In celebration of Merce Cunningham’s 100th Birthday, we’re pleased to share this excerpt from Marianne Preger-Simon’s Dancing with Merce Cunningham, her memoir of one of the most influential companies in modern American dance and the brilliance of its visionary leader.
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ONE STEP LEADS TO ANOTHER
In late spring of 1949, I learned that Merce Cunningham was giving a dance concert in the studio of a leading modernist, later figurative artist, Jean Hélion, in Paris.
I had seen Merce’s phenomenal aerial performance in Letter to the World, as part of Martha Graham’s company, several years before I left the States, and admired his dancing enormously, so I made a point of being at the studio event. I found this concert very exciting. Merce’s dancing and his choreography were radically different from Graham’s, differences that I would understand more fully as I became his student. I expressed my enthusiasm in a letter to a friend, written July 15, 1949 (I apparently melded together the studio performance and the brief performance a month later, part of a multi-person event at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier):
Merce danced the other night—my goodness, I have never seen anything like him in my life. He gives the impression of never being static, but of never making an effort—a continuous, completely unified flow, like the song of a bird—he makes all movements—angular, curved, moments of no movement—anything you want—but the unity and lucidity are so complete—and he has such a perfect understanding and use of space, of his body, of time—it’s really terribly exciting and moving—I didn’t breathe all the way through. That was a solo [I believe it was Root of an Unfocus]. Then he did two trios [actually one trio, Effusions Avant l’Heure and a duet, Amores, with Le Clercq] with two women—ballet dancers [Tanaquil Le Clercq and Betty Nichols, both members of the New York City Ballet]—that were in between ballet and modern. Those I liked less because of the ballet principle involved—of static “tableaux”—I always feel that those tableaux are so gratuitous—no reason for them or connection with what follows. But there, too, the movement patterns were exquisite. He really conquers the dimensions in his choreography. And such a fluid body;—a formidable technique, that is so good it becomes secondary in the dance, and the whole thing enters through the observer’s stomach without need of an intellectual interpretation or assimilation.
I suspect that my discomfort with the “static ‘tableaux’” was less about “ballet principles” than about early indications of Merce’s interest in stillness as part of movement, which remarkably distinguished him from so many other contemporary choreographers. I later came to value and appreciate the stillness in such dances as Septet and Springweather and People.
What is interesting to me is that what I was perceiving with so much delighted excitement as a member of the audience, was being experienced as rather chaotic from the point of view of one of the dancers, Betty Nichols.
I was impressed by the elegance of both Nichols and Le Clercq and visually aware of their ballet training from the way they moved. However, as my letter indicates, Merce’s performance overwhelmed every other impression, and became the complete focus of my attention. Furthermore, balletic movement was familiar to me, whereas his personal style was so new and electric.
Ralph Coburn, who was also at the concert, told me that he and his friend Ellsworth Kelly, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage, the composer, were staying in the same hotel, the Hotel de Bourgogne on the Ile St. Louis. He informed me that Merce was looking for a studio to work in.
That was all the encouragement I needed. Several days later I sat outside the hotel until Merce came out, then accosted him and informed him that I knew of a studio where he could work and also teach a class….This was all amicably arranged, and so began my life in the orbit of Merce Cunningham.
Here is an account of my meeting with Merce, from a letter I wrote to a friend on June 19, 1949:
Merce Cunningham is here and I met him last week—spent an hour talking to him, discussing dance, theatre, etc. I was able to give various information he’s been searching for since arriving. Yesterday, he came to my school to see our mime course, and was very enthusiastic and interested, and kept whispering observations and comments to me throughout. He is an angel—charming and so interested/interesting. And he is teaching all summer here beginning Tuesday!! At last, after eight months I can really dance—and with him! Imagine. I’m exploding with joy—how I’ve missed dancing—it’s surprising, considering what a new acquaintance it is.
Dancing was indeed a new acquaintance of mine. When I first arrived at Cornell in 1946, I developed a strained Achilles tendon in one leg from walking up and down the hilly streets of Ithaca. When the college doctor helped me into a small whirlpool foot bath, he said, “You should dance. You have such flexible feet.” So I thought, “Yes, what a nice idea!” and joined the Dance Club, led by a Graham-trained dancer, May Atherton. As I later discovered, flexible feet were definitely not one of my major assets—but I’m eternally grateful for his incorrect analysis. It pushed me into a splendid world.