“In her insightful debut, former dancer Preger-Simon, a close friend and contemporary of the late choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919–2009), gives readers an unparalleled view of a modern dance genius. . . . A sweet treat for dance and theater aficionados, as well as anyone interested in the arts.”—Publishers Weekly
“Many dancers find that they understand better in retrospect what they had been part of. Few write with Preger-Simon’s blend of sensitivity and generosity.”—from the afterword by Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic, New York Times
“A cross between personal memoir and cultural history—an insider’s look at a pivotal moment in American dance history.”—Elizabeth Zimmer, dance critic, Village Voice
“Charming and moving. A delightful memoir of a woman’s 60-year relationship with perhaps the most important and innovative figure in dance in the second half of the twentieth century and a privileged introduction to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.”—Jay Caplan, Amherst College
Dancing with Merce Cunningham is a buoyant, captivating memoir of a talented dancer’s lifelong friendship with one of the choreographic geniuses of our time.
Marianne Preger-Simon’s story opens amid the explosion of artistic creativity that followed World War II. While immersed in the vibrant arts scene of postwar Paris during a college year abroad, Preger-Simon was so struck by Merce Cunningham’s unconventional dance style that she joined his classes in New York. She soon became an important member of his brand new dance troupe—and a constant friend.
Through her experiences in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Preger-Simon offers a rare account of exactly how Cunningham taught and interacted with his students. She describes the puzzled reactions of audiences to the novel non-narrative choreography of the company’s debut performances. She touches on Cunningham’s quicksilver temperament—lamenting his early frustrations with obscurity and the discomfort she suspects he endured in concealing his homosexuality and partnership with composer John Cage—yet she celebrates above all his dependable charm, kindness, and engagement. She also portrays the comradery among the company’s dancers, designers, and musicians, many of whom—including Cage, David Tudor, and Carolyn Brown—would become integral to the avant-garde arts movement, as she tells tales of their adventures touring in a VW Microbus across the United States.
Finally, reflecting on her connection with Cunningham throughout the latter part of his career, Preger-Simon recalls warm moments that nurtured their enduring bond after she left the dance company and, later, New York. Interspersed with her letters to friends and family, journal entries, and correspondence from Cunningham himself, Preger-Simon’s memoir is an intimate look at one of the most influential companies in modern American dance and the brilliance of its visionary leader.
Marianne Preger-Simon lives in Whately, Massachusetts. She danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in its founding years, from 1950 until 1958. She remained friends with Merce Cunningham until his death in 2009.
In this interview, Marianne Preger-Simon talks about her new book and about working with Merce Cunningham.
You first met Merce Cunningham while studying abroad in Paris. What career path did you originally plan to take, and why did seeing Merce dance change your goals?
I was never much of a planner or goal setter; rather a “seize the moment” person. I went to Paris for my junior year for the adventure of it, and Merce Cunningham was an unexpected part of that adventure. One step led to another, and there I was, in the middle of what is now history.
Ironically, you first began dancing after an Achilles tendon injury. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as someone who did not grow up dancing from a young age?
So many. Feet that couldn’t point much, less than remarkable turn-out and leg extension, shoulders that needed frequent reminders to stay down, a tendency to try to “think out” challenging movement combinations.
Merce Cunningham developed unconventional choreography. As part of his unique dance group, how did you cope with critics who didn’t understand Merce’s style of dance?
I tended to dismiss them as stuck in the world of dance as storytelling and as dependent on the beat of the accompanying music. I’d call my coping a combination of irritation and disdain.
How do you think Merce’s dance style compares with today’s modern dance choreographers?
I believe he helped free up choreographers to explore new avenues of movement, stillness, and the relationship between movement and meaning, movement and sound, and movement and audiences. His dances are very relevant to the world we live in, and much admired internationally.
You decided to leave your career in dance behind to focus on raising a family, but you continued to immerse yourself in the dance world. As an insider, what was it like to be in the audience at performances by your friends and future generations of Merece’s students?
It was mostly a revelation, especially seeing dances in which I had performed. It was very exciting to see new dances, how his choreography was developing, and how splendidly the new dancers were trained and performed. I was a very enthusiastic audience member.
Your granddaughter, Lizzie Feidelson, took Cunningham classes and became a dancer in New York. What was it like to watch her embark on the same journey you took decades before?
It was wonderful and very satisfying. It was also very familiar to see her working with another choreographer who was completely unlike her contemporaries.
Training to become a dancer and dancing for a living requires immense discipline. What is one aspect of being a dancer you think most newcomers don’t anticipate?
I would guess that the occasional hopeless feelings of “I can’t possibly ever be a dancer” would be hard to anticipate; also, the frequent minor or even major bouts of pain and discomfort as new aspects of body strength and posture develop. These would be impossible to imagine before entering such an unfamiliar physical experience.
Do you have one sentence of advice for new dancers?
Eat well, sleep well, and notice and appreciate every bit of progress you make.