Merce Cunningham may not dance anymore, but he's still one of the best at telling others how to do it.
Thu Mar 22 2001
Merce Cunningham can't dance like he used to. In fact, it's difficult for the 81-year-old choreographer to even walk, yet his body still vibrates with energy. Although his legs won't cooperate, he dances with his hands, with his lilting voice and, most dramatically, with his lively eyes.
If Paul Taylor is the most popular modern-dance choreographer working today, then the dapper Cunningham—a father figure to the postmodern dance movement—is the most revered. That's only fitting: The choreographer, who actually began his career in New York as a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company, is more innovative than those with half his years. Ever since the '40s, he has been revolutionizing the field by viewing dance and music as separate entities (Cunningham prepares his work in silence, often waiting till the performance itself to add music). And since he can no longer demonstrate intricate movements himself, he creates them on a computer program.
His work will be on display at City Center beginning March 31, when Cunningham's company presents his 1999 spectacle BIPED; new works Way Station and Interscape (the latter is set to music by Cunningham's former companion and collaborator, the late John Cage); and revivals of RainForest and Summerspace. Recently, he wedged TONY into his schedule, between a morning of physical therapy and an afternoon of rehearsals at his West Village studio.
Time Out New York: What is your relationship with your dancers like these days?
Merce Cunningham: I hope we're friends. It's different than it used to be, because now I can't do the steps. We speak to each other. I don't think that they hate me.
TONY: You were part of the original cast of Martha Graham's famous 1944 dance Appalachian Spring. How do you feel when you hear that music in commercials?
MC: Aaron Copland's piece? It's all right. While I'm watching television, and there's some commercial for soap, this music comes on that sounds familiar. I listen and think, Oh yes, it's Appalachian Spring.
TONY: Do you watch much TV?
MC: I just recently got digital TV, which has TCM on it. The result is that I'm getting bad habits—I stay up late—but the old movies are so marvelous. I just watched that film with W.C. Fields, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. There's that scene where he's sitting at a soda fountain trying to drink a malted, and he turns to the camera and says, "This should be in a saloon, but they wouldn't get it past the censors." Some wit!
TONY: Have you ever been asked to choreograph a musical?
MC: Yes, way back. It fortunately never materialized. There was a man—I can't remember his name—who was planning to work out this musical about the Old South [Giggles].
TONY: You were recently a performer in impersonator Richard Move's Martha @... series. Why did you get involved?
MC: I went to a program at Mother, and I liked the atmosphere. I thought his show was really very organized and, given the circumstances, professional. He didn't just seem to me to do parody—he had dancers doing versions of Graham's pieces, and they did it as well as they could. Richard asked if I would perform in it, and finally I figured out this way of only talking about her when I was in the company [from 1939 through 1945]. He agreed, and we rehearsed. However you feel about what he does, it's totally professional.
TONY: Is he at all similar to how Martha really was?
MC: Not when I knew her. I realized the first time I saw him that he's parodying something which was later on.
TONY: What's your favorite animal?
MC: Oh! I have lots of them. I make drawings. I have a marvelous book of Australian birds, and I'm drawing them now. They have incredible colors and wonderful names like the Husky Little Crow. The other day, I made a drawing of the Little Blue Wren.
TONY: Why do you draw?
MC: I started, my, it must be 20 years ago. The company got up very early in Los Angeles to catch an 8am bus. Then they announced that the bus wasn't going to leave until 10am. Well, you can sit around and curse and drink coffee, but I didn't want to do that. So I was sitting in a room where a window looked out on this beautiful tree, and I thought, I wonder if I could draw that? And that's how it started. I do it every morning. I draw little birds and animals, and I love koala bears—they're just marvelous.
TONY: You just went with your company to Australia. Why do you accompany them on tour?
MC: It's where I want to be! I've missed only two performances. They've both been when I've been on tour with them, but for some reason I had to do something else that day.
TONY: What do you miss most about John Cage?
MC: The humor, the alertness, the wit. The pleasure of his company. He was so extraordinarily bright about observing. The responses that he'd make were always so totally unexpected. I remember, years ago, we were on a little tour that I'd arranged. One place we played was a girls' school in Virginia. Afterward, all these little girls rushed up for signatures, and John, standing there beaming and signing, said, "I feel just like Frank Sinatra!"
TONY: Are you sad that you don't perform in gymnasiums like you used to when you started out?
MC: I like the bigness and the openness, but the floors—a lot of them were cement. That's one of the reasons my ankles are the way they are. In Perth [Australia], we did this extraordinary Event on the beach. It didn't cost anyone anything. It started at 6:15pm and stopped at 7:15pm. By 7:20pm, the sun was gone. I loved it. The headline in the paper was NEW YORK MEETS BEACH.
TONY: Since you're so into Australia right now, do you watch Survivor: The Australian Outback?
MC: I never even heard of it. I don't look at television during the day—[Sings] except now with TCM, I may be in! Ordinarily I try to get to bed by 11pm. But if there's a terribly good movie on....
TONY: When do you wake up?
MC: At 7:30am. It's very hard. But I have to spend so much time doing exercises for all of my muscular and bone problems. It's the first thing I do.
TONY: Are you in pain constantly?
MC: I'm fine right now. No, no. It's walking and standing a lot. I had a shiatsu massage—we all did—in Cannes. It was by an astonishing Frenchman who spent years in China. He said, "You have a very good body." I thought, Well, maybe it once was. But I think he was saying that it was still fairly strong.
TONY: How do you get your hair to be so electric?
MC: Oh, it's just that way. My mother always complained: Why did I have curls, and why didn't some girl have them? She was forever complaining. My father had curly hair. I don't worry too much about it. I'm glad that there's this much still here.