Mathematical, collaborative, dancing genius — Merce Cunningham

Saying that dance is mathematical is the worst possible thing you could say to an aspiring performer. Odds are, if you are good at barre, you are terrible in calculus. And yet what most dancers and musicians, for that matter, don’t  realize is that both disciplines rely on more higher mathematical skills than a marketing professional or 75% of all business managers. For dancers, a deep understanding of time which is articulated through even and weighted beats must be immediately, rationally and kinesthetically memorized and with the highest of confidence  in order to execute choreography – a process that is harder to memorize than postulates and theorems in geometry and much harder than using Excel. Phrases of movements whose rhythmic progression have more to do with strict memorization than a logical sequence require the imagination to take on any type of mathematical environment – whose rules are constantly changing and whose inhabitants must create solutions out of. But you don’t really hear dancers talking about that.

It was not until I studied Merce Cunningham that this became clear to me — but not at first.

The first time I saw a Cunningham work, I was in high school. “Points in Space” which was a work that he choreographed specifically for television, bored KR (then KT) and me to tears. I am certain that we talked almost the whole time and worked on our English homework.  Looking back on it, it’s hard. The music by John Cage was a text that had been read and the edited to exclude vowel sounds. Needless to say, with Chopin by day and Tori Amos by night, this was not the music that would make me look more beautiful on stage. It would just  make me look strange.

To our dance teacher’s credit, she exposed us to Merce before we could really get it. She also encouraged us to find our own choreographic voice — even if that meant staging dances to Phantom of the Opera or Nine Inch Nails.  Always creative, dance gave me a structure and vocabulary to work with and then, eventually, rebel against.

While studying ballet in NYC, I had the courage to take a class at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I was scared out of my mind. The long, linear bodies. The precise geometry of their movements. I made it through the class completely distressed by my physical messiness. It is this connectedness of thought (revealed as messiness) that would become my greatest asset but not while I was struggling to create angles across the floor.

And it is this connectedness that Merce was most famous for. After leaving Martha Graham and starting his own troupe, Merce found that his choreography worked in tandem with not as the dictator of his collaborators. In the history of  ballet and early modern dance, choreographers staged their works, employing costume designers and musicians to help realize the work. Like a play’s director, the choreographer was king. Although Martha Graham in many ways started a more equal collaborative tradition in dance when she worked with Aaron Copeland and Isamu Noguchi, Martha was the boss. Merce took a different approach.

Consistently, Merce found other artists that he respected and asked them to work with him. John Cage, Brian Eno, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns. The list goes on.

Even more surprising is Merce’s trust and respect for their respective craft. When commissioned to do a Merce work you were allowed complete artistic autonomy. In fact, so much so, that it wasn’t until the day of the show that all the pieces fell into place. He called this using ‘chance.’

On the day of the show, Merce would roll a dice which in turn decided the order of performance for the choreographic pieces, which costumes went with each section and how the sections of the music would be played.

This relied completely on the trust that the artistic team had for each other and underscored an understanding that not one portion of the work was more important than the other. Moreover, each required that each artist’s work stood independetly on its own. This is hard.

I was able to see Merce’s chance practice when I saw “Split Sides” in Miami with GAD, JB, and MB. He literally threw the dice and told the dancers what costumes they were going to wear, what order the dance was going to be in, etc. This was made even more interesting with the fact that Sigur Ros was there performing live with the dancers. They, too, had to await their fate.

When you understand this process, you come to see why math is so important to Merce and his dancers. When you have no music to count notes against, you count against time and stopwatches. You start dividing time in different ways. With no sets to give you guidance as to how you should move about the stage, you begin creating charts and diagrams to inform formations. A space that was once driven by the ephemerality of emotion or morals are immediately freed up to the logical brain. A whole geometric universe can reveal itself. As a dancer this world of geometries and time becomes different than that of phrasing and gesture, though that is not to say that these do no exist for Cunningham. You must use your creative, problem solving, and analytic brain. You must solve problems within a vocabulary against time with beauty. It is mind boggling.

What was also unique about the Miami performance was my architecture colleagues — they immediately saw the math, the geometry, the architecture of his works. Could talk about it using words that I would have never used.

And so Merce Cunningham continues to be one of the artists that I am most inspired by because of his innovation (he was one of the first big choreographers to use animation-assisted choreography) and his ability to collaborate. After his death in 2009, his company decided to embark on a farewell tour before disbanding. I think that I echo all of the modern dancer lovers out there when I say this is a terrible, wonderful thing. As we have seen with other companies, oftetimes the vision of a new artistic director who lacks reverence cannot move a legacy forward or the strict reliance on historic choreography keeps a company from thinking into the future. In the case of Cunningham, neither will be the case. His works, annotated and passed on through the thousands of performance around the world, will be kept alive but not through a company.

Below are some videos of Merce’s works that I think are interesting. Here is a link to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and here is a short video by Charles Atlas.  

Split Sides (2003): This is the work that I saw in Miami where Radiohead and Sigur Ros were the musical partners.

Rainforest (1968): With music by David Tudor and huge silver pillow balloons by Andy Warhol, this piece gives you an excellent idea of how Merce dancers have to problem solve as they dance through a show. Think about those pillows blowing around.

Many institutions have performed Merce pieces not only because of his choreography but because of his intense collaboration with John Cage. Here is a video from UC Berkeley that talks about how Cage was inspired by James Joyce. (Soundance and Roaratorio)

And how could I not include Points in Space (1986)?

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