Merce Cunningham: Dance at the Edge Considered by many the greatest living choreographer, Merce Cunningham's career began with Martha Graham and spans 60 years of innovations in dance and music. At 87, Cunningham is still creating new works and he remains on the leading edge of dance.
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Merce Cunningham: Dance at the Edge

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Merce Cunningham: Dance at the Edge

Merce Cunningham: Dance at the Edge

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This morning we conclude our series The Long View with dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Dancer, Choreographer): And go, and one...

(Soundbite of piano music)

MONTAGNE: Merce Cunningham says he sees all movement as dance - a man stepping off a curb, a woman jiggling her foot impatiently, a bird arching its bony shoulder.


MONTAGNE: He's 87 now. He leads a busy dance company housed on a bustling street in Greenwich Village. Merce Cunningham makes a few concessions to age, but only a few. He uses a wheelchair sometimes and sits on a stool to teach. His dancers say his fluid gestures still convey the movement he wants.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes. Two. (Unintelligible)

I'm sitting down and I have a bar, like a dance bar, you know, in front of me. And then I indicate the tempo and try to show the steps. Then the pianist plays tunes that I remember from when I could play the piano years ago, and I - in the meantime I'm tapping my feet. So I'm doing tap dancing.

MONTAGNE: Cunningham demands the impossible of his dancers and students. And this is not just a figure of speech.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Also everybody, step further than you think you can do. Just make it bigger. One and two...

MONTAGNE: Merce Cunningham began his career at the top, in the 1930s, dancing on a Broadway stage opposite the towering figure of modern dance, Martha Graham. Then he started his own company and walked away from everything dance had been about - storytelling and lavish costumes, even the way dancers followed the music.

With his life partner, experimental composer John Cage, he came up with a way to incorporate chance into the creative process.

(Soundbite of Chinese music)

MONTAGNE: He would use the Chinese method of divination - the I Ching - to decide the order in which dancers should move.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Things come up that one could say were physically impossible. But I always try them, and in the act of doing, I find out something I didn't know.

MONTAGNE: For instance, if you were to have thrown the I Ching, or even a pair of dice or something...


MONTAGNE: What could it have told you specifically about a piece of choreography, a gesture or a movement?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, if you had three movements, a run, a jump and a fall, you would think, well, you run, you jump up, and then you fall. But what if you toss the coin and it comes up, you have to do the fall first, and then the jump, and then the run? It breaks down what anybody has - and dancers in particular have muscular memories of how things should go. But instead of saying that's impossible, you try it out.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Merce Cunningham demands a lot of audiences, too. Often when he collaborated with John Cage, Cunningham would create a dance and Cage would compose the music separately. Cunningham made no attempt to fit the dancers' movements to the music. Sometimes the performance was the first time they heard the music.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Given a certain length of time - let's say 10 minutes - I could make a dance which would take up 10 minutes, and John Cage could make a piece of music which occupied the same amount of time. And then we could put them together.

MONTAGNE: Well, did you find yourself, as you might have as a dancer - wouldn't you somehow follow the music?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: It was exactly what - that's what we didn't do. And then when Cage would play the piece, there would be moments where I - in the other way of working I would have thought there should be a sound, but his sound would come perhaps just after what I had done. And it was like opening your mind again to another kind of possibility. As John Cage said once, he does what he does, and I do what I do, and for your convenience we put it together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I thought that was a remarkable way of thinking about it.

MONTAGNE: Well, considering that even now, in 2006, it could be hard for someone to wrap their mind around or even maybe more to the point, get comfortable with - what about audiences? Was it difficult for them as well?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, greatly. Yes, indeed. We would play for very small audiences anyway. Halfway through that smallness would have been divided by further departures of people. But more and more, people began to perceive a way to look at it and to receive it.

MONTAGNE: Merce Cunningham danced as gracefully as ever. A dance could be anything. He might also ride a rickety bicycle across the stage while John Cage lectured on Zen Buddhism. And he had another set of collaborators - his sets and backdrops were created by some of the most intriguing visual artists of the day.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Jasper Johns, for example, and Robert Rauschenberg. But a number of others - Warhol and Stella and so on - whose ideas are part of the world we live in. In my dance work I very rarely saw dancers, except the people with whom I worked directly, naturally. But I don't think I ever had a conversation with someone, say, from the Graham Company, or from the New York City Ballet about dancing, because if I brought up my ideas, they were not shocked, they just didn't comprehend this as a possibility.

MONTAGNE: You know, I guess back when your body did every single thing that you wanted it to do, and magnificently, did you ever think when you were leaping across the stage at 25, did you think you'd be dancing at 80?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I maybe have hoped so, but I don't think I thought it would happen.

MONTAGNE: I mean, dancers' professional lives are notoriously short.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, they are.

MONTAGNE: Well I'm going to quote you something that you've said, that I hope is an accurate quote. But here I go.

I think of dance as being movement, any kind of movement.


MONTAGNE: And that it is as accurate and impermanent as breathing.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes. I think it is.

MONTAGNE: So does that mean that you will be dancing, in effect, right to that last breath?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, probably.

MONTAGNE: As long as you live, you'll be dancing.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, or I can call it dancing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Even if nobody else does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Merce Cunningham, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Merce Cunningham's company will perform his newest work, called "eyeSpace," in Miami this winter. You can see images from Merce Cunningham Dance Company performances and hear other stories in this series at

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