Back to the Body

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One astounding revelation from something Meg said was the ways in which Cunningham’s technique is influenced by Eastern body techniques like Tai Chi and yoga, both of which he practiced regularly. The use of the spine is not quite a Graham contraction, she said, but more the idea that the spine has the pliability of a tree. There is a rootedness in the spine and a centering that complements the classical strength of the legs. She mentioned that the focus is also philosophically Eastern, maintaining awareness of the moment you’re in.

As a longtime Pilates practitioner and Feldenkrais student, I can see some similarities between the Cunningham choreography we’ve been learning and forms of bodywork. Ballet and modern dance comprise many various techniques, but there’s something different about Cunningham technique. Perhaps it’s somewhere in the fact that the technique wasn’t developed to tell stories, or to be rooted in some deep and supposedly universal phenomenology. The Cunningham technique is all about the physical body as it is—it contains a kind of strength and breath and meditative attitude towards the movement that I often find more in Pilates, yoga, or Feldenkrais than in other forms of dance. Where lies the boundary between a dance technique and a technique of the body? Is it in performance, training, or attitude towards movement?

Cunningham technique is also shaping my body in ways I never imagined. After our classes I feel taller, suppler through the spine, and aligned with strength in the core. It is one of the only things I have found that stretches every single part of my back, even the difficult to isolate muscles of the thoracic spine. Ballet helped significantly to improve lordosis in my lower back and kyphosis in the neck, but practicing Cunningham technique has accelerated the process even more. After our rehearsals, I often feel like I have not only danced, but been to a chiropractor as well.

Secondly, one thing Meg said that struck me was the fact that there are no successional movements in the choreography, such as swings or suspensions like those of Limon or Graham technique. She said the technique is drawn from natural movements of animals, with the center held and quick action or movement in the extremities. There is no successional cause and effect (an idea from Cage); the focus is just on movement in the moment without overt anticipation.

Another savvy observation, made by fellow dancer Amymarie (and for which I give her full credit), is that practically all the movements in Roaratorio feel like they could be the end of the phrase. This seems fitting given Cage and Cunningham’s attitudes toward a democratic use of sound and movement respectively. This notion was also revelatory for me, since I find so much truth in this statement while performing the movement.

Lastly, I’d like to talk a bit about how Cunningham in praxis has altered my conceptions of the movement. Before this project, while I admired Cunningham as a choreographic innovator, I feared that style might be restrictive or mechanical. What I found was in fact the opposite: the movement contains a sense of lushness and satisfaction, particularly in the spine. Meg’s use of natural imagery—of landscapes, marshes, or herds of animals on the Serengeti—is quite apt because the dance space feels energized, alive, and human. I feel this experience of changed understanding through practice speaks towards the need to secure embodied research as a valid intellectual pursuit, since for me moving and learning are never separate entities.