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yea, dance of life
gary e. davis
august 3, 2009


Merce Cunningham was born in an era whose life expectancy was far below the age of 90 he was when he died last week. During 1999, when he was 80, an interviewer asked him:

How do you explain your ability to stay so young? I mean, you still dance. You’re doing major performances every year. You’re using the most ... the most cutting edge technology-art. How do you do it? [Elizabeth Farnsworth, PBS News Hour]

MC: I get up every morning, and I try to stand up straight, and then I try to bend over. And from that I try to begin. That’s not easy. It’s very hard. But most of all, I think it’s simply about dancing. It’s been what I do all my life. And it’s what interests me. And it remains just as fascinating now as when I began, because I constantly am finding something I don’t know about, so that I try to find some way to deal with that.

So, he seemed to stay so young because he still was. The body aged, but love of life carried on.

Last week, choreographer Margaret Jenkins said “Through him, we discovered the life of the mind, the body, and the heart, in collaboration, in coordination” with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and the Kronos Quartet. He was a paragon of intermodal synergy. Choreographer Chris Black: “The drive to continue to create, especially in such an ethereal, impermanent art form, is extraordinarily inspiring”

Carpe diem!—body be as it may. It wasn’t his body he’d find some “way to deal with” each day; “that” was his “constantly...finding something I don’t know about” and being artistically challenged.

The day after he died, David Vaughn of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, noted:

DV, 7/27: Merce would always be observing the movement of people, animals, birds, whatever it was. I mean, he would get ideas from movement, from things like that.

EF to MC, 1999: It is really a philosophy of life that this is a reflection of it, isn’t it? I mean, being attuned to the very moment, instead of looking at what’s happening next, is that part of what you’re talking about?

MC: Yes, exactly. Yes. You get someplace. In that sense it’s like Zen. You are what you are at the moment of time and space. Okay, now what do you do next? Instead of having planned something, you go by chance, using the chance operation, and it sends you some other place, and you have to figure out how to get there....

DV, 7/27: ...I don’t think he was interested in being an influence, but he always felt that you should do what you needed to do for yourself and not have to follow somebody else’s ideas.

MC, 1999:....in the beginning, there was of course a great deal of opposition to the kind of work I was doing. And I remember sitting one day and thinking, well, I don’t really like what they say, because I think these ideas are part of the world I live in. Now, I may not be working at them very brightly. That’s okay. I could put up with that. But the ideas themselves were fascinating.

EF (voiceover): He often choreographs by chance, throwing dice to decide where a dancer will go, and how. And movements may be independent of any rhythm or theme.

MC: ...Because on the simplest possible level, it opens up things I wouldn’t have thought of. It opens up....And you do what it says, and you find out something you hadn’t thought of before....It can be so complex that it’s almost impossible to decipher it. What it does do for me is if something comes up even that is, you might say it’s physically impossible for humans, okay. But you look at what it is, and you see something else that you can do, which you had not thought of before....narrative dance has never interested me regardless, because I think that movement by itself is so fascinating and that one can experience it directly.

The “ideas themselves are fascinating,” regardless of how brightly one’s seen to yet work with them. Complexity gravitates with possibility and challenge and discovery on the way.

Merce Cunningham was all about the dance of life, endlessly moving.


Cal Performance, 3/5/10 On its Legacy Tour, Merce Cunningham Dance Company in "Sounddance, " March 2011


  Be fair. © 2017, gary e. davis