Merce Cunningham: A Life In Movement "One of the great iconoclasts in 20th-century art," Merce Cunningham revolutionized modern dance, pioneering abstract movement with his partner John Cage. Cunningham died July 26 at the age of 90.
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Merce Cunningham: A Life In Movement

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Merce Cunningham: A Life In Movement

Merce Cunningham: A Life In Movement

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, one of the most important influences on dance in the 20th century, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 90 years old.

Today, we'll listen back to an interview Terry conducted with Merce Cunningham back in 1985, when he was 66. At that time he was still a featured part of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which he founded in 1953. He appeared in every performance by that company until 1989, when he was 70.

Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented the world premiere of his latest work, a salute to his own birthday called "Nearly 90."

Cunningham's approach to dance as both a choreographer and a performer was unconventional, so much so that he's been called one of the true revolutionaries in the history of dance. Cunningham didn't choreograph movement to coincide with the rhythms of music. Instead, he preferred to have music and dance performed simultaneously but independent of one another. It was an approach he pioneered and explored with his collaborator and life partner, composer John Cage, from whom we'll also hear on today's show.

Merce Cunningham grew up in Centralia, Washington, where he studied tap with the retired vaudevillian, Maude Barrett(ph). Martha Graham saw him dance and invited him to join her company in New York, which he did in 1939 and began studying ballet.

When Terry spoke with Merce Cunningham in 1985, she asked how he developed his new ideas about dancing and choreography.


One of the ideas that I think began to interest you, which is, I think, one the ways where you parted company aesthetically with Martha Graham, was the idea of dance not having to tell a story or describe an emotion or set a mood. When did you start having that idea, that dance didn't have to be about something other than its own motion?

Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Dancer, Choreographer): I think all the way from Mrs. Barrett…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: …in tap dancing because I think that's a sense that she gave me. I wouldn't have intellectualized it that way naturally then, but in remembering it, that sense she gave me of the quality of the dance being in the movement, that the buck and wing was different from the old soft shoe, and that was different from the Irish dance, and then she would show this. And if you thought about it, you realized she meant it was in the movement itself, not because it had names.

The names were probably tacked on afterward, but in the quality of the movement itself was the difference, and in all my work with dancing, I've always - that's to me the thing that makes the dancing come alive. Oh, you can say it's about something, and you can - or indicate that in some way. But who basically would be interested in those stories if the dancing wasn't interesting?

GROSS: Did you have any big differences with Graham about that? Did you talk about that a lot?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: No, no. I - when I realized that I really wanted to do my own work and that if I stayed with her it would involve more time, because she was beginning to have more tours and have more performances at that point, I decided that I would prefer to do my own work. So I left and proceeded to work by myself and give - in the beginning, with John Cage, we gave - I gave solo programs, and we've had short tours and a small amount of performing.

GROSS: Most of us think of dance as being done to music, you know, where all the movements are in synch with the rhythm of the music that it's being performed to, but you came up with the idea of simultaneous but independent dance and music. What gave you that idea?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Cage had this way of composing music, which involved what he calls - called time structure. That is music not based on harmony or based on modulations or based on various kinds of form, theme and variation, but sound which could exist in a length of time, and the structure, how you structured it, was through the time, not through another way. And we both thought, well, that's the one thing that really connects music and dance, is the fact that they both take place in time, and if you put them together, they can take place in the same time.

So even in those very first solos that I made, we developed for each dance a different time structure within which I made the dance and he would make the music, but that didn't imply that he was following the dance strictly but that we would meet in the structure points - that is, the sound and the dance would meet at structure points. But in between that, we could be separate. But the music, the sound cuts the time up differently from the way the dance does. The music cuts it for the ear, the dance cuts it for the eye.

GROSS: My guest is choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham. When you and Cage were first touring together and performing, I mean, audiences were certainly - many still aren't used to it now but certainly then. In the early '50s no one was used to the idea of independent dance and music and the dance not telling a story.

What kind of reactions did you get? Did you get booed a lot?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh yes, and people leaving. Of course. But we also, as we toured, and as I began to work with dancers and have a company, we would tour the United States, we began to also have friends, not many, but every place there would be a few people who would be very interested in what we had done, what we were doing and wanted to know more about it and so on, and we tried to not only have music by John, by Cage, but music by other composers who would be interested in working in this same way.

They didn't have to compose the way John does but in the sense of this separation between the music and dance. When we found a number of them over the years, with whom we have worked, of course, who have - what do you say? - who have used these ideas in their way, and we have, in a sense, amassed a repertory of this.

GROSS: During those times when you were booed during those early years, did you have enough belief in what you were doing to not be discouraged by the negative reactions?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, it was and remains to me an extraordinary area to work in. It seems to me constantly - one can constantly be refreshed, at least for my - my personal feelings is that way, as I work at it. And one only has to get one's mind out of the way about deciding that something is good or bad and rather allow for different things to take place, different kinds of things to take place so that you or I am constantly on the point of discovering something I don't know about rather than repeating what I do know about.

