Monday, March 14, 2011

Packaging History

“Oh!” I gasp, out loud, at my desk (at my day job—and, yes, even this artist still has a day job—watch out for a post about juggling personal economic and artistic priorities at some point in the future—Isadora would have loads to say about that state of affairs for artists…)—“What happened,” my boss/co-worker/office-mate, asks. “Did someone die?”

Bass Concert Hall, Austin, TX
Well yes, but—not exactly. I mean, it has been over a year since Merce Cunningham died. And my gasp wasn’t expressing shock and fear. It was excitement (and hope). I knew the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was coming to Austin, and I had urged my Austin Community College modern dance students to go. It was, after all, a historic event. And dance historian is part of who I am. But, I had a work meeting that night—and I had thought about it, but hadn’t yet broached the subject of asking to be excused so that I could see a dance concert. And here was an email from a friend telling me she had an extra ticket.

Thankfully, my day job is in the arts, and my boss, who is also an art historian, told me that I had to go. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour—in Austin for one night only. What a layered concept—a legacy tour. You probably know that in order to avoid the chaos and conflict that erupted over the rights to perform Graham’s work after her death, Cunningham decided that, after his passing, his company would embark on a final tour of his works for a period of two years and then disband—forever.

What a bizarre mode of reception, as an audience member, to sit and watch a dance concert, acutely aware of the historicity of the event? Kind of like seeing a ghost—these bodies, on this stage, trained by Merce, dancing these works for the last time. Tracing patterns through space, with rhythmic variation, highly tuned to the other bodies onstage, organisms operating as parts of a whole.

I’ve never been comfortable with how Cunningham’s creative legacy intellectually stimulates me. As an undergraduate theatre student at Yale, we created works based on chance as an exercise in our study of Cunningham and John Cage. The elements of serendipity and unpredictability inherent in that process excite me. I suppose that is the part of me that embraces improvisation as art and craft.

Two of Duncan’s most profound contributions to modern dance are the element of spontaneity (within craft) and the argument that dance, as an art form, can and should stand on its own two feet—that dance is an art in its own right and not subservient to the music, which partners it. As famous as Duncan is for her musicality, she also experimented with, but rarely performed, dance in silence.

And yet, Cunningham’s creative approach has always seemed a bit cold in its mathematical purity. As a dancer, I move in response to internal impulse—I found my home for artistic creation and expression in Duncan’s technique and repertory because there is a reason to move and movement follows a rhythmic cadence, or wave rhythm, and it is intimately related to the music. We don’t count in Duncan dance—in learning and teaching the choreographies, we sing instead. Once you learn the music for a Duncan dance, you never forget the movements. The music and the dance are simply audible and kinesthetic expressions of the same impulse, the same thought.

And yet, even if Cunningham’s processes seem more mechanized, here are his thoughts, his movement impulses, etched through space on this stage, with these living, breathing (at times audibly) bodies. For the last time. Except that is not quite the case—the company will be disbanded, but the rights to the dances will be maintained by a trust, and they will continue to license and set the works. So even in this final transition—this passing from life to death to legend, Cunningham has carefully crafted how his work will move from living art form to historical artifact.

What if Duncan had done this? What if Duncan had mandated that “dance capsules” be made of her works and that her artistic legacy was to be carefully controlled? Thank goodness this was not the case! Although as Duncan dancers, we are still fighting for historians and dance professionals to understand and respect the technique and craftswomanship underpinning Duncan’s work, thank goodness she didn’t seek to control the final reception of her gesture.

Duncan’s dance is entwined with the initial impulse to move, but it does not control the landing—such a tough concept for mechanically trained dancers to embrace. The line in the dance is very specific, but it is the result of the movement, not the product of willfully executed intention. There is an element of letting go—and in that space, that softening at the solar plexus predicated by the exhale—that is where freedom lives. And thank goodness that element of Duncan dance, both technical and metaphorical, is not encapsulated in an historic moment, but expansive, vibrant, and very much relevant nearly a century after her time. I wonder, what will be the impact of Cunningham’s work, a hundred years from today?