Bill T. Jones Remembers Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde and unconventional choreographer known for his modernistic approach to dance, died in July at the age of 90. Bill T. Jones, also a choreographer, remembers Cunningham and his influence on dance.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Last month, the great American choreographer Merce Cunningham died at the age of 90. For 50 years and more, Merce Cunningham widened the possibilities of the form. He divorced movement from music and introduced chant to choreography. In a remembrance, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones wrote, your dance making was so legible and recognizable that many of us who came after you could only define ourselves in how much we adhered to or rejected your example. Bill T. Jones joins us in just a moment.

If you'd like to talk with him about Merce Cunningham's work and his legacy, our phone number is 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Bill T. Jones joins us now by phone from Taos, New Mexico. He is an award-winning choreographer and dancer, the artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. BILL T. JONES (Director, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company): It's a great honor to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder, do you remember the first time you saw a Merce Cunningham production?

Mr. JONES: You know, when I was - one of your producers spoke to me the other day, I was trying to rack my brain. It's like one of those things, asking my mother who was deeply devout Southern Baptist, was there ever a time when she didn't know about Jesus. And she stopped dead and she looked at me and she said, you know what, no, there wasn't. And I have almost the same feeling. I think it must be something out of the late '60s, the John Cage phenomena, the John Cage being on television shows in…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: …'50s. They were always this idea of this crazy New York avant-gardist, always somehow or other, they are in my consciousness.

CONAN: But he was always part of the landscape.

Mr. JONES: He certainly was part of the landscape. And it's been a hair-raising experience to watch a career and an integrity like his in a very shifting social milieu.

CONAN: One of the things you wrote in your appreciation is that you were so thankful to him for his personal aloofness. And what did you mean by that?

Mr. JONES: Well, I was being slightly ironic. It is like, you know, when you want someone's attention, you would like it, and they don't give it to you and then you realize later that was just the thing you needed. Yeah, I mean, there was - you have to realize that when Merce came onto the scene, the modern dance world was practically nonexistent. Yes, there were the giants like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey and people like that around but Merce was a whole new thing.

But within - I think his first concert was '54 - I'm sure the dance historians out there will correct me. His first solo concert was '54. And we're talking about the avant-gardist that informed me being in his studio somewhere like '64 doing early workshops that were driven by a whole other philosophy of what dance and movement and theater were about. So, I came along even after that. I think I did my first concert in New York City in 1977. So there was all of this history that I could only get somehow or other secondhand or from people who had been influenced by him.

CONAN: And that interesting line about all of us who followed could only define ourselves by how closely we adhered to or departed from what you had done, how closely did you adhere to or depart from what he did?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: You know, people would be surprised when I'd say he was my favorite choreographer. There are those who say that there are two poles in the - in art making at anytime but particularly in the 20th century, now the 21st, formalism, expressionism. If you look at the emotionality of my work, it is - even against my will, it often turns to be about issues, identity and those things. I'm an expressionist in my heart, a poet. It's true. Merce is something cooler. He is - as I also said in that article, he has always seemed Apollonian to me.

CONAN: Huh.

Mr. JONES: In other words, striving to transcend this earthly terrain that most of us are held into, which is about issues, which is about identity, which is about sexuality, all those things. But he was trying to create an art form that was, quote, "independent" of that.

So what I did learn from him though is that, yes, any movement can follow any other movement. And, yes, there are times when one has to throw out one's taste and do something almost by chance. You know, he's a great follower of throwing dice to determine the order in which things would happen and what people would be wearing and so on.

So he was giving - he gave me freedom to not always make friends, to myself first, but maybe even to a critic. That was something that he understood about chance and, I daresay larger, unities - without being too cosmic here - larger unities in creation that the artist is able to step into when they get out of the way with their opinions and their taste. He gave that to me.

CONAN: That's a great gift.