GROSS: So the boos were just part of that process for you and not a real obstacle?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh yes, of course, they were interesting sometimes and difficult sometimes, and sometimes we even had things thrown at us and all of that kind of traditional thing. And I remember a program in - I think it was in Cologne in Germany once with a dance company, where the audience was extremely unpleasant and difficult and booed and yelled all the way through the performance. And I thought the company, my dancers, were wonderful. I said we'll just keep on going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: They were marvelous. They did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I bet, though, you figured out some pretty creative ways to survive on next to no money during those years when you were touring in the Volkswagen bus and performing at colleges.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, you mean money? Oh, well, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh yes, there wasn't any. No, we would manage to get from one place to the other and somehow keep it going, and I in the very - in those days, when there were a few dancers - of course there were six dancers and two musicians and one technical person. That's all we could get in the bus, so that's what we had, and I would pay all the bills because I thought that if I gave the dancers money, it would be so little that they would maybe try to save some and not eat properly. So I decided, no, I will pay. They can eat what they want. I will manage that and I will - but I will pay for it so that then they will be more likely to eat well and not get sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: And I think on the whole, it worked. At some point, of course, it didn't work anymore, naturally, but for a while it did, so we would - and we would also, you know, not simply eat in restaurants. We had very nice times, often - difficult, of course it was difficult. But we had very good times because we would stop and eat in the parks, buy food and cook in the parks if the weather was nice, and as Carolyn Brown(ph) said once, writing about it, she said there was an awful lot of laughing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did it ever reach a point where you thought that the kind of poverty existence that you and the other dancers in your company were forced into was no longer suitable, where you were just getting either too mature or too tired for that kind of life?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, too tired, but I think dancers are always too tired.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Probably many times. The only thing for me is that I really am deeply fond of dancing, always have been. So no matter how dire the situation was, how desperate, I would wake up one day and start to work and suddenly realize that it was just as interesting as it always had been, regardless of the circumstances.

BIANCULLI: Merce Cunningham, speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's back to Terry's 1985 interview with dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died Sunday at the age of 90.

GROSS: Do you think of the male and female body as being very different instruments?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes. They're both the same and different. First of all, you start with the fact that they have two legs and two arms and one head. That's the same. But there is a physical difference in the woman's body. The structure is different. There are kinds of movements that she can do, which the man can do, but they're not the same.

I mean, they don't - he can do them, certainly, and equally so the other way, but the man has a different kind of strength in his body, the way it's knit, for example, physically knit together. There are kinds of movements which both can do, and I think that's quite clear in more - probably in American dancing, say, that European dancing, although of course, now it's common every place. But that American women, for instance, do steps that originally were thought only for men, and the men probably do certain things which were originally thought only for women, which now both can do. But there still is a difference because the man does it in a different way than the woman, as each person does it different from the other one.

GROSS: Are there ways that you think of yourself as using men and women differently in your dances?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I use them both as individuals - that is, simply as individual - who may be doing the same movement but not necessarily at the same time, just as you might, if you look at a flock of birds, in a sense they're doing the same, but they don't really do the same thing. They don't do it at the same time.

Then also, I take for granted that there are certain differences that will come out with any - say, say, that, say, a male body is doing something, and a female body is doing the same thing, but there are certain differences that will simply appear, to my eye, anyway, and I think that's fine. It's human.

GROSS: Well, you've talked about how you don't want a frontal emphasis in your dance, and you don't want - you know, you don't want to be focused on the center, and you don't just want to be focused on the front. It should be interesting from any angle.

Why is that important to you since, you know, in most theaters there are just audiences seated in front?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, that's based on the idea of proscenium theater, as they called it, the Italian theater. It's based on the idea of perspective, where you have a point to which everything relates some way or another. And the classical ballet, it seems to me, is built on that.

That means there's one point that's the best, and that's the point that's directly in front of the royal box, so that the royal box can see it. Everybody else deviates slightly, all the way out here, where you can't see anything.

That doesn't seem to me to be socially useful now, certainly not in the face of the way we think about people all over the world. That's like colonialism, in a way. It has another point of view, if you are going to speak politically. but I didn't think of it that way, although later on I thought about it.

I thought, but there's no reason why you can't change the space. You do it in the streets. You don't see people from the front in the streets. You see them from any angle. Why cannot you do that on the stage?

Now, we perform in many different places, of course. We perform in the perspective stage, we perform in gymnasiums and hallways, outdoors. We have done many performances where the audience is on four sides, three sides or two sides, so that you can't fix which way you focus.

So I make the dances with that in mind, that they could be done in different - not all of them, certainly not, but almost all of them are done, are arranged so that they could be done either in a perspective stage, a proscenium, or they could be done in another kind of space.

