical collaborators, including alternative bands like Sonic Youth and Radiohead in his later years. Hearing of his death, Radiohead responded by explaining what Cunningham had taught them: “… that discipline and focus can create the space for an unexpected moment, when something new can suddenly exist: such a contrast to the scripted world of rock.”
His ongoing desire to find that ‘something new’ led Cunningham to his celebrated use of randomness in his work, using devices such as the I Ching to generate unpredictable results. He once explained that some people were offended by this, thinking “… that it is inhuman and mechanistic to toss pennies in creating a dance instead of chewing the nails or beating the head against a wall or thumbing through old notebooks for ideas.” Instead, he thought these ‘chance ballets’ could become something more “universally human” than pieces he created through his usual creative practice.
Cunningham refused to rest on old work, or to let his composition ever fall into easy, creative ruts. He was still performing as a dancer with his company into the 1990s; he danced a tentative, frail duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the age of 80. He never failed to be intrigued by new possibilities, such as plotting his dances by computer and embracing the new complications this allowed. The New York Times obituary gives Cunningham the last word, as he’s quoted on the impermanence of dance. “It gives you nothing back,” he says, “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.” Perhaps take another look at this small sheet of paper, hanging on its museum wall, and think about the endless movement Cunningham found within its ballpoint map.