Mr. JONES: Oh, it's a wonderful gift. Now, you know, to be gossipy here, there was a person who told me years ago, you know the reason Merce chose chance procedures is because he had a nervous breakdown in the '50s and he couldn't make decisions. I have never heard this verified anywhere. But it's an interesting challenge to those of us who believe that life is a series of self-conscious decisions that we make.

So Merce was always saying, which side are you on? No, you're not a scientist. You are something else. You are able, actually, to be indetermined(ph). You are - and it can be a beautiful thing that you do not understand the outcome. Is that responsibility in being a parent? Would you like a parent that was that way, freeform in that way? I don't think so. But an artist can be that way. And he made me realize that being an artist was something akin to less a career choice than almost a calling. Now, that is a tough one. I've been trying - I'm trying to make my budget figures every year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But it is a calling. And those are all things that he - he gave us a vigorous psychic, emotional, philosophical workout with every year that he continued to survive and created a high level. Where those of us who were sitting around trying to plot strategies, trying to make that masterpiece by pure sweat, he was doing it with what appeared to be a very light touch and a lot of integrity.

CONAN: His work was, as you mentioned, philosophical from the beginning. This is Cunningham speaking of what he did as far back as 1952.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Choreographer): The dance is an art in space and time. The object of the dancer is to obliterate that.

CONAN: How do you obliterate space and time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Don't you just love him? Yeah, how do you obliterate space and time? Well, you know, sometimes, when I've had one tequila too many and I'm lying on the floor, I feel pretty obliterated in space and time. No but I don't think that's what he meant. I do think he wants to be free from certain preconceptions about what we are seeing and what we are feeling. That is a noble pursuit. How do you do that? I think there is one way of doing it, which is disorienting the public. There was no one place on Merce's stage you were supposed to look to find out what our hero and everyone was feeling. You were left to your own devices to construct, or I should say reconstruct, what he had - this event that he had put up in front of us.

In art - for the art lovers in your audience - if you think about a person like Cy Twombly in a notion of all over composition, I think it was something that gleaned from Jackson Pollock, as well. You know, there was a lot of war between Merce's generation and the abstract expressionist that was just before, this idea that it was supposed to be an expression of something that was primal, that came out of you.

Merce's was saying that it should be completely controlled, but there should be an element of chance so that the audience can get in there and recreate what you in fact have started to create. And that looked like how the dancers are deposed on stage, this - what you mentioned in your opening remarks about the relationship of music to dance. Merce said that the dance was a primary art form. A person like myself, I sometimes turn off the music in my own work and look at the dancers move. And that's how I understand the quality of the choreography. If it's not being, in fact, told to me what to feel or what to think by the music, then I'm left to really make some stronger decisions about what the work is. And Merce…

CONAN: I see what you're saying. If you allow the music, the tempo and everything else to dictate the tempo of the dance, it's a secondary - it's a reflective art form.

Mr. JONES: Which audiences love, mind you.

CONAN: Yes, they do.

Mr. JONES: Sometimes - of course, we live in a, quite a conservative era. There's been a lot of retrenchment against these ideas that used to be - as I'd say, when I came into the art world, a young dancer in the late '60s, early '70s, this was the gospel. This was where the future was going to be.

But now, we look at a world that's very conservative. They want to be - they want to know what they're supposed to be seeing, they want to know what the meaning of it is, and they like a beginning, a middle and an end. All things that Cunningham threw out the window. He was not done yet. Where is this next generation of people going now? With all of this information, all of these possibilities that - these mashups, all of these things. Where is this generation going around this question of what is good art? What is art supposed to communicate? I'm still wrestling with it myself, actually.

CONAN: Our guest is Bill T. Jones, cofounder and artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Of course, we're talking about the great Merce Cunningham. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. Paula's(ph) with us from Carlyle in Illinois.

PAULA (Caller): Yes, my question is, how do you think you guys' work has affected modern music videos, dances? I mean, if you take a look at modern hip-hop, the music videos that you see, all these dancing in them. How do you think your work affected their…

Mr. JONES: My work or Merce's?