You only have to think now about putting yourself in outer space. Are you going to have a center of interest there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: How do you think about right and left when you're up floating around? (Unintelligible) The only thing you can do is think from yourself, and each person in turn from himself. I'm going to my right. I can't say I'm going to go over there because by the time you get there, you've gone someplace else. You've shifted your - you've shifted where your body is.

So you have to think direction-wise differently, and in my work, ever since I began with Cage, years and year ago when I got to thinking about space, and it was that remark of Einstein's, where he said there are no fixed points in space, I thought, well, that works perfectly for the theater.

GROSS: Many dancers start choreographing after they retire from dance. Now, you've always been doing both, and you haven't stopped dancing.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I do less.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You do less, but you still dance, and you're in your mid-60s now.


GROSS: Has working with your own body for dances, as you've gotten older, brought up any really interesting ways of using it that you hadn't thought of before when you were younger and had a more flexible body then?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I think so. I think there are things about balance and about - since there are certain - many kinds of movements now that are not free for me to do, I'm not physically free to do, I find other ones. They are limited, of course, and I realize - I'm quite aware of that, but within that scale I keep trying to find new things - just for myself. This hasn't to do with the dancers in the company. There I've tried to push them as far as possible.

You know, I don't think of dances or dancing as an object which is completed. I think of the whole thing as a process, which I continue.

GROSS: Do you still do daily exercises?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes. I do what the dancers, what ballet people call a warm-up or - I don't do as much as I used to, naturally not, but I do, I always do it. When we're on tour, for example, I get up and go to the theater before anybody else and I do my work, which is roughly an hour, certainly not more than that. Then I teach the company a class. Then we have rehearsal, and then we do an evening show.

GROSS: What's your mental attitude toward doing the exercises every day? Because it could become very tedious and a routine that you have to drag yourself through every day, but it's not enjoyable.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: It is - I'm sure for many dancers that's really the thing that perhaps really eventually stops them, the idea of having to do that every day, because it is tedious. But I long ago decided, okay, if this is what you have to do, you have to find a way to do it.

So instead of thinking, oh, I'm going to repeat this every day, I adopted the philosophy that it was new each day. Even if I did the same thing, it was new.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Even the simplest exercise was new all over again. Simple to say and not easy to do, but just the same, I keep finding new things then. Rather than just repeating exactly the way it is, I keep finding very slight ways, small ways, big ways, hopefully with the dance company it's big, big ways - for myself less so, but still, it's like - oh, it's like renewing yourself.

I mean, what if you decided that you breathe a few times and you decided you knew about that. You don't have to do that anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You've had your share of injuries, haven't you, in dancing?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Like all dancers, yes.

GROSS: How do you know when it's okay to actually continue with the performance and keep dancing and when, if you do that, you're going to ruin that joint or that muscle forever and it'll ruin you?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I think that you shouldn't ask me that question because I'm not sure I do know because I've danced under injuries which probably most dancers would have sense enough not to have done. So don't ask me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But you haven't suffered anything catastrophic from that. You haven't had to abandon dancing or…

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, I thought at two points I was going to be because I had a bad spine, a terrible back problem, (unintelligible) lumbar, like so many people have, and then I simple developed exercises that have kept me going, have helped that, and I put them in my dance technique, in a different way, but for the spine, because I think that comes about when the lower back doesn't work. And most people don't use the muscles in the lower back, and then one day they do something, all of a sudden and it gives.

I thought, well, there must be a way. There are muscles down there. There must be a way to use them. So I developed exercises, and I've not had serious back trouble since then.

I have to be careful, I admit that, but I've not had serious back trouble.

GROSS: During those periods when you've been in pain because of an injury or just because of the toll that dancing daily takes on your body, have you ever taken painkillers or anything like that, or do you have a mental attitude that is - that can distract you from your own pain and take your mind off of it?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: No. I was going to yes and no. Once I took - I think it was when I had the back troubles, I took some - I don't know what they were. The doctor gave me something, but I realized that that was only an excuse and that I was not realizing what was really the problem, which was to get rid of the pain in the back, not hide it.

So I never - I just quit. I take vitamin pills, but that's out of habit, and those are straight. But I've not taken anything like that ever.

GROSS: You have challenged a lot of traditions and conventions of dance. Do you think it's important for artists to challenge conventions? Do you think that that act of challenging is important in and of itself? Or is that irrelevant, and you just challenge things because that was your sensibility, and that's the way it is?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I suppose it is important to challenge things, but I think in my own case it was because I could see these ideas were possible. It wasn't the fact that I was doing something somebody else did or didn't do because although I don't know other dancers at the other time who did it, there were visual artists involved in the ideas and certainly composers.

So the idea that - it was that these ideas were new ideas that were in the air, and these were possibilities that had never been tried before, and one could see they were possibilities, even though one wasn't sure how they might come out.

BIANCULLI: Merce Cunningham, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. The acclaimed dancer and choreographer died Sunday in Manhattan at age 90. His most recent choreographed work premiered earlier this year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Its title was "Nearly 90." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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