September 9, 2009

Memories of a Master

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When Cornell senior dance lecturer Jim Self heard the news of Merce Cunningham’s death, he was unmoored. “As a teacher, choreographer and person, Merce has been very imprinted on me. I knew he wasn’t there.”
After Merce Cunningham, the revolutionary American choreographer and foremost figure of artistic modernism, died in late June at age 90, his death prompted the dance community at Cornell to contemplate his legacy and influence on memnbers of the department. Some have spoken about the deep loss they have felt — often, despite their only brief encounters with the man.
Cunningham choreographed his work based on the idea that in a performance space, as he said, “every point is equally interesting and equally changing.” Unlike in classical dance, there is no theatrical front in a Cunningham piece: Dancers break into different sequences, directions and fronts. Multiple dance sequences may unfold at the same time on separate stages — the effect is a textured complexity that emphasizes the individualism of each dancer, while revealing the connectedness of each part within a larger whole.
“Something we learned from the ideas of Merce is that no [one] dancer is more important,” said senior lecturer Jumay Chu, department of theatre, film and dance. “There is no center, there is no dominant perspective.” Philosophically, this has informed the way the dance department in Cornell has worked.
Chu danced for four and a half years at the Viola Farber dancer company in the late ’70s. Viola Farber, a dancer at Cunningham’s company in the ’50s and ’60s, has been described as one of Cunningham’s muses.
In his egalitarian vein, Cunningham also emphasized the independence of music and dance. Even while working closely with the avant-garde composer John Cage, Cunningham believed that dance should be freed from the obligation to be dictated by music. In his pieces, dancers take their cues off each other’s movements, rather than musical cues.
Self, who danced in the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio in the ’70s, teaches modern dance technique classes at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. The Cunningham technique is demanding, rigorous and formalistic. But Self, who leads dance improv classes, also stresses an often-unnoticed characteristic to Cunningham’s work: its playfulness.
While choreographing, Cunningham would create a collection of phrases, then use complex structures to decide how they would come together. Choosing one phrase over another sometimes involved the toss of a coin. Cunningham’s work also integrated video and other forms of media.
“He has so many elaborate ways of putting phrases together and allowed so many opportunities for chance,” said Self. “This way of working gives choreographers a lot of space to come up with what they do.”
Self eventually moved from Merce Cunningham Dance Company to explore other ways of doing dance, but being a dancer with Cunningham prompted him to think how to carry out improvisatio in a more physically-oriented sense — “using technical movements as starting points, instead of simply images and memories.”
Meredith Ramirez, MFA grad, became acquainted with the Cunningham technique through dance classes at Cornell. Her interest started from a love affair with Cunningham’s technique that brought her to the West Village studio in Manhattan where the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is based.
After spending the last two summers taking Cunningham dance classes six days a week at the studio, what began as a romance eventually became a commitment: Ramirez officially entered into the dance professional training program at the company.
“I feel like I’m a different dancer,” she said. “Part of the reason is that I understand the technique more holistically, and its limitations.”
Patricia Lent, once a dancer for Cunningham and now the licensing director of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, is one of four trustees of Cunningham’s work who has been tasked to help preserve his life work for future generations (he has a corpus of over 200 works).
As a dancer in the ’80s in New York City, when senior dance lecturers Jim Self and Jumay Chu were part of the same community, Lent forged a connection to Cornell; she came on board to teach a dance technique class at Cornell last year.
For Evelyn Chan ’10, Lent’s class taught her how to be a stronger and more stable dancer. “It’s an interesting technique because the body parts are isolated,” said Chan said.. “Your head can be going one way, and your legs can be going another way. At first, coordination can be really hard.”
Lent has to keep the integrity of Cunningham’s work in her classes: “We did some things like dancing in different directions, and taking cues of each other. It was almost like the real experience.”
With the death of Cunningham however, just how much of Cunningham’s technique can remain faithful to its original creator remains the question.
Senior dance lecturer Byron Suber said that because the Cunningham technique “is very stripped and direct, it can open up into a lot of things.”
Said Ramirez, “The few days after Merce died, one of the things I loved was how the technique continues to evolve. The technique hasn’t ossified. It’s fixed but it’s so full of variation.
“I do it because I enjoy how my body feels — how it feels, and how it changes the way I perceive and watch my body dance.”