CONAN: I think we're talking about Merce Cunningham's work, but you can take that either way you'd like.

Mr. JONES: Well, I don't know if it's going to be a satisfying answer, but I don't know if you know the work, for instance, of Stan Brakhage or any of Merce's contemporaries from the late '50s, early '60s, were making film. They were very interested in madly slicing and collage and quick-cutting, all qualities that influenced the generation of young people who invented MTV.

Those things actually came from the avant-garde of probably 20 years earlier that were trying to really push the envelope about comprehensibility and time and sequence, something that Merce always was a little ahead of the curve about. And in my own work, to what some people looks - looks like chaos, so many things happening simultaneously. I think that I have been one of those persons who has come to that idea as well.

I have no idea now in a market-driven music environment what are the great ideas, what are the aesthetic principles underneath what sells an MTV videotape or sells a record. I do know that I hear sometimes things that sound as if they were warmed over experimentations from the '50s or '60s.

And once again, everything is possible now at the touch of a button. All we can do is hope for more geniuses, so that it's not only apparent there in its references but that we actually get something that shows us a new way of going, something that Merce did, and something I'm hammering away at.

CONAN: We're talking with Bill T. Jones. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And when we ask about his legacy, that Merce Cunningham of course, I guess part of that lives on in everything that you do and everything that's done in a lot of dance companies around the rest of the country. But what is to happen with his dance company?

Mr. JONES: Hmm. I think that's really brave what he did. And once again, those of us who are real Merce fans, we were waiting for him to say, well, how do you finish it, Merce? How do you really pull it to a grand and classy close? And I think his decision that his company will tour for two years after that, and that the dancers will then all be given some sort of severance and that will be the end of the company. But there will be his technique, his foundation with his teachers - there will be the repertoire. I really don't know how anyone who has not trained on a day-to-day basis with Merce can pick up those complicated dances and make them part of your repertory, but I long to see them. I think he did it in a very, very wonderful way.

I encourage all of your listeners who are curious that this next two years, do whatever you can to get out there and go see that work because once that master's hand is off of it, those events are so fragile, they're so personal, you can literally feel that man at work, moving people around, giving notes and so on. That is now over. And it will be - over the next two years, you will see the end of a great era. Something else will begin, but to go and experience it in the wake of his death, you owe it to yourself if you're curious about what is really - has been really important in the arts, I daresay, over the last 100 years and so.

CONAN: You say that's a brave thing to do, and I guess we could see that. At the same time, the Ellington Orchestra exists, the Basie Orchestra exists, the Martha Graham company still exists. Where are these things going to go?

Mr. JONES: Well, you ask a question which unfortunately gives me sadness, because I think those companies, all great artists, run the risk, if they have not actually succumbed to being museums. I don't think Merce was ever interested in being a museum. He has performed in many museums, but it was always something alive. As alive as what he felt as he walked into the studio that day, as what he was thinking about, as what the new, young dancer in a company was able to do. It was all fresh, fresh, fresh. I am sure it was true from Mr. Ellington and Ms. Graham as well. But I think there's a real risk in trying to keep something alive that it becomes, in fact, a museum.

Now, museums are great. I'm not sure if they're great for performing arts. I know I depend on them for the visual arts. But, no, he has thought it through and I'd be curious to know what his foundation has up its sleeves or how to keep Merce's vision and his questions alive. Will they be encouraging young choreographers, will it be encouraging composers, that work in the philosophical way that Merce did? I don't know. But I'd be curious to know what they were going to do.

CONAN: Bill T. Jones, thanks so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. JONES: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: I hope we can have you back on.

Mr. JONES: It would be my - I love - I listen to your show every weekend, and I'm glad to be a part of it now.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

Mr. JONES: Bye-bye now.

CONAN: Bill T. Jones joined us from Taos, New Mexico. He's artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which is currently at work on the production, "Fondly Do We Hope… Fervently Do We Pray."

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