I joined this project because a past teacher of mine was a Merce Cunningmham fanatic, and I figured that it would be worthwhile to spend a semester getting to know his work personally – not to mention a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with his company members and choreography.
Along the way this semester, I was struck by the sheer number of other Merce Cunningham fanatics I came across: those who were absolutely in love with his work. One of them wowed me by saying that she found nothing more interesting than Merce’s work, and that she has spent the past 40-or-so years watching it at every chance she got.
And hearing this, I was impressed. I certainly appreciated Merce Cunningham’s body of work, his innovations, et cetera; I did not, however, have that visceral connection to the material myself. I just trusted that this was somehow meaningful, and went along with it all.
Then, the day after our lecture-demonstration, I ran into one of my best friends on the middle of campus, and she told me that she loved the performance. I thanked her, appreciating her support; but it didn’t end there. She told me how weird and beautiful she found it all – it was “living art,” she said, with so much to experience, and so much that was just truly interesting. The control of the dancers, the abililty to enjoy the shapes and bodies…
And I was so amazed to hear her say this, because this is was exactly what I had learned intellectually to be true about Merce’s work, and there she was feeling it as an instinctive response to the work. To know that our demonstration prompted that response from her made me know that this work is in fact worthwhile, that it is meaningful, that it is important, that it is beautiful. And to have been a part of it was, well, incredible.
In the “droopers”/”benders” section of Roaratorio, groups of three people repeat a simple sequence in unison: hand raised with palm flat for two beats, then lower to plié for two beats, then bend over from the waist for three beats. This seven-count pattern is repeated in a variety of directions, depending on the individual, with all three group members moving at the same time. Then, one dancer breaks away, walks to the side, and moves a chair across the stage. Having finished this, he/she rejoins the group. In our variation of this choreography, I leave my group and walk – with focus and steadiness – around the other group of dancers before returning to my own.
The effect, as Meg described it, is ideally one of, “What is he doing? Why is he doing that?” It piques the viewer’s attention and curiosity. It is an open question.
While we were brushing up another movement sequence – the “slow crossings” that we are including in our event – Jennifer instructed us not to forget the proper placement of the arms. As we tilt our bodies (without turning our heads to the side, mind you), we are supposed to keep our arms extended to our sides so that they rotate with our torsos. As each individual dancer crosses the stage in his/her own timing, the effect is a continual, wave-like raising of arms across the stage. “It draws interest,” Jen told us, and it shouldn’t be omitted.
I include these two details to demonstrate the importance of “drawing interest” in Cunningham’s work – a goal that was, perhaps, one of the most important for him as a choreographer. A simple goal, yet one that requires a freshness of creativity to achieve.
The other night, when trying to teach my jig to the other men so that they could perform it in the event, I found myself unable to immediately think of and describe the movement; rather, I had to go back, do the movement, and find out from my body what it was. It was funny, as this was exactly what Jennifer had done when teaching material to us – when we would ask her particular questions and she would have to rewind through her physical memory. I didn’t think I’d already be at that level of physical memory with the material, which is exciting (though there are certainly other parts and patterns in Roaratorio that still need to be ingrained).
Before the body took full control of the movement, however, the choreography had to pass through the mind. I recall that after Jennifer presented the 5/4 reel, with its various directions of travel, she told us that we would have to make sense of it for ourselves. There was an intellectual grappling with the material before it could be physically latched onto, just as there is with many of the patterns present in Roaratorio. I feel as though this trait – the intellectual – is especially prevalent in Merce’s choreography, and it challenges the dancer not only physically, but also mentally.
When reviewing the “fives” (a group section counted in 5/4, with five steps per phrase) in rehearsal today, I felt tempted to run over to the piano to play Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” to accompany the choreography. How fun and funny that would be, I thought.
The notion helps me think about the purposeful exclusion of music in Cunningham’s work. What if “Take Five” were in the background of this section of Roaratorio? It would immediately change the dance’s “feel”. Whether the dancers were conscious of it or not, the music would guide their thoughts about and approach to the quality of the movement (“Ah, I see, this is how this should go”). The same would happen for the spectators: their perception and sense of the dance would be informed and altered by the what the music was saying. The choreography would sink into the the music, and the two would become more or less inextricable.
Yet this is not what happens in Cunningham’s work. The movement stands alone. The dancer is given only the physical information of the choreography with which to shape his/her performance. There is nothing else to rely upon; nothing to either enhance or confine the dance. The dance is pure: all is stripped except for the dancer’s physical sensation of movement and the audience’s visual perception of the movement.
This is not to neglect the use of John Cage’s score in the performance of Roaratorio. Because of the nature of John Cage’s work – collected, fragmented, strewn together –, it does not dictate the dance, but occurs alongside it. The score and choreography function independently and in true simultaneity, without synchronization and without interfering with one another.