Merce Cunningham: Moved by the Music of Our Time

The Meaning of Dance

FRANK J. OTERI: You have been a very significant figure in the history of American music, not only because of all of the composers you’ve worked with, but also because your ideas about dance have had a universal impact on all of the arts. But it is often difficult for non-dancers and for people who do not follow dance to fully understand what dance means.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, the meaning lies in the action and movement. You can describe things in it, particular things, but you usually have to form it in words to somebody beforehand or after you have referred to it. And as regards meaning, my meaning is in the actual movement. Not necessarily referring to something or being tied to something in any way, but simply by what it does on its own steam. In a sense that’s the way I’ve worked for a lot of years.

FRANK J. OTERI: So in essence that’s very similar to the way many composers refer to their music; it exists on its own terms.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: It exists as sound. A sound and many different kinds of sounds can be utilized and in that same sense many different kinds of movement could be utilized depending how you feel about them. But those are possibilities.

FRANK J. OTERI: Your career now spans over half a century, do you feel there’s been a change in how audiences perceive things?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, yes. Not necessarily huge but I think it’s not just the way they’ve come to look at what we do, I think it’s in the society itself. We perceive things differently, I think. There can be multiple connections, rather than single connections, that you can see. For us primarily audiences in Europe in the last 30 years have been—not particularly in France, it’s quite remarkable in a way. In the beginning, they, in traditional French style, they threw things. As soon as the lights went down they all said wonderful things. [laughs] But we kept returning thanks to our presenter and liaison in Paris and we have played all over France, not simply Paris. Multiple cities. And I think in a sense that could be true any place. I don’t mean just for us. With visual art, you see a painting and it doesn’t strike you or you think it doesn’t look like something or whatever, you know you have the chance to look at it for a long time and you may come back or you may just see it by chance. But with dance, you see it once and it passes in front of you and your impressions are made by what you remember about other dances and your impressions about dance anyway. And then if the dance is not in a familiar form and the music is not familiar and it’s something outrageous, then it’s different for a person to put all of that together himself or herself. But I think it’s about looking: to look at the dance and to just keep looking, that’s what it’s about.

FRANK J. OTERI: In a way, dance is the most human of all art forms because it involves actual people.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: [laughs] Yes, it involves people moving around. You’re quite right. I’ve never thought of it as not being human! I don’t think of abstract things. I think movement is human behavior. It may be in an unfamiliar way, but it’s still humans doing it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well you once said something that I found quite remarkable. You said, “Life is basically movement.”

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, if all life is movement and art is part of life, then all art—the painter’s brushstroke, the writer writing a poem, someone bowing a violin, or playing a piano—that’s all dance.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, it is movement, you’re quite right, and it is movement that could be utilized as dance maybe. It could be movement not necessarily that is referring, but movement that a human can do, but then you’ve changed the rhythms so it wouldn’t look like you were playing the violin. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: So, does it become dance when it’s conscious movement?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Perhaps. One of the things you see in it too is that for no reason at all, all of a sudden, dancing, it’s not formal dance but it has a kind of dance quality about it. And it’s not to music necessarily. I get that it simply becomes through the way they do it as something you could perceive as dancing. So for me it broadens the kind of sense or range that one thinks of as dance.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, opposite kind of question: Is there any kind of movement that isn’t dance?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: You could say that. [laughs] It would be perfectly possible. If you could of course do it.

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