Merce Cunningham: Moved by the Music of Our Time
FRANK J. OTERI: Now this raises the whole question of possibility and what’s possible and this goes back to the thing you were saying at the very beginning of this conversation—the 19th-century linear versus now and this multiplicity of events. It’s very interesting to me that the audience for serious dance seems to be much more willing and open to new ideas than the audience for serious music. Why is that?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: I can’t give you any real reason, but my feeling is the multiplicity of the television in the last four years; it’s grown more complex. People’s eyes now accept something out of television, so that that can be transferred to seeing something in the theater. But mostly it’s quite true, most of the time in the theater they go back because the theater itself is framed, but we have done so many of our things, these events in unconventional circumstances. We’ll do two next month in France which will be a round stage with the audience around it. And I’ve found always with those the public. They may be puzzled because it took them long to begin to see what’s going on and to make some decision about it. But I think very strongly that we live in a really visual atmosphere; we have to take in so many different things at once. No, I don’t think it’s a question of like or dislike, but I do think—and of course I’m thinking of New York, of course, primarily—but the dancers, one of the whole things in contemporary dance is the variety: the kinds of things they use, the kinds of steps or whatever you want to call it they use for dance, and it isn’t limited to a form we already know, or even a technique we know. We can devise another one and all of that, I think, is part of the heart of the minute changes in the visual atmosphere.
FRANK J. OTERI: You, more than anyone in our history have been responsible for more pieces of new music for dance.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes, we’ve commissioned… (laughs) Well, I go back to the same thing. I like to work with contemporary visual artists, same thing with composers, because they are a part of the world we live in. They are thinking, however they are, in the ways that are related in someway to the way that contemporary life is and it’s—whether it’s a good or a bad idea, I don’t care—it’s only because it’s what is interesting. What am I’m making in this kind of dance? What kind of music does this composer do? Our most recent piece was, it’s a dance called Loose Time which we did at Berkeley and it has music by Christian Wolff and fortunately he’s going to be with us when we do it at Lincoln Center on that 50th anniversary…
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to ask you a question that you might not want to answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway: Has there ever been any music that you have used in a dance that you actually didn’t like?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: There have been some things—very few actually—where I realized what the composer was doing and I liked it in itself, but for various reasons I don’t think it would work with any kind of dance. Well, that’s just an impression of mine. But the music itself—I won’t say what it was…
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, no. That’s fine.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: But I think it’s really been and I must say I was fortunate with Cage because of his, not only his own music, but his perception about what contemporary music can be in many ways, not simply from his own point of view. We’re presenting, on Thursday, a piece back from 1960 with music from Conlon Nancarrow and at that time nobody in the United States knew who Conlon Nancarrow was. Well, John happened to hear tapes of his music through someone at the New York Music Library and he thought it would work well for a dance, so I listened. I thought it was wonderful. So we were among the first people to play that here. And now, of course, Conlon’s music is known by many people.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Nigel Redden spoke of, “Well, it’s your 50th anniversary, it’s about history.” And I ordinarily am prone to do new pieces, of course, and ones that are closer to around now, so to speak. But he said, no, he’d like something about history. So we thought about it. We decided, talking to everyone about it, that we would try to use something from various times. So the dances don’t come in this order on the program, but the oldest one is Suite for Five from 1956, which has music by John, music for piano and the original costumes were by Robert Rauschenberg. Then the next one is 1965, called How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run. It comes from a different time; it’s a different kind of dance and the music is, was John Cage and David Vaughan reading stories from Indeterminacy and now it will be David Vaughan and myself reading. And that’s a different kind of dance. It comes from a different period. Then the next one is Pictures which I think was late ’84 and that has music by David Behrman and the costumes and set were by Mark Lancaster. And then one other one is Loose Time, well, Loose Time you know, but the other one is Fabrications from the late ’80s with music by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta and costumes by Dove Bradshaw. In other words, they tried to bring something from each period and [dancer] Robert Swinston, who’s done an enormous amount of work to bring them back…
FRANK J. OTERI: How did you reconstruct the older pieces? This is before you used Life Forms…
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: …Before video even!
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, we have one misty tape of Suite. [laughs] And then the help of the mind memory and then I had some notes which I can’t find and Caroline Brown, who was in it, is helping us greatly with a lot of her memory. We’re getting it. Not entirely but we’ll have a piece. It’s a suite for dance. Pictures we have tapes and we remember, it’s closer than some people even realize. And so it works that way, but the worst thing is, you know, if you don’t have some misty video, which is the only thing you have, and some of my hastily written notes, which are impossible to decipher and then dancers’ memories, which they think are accurate, but they’re often not—but together all those, looking at photographs, you put it together and I think that between what Robert is doing and the rest, we’re getting them back the way they were. Now, they’re not the same because those are not the same dancers, but these dancers are doing those dances, these dances in the way they would do them now. Not that we’ve changed anything, but they are different dancers. That’s part of life, anyway… It almost amazes me with Swan Lake, they say this is a revival and this is exactly what it was, but the costumes are not, the décor doesn’t come from 1870.
FRANK J. OTERI: I guess that’s ultimately what makes dance always the most open to the new: the fact that it is about the people that are doing it at the time.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: That’s right, and the way they do it, the way that each person does it. Yes.
FRANK J. OTERI: This has been a wonderful afternoon, it feels like it’s July even thought it’s April.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes, but we can see the river from here!
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, it’s a building, which was, of course, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and then they moved, I guess just after the war, they moved to New Jersey and so the building was left. And so, what do you do with it? Somebody decided that it could be housing for artists. David Vaughan read about it and said maybe there would be a space we could claim, because we had to move from where we were. We came over here and I think the elevator went to the tenth floor and then we had to put on hard hats and come up here and they were constructing. But I saw immediately it could work. So we did what we had to do to change it and moved in, and we’ve been here ever since.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow! Over 20 years?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I think we came in the ’70s. It was when all of this was being changed. That took years, of course, going through government officials.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a really unique spot, there’s a great view of the Hudson…
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Oh, that part is wonderful. It’s changed, of course, even these buildings weren’t there so the view of downtown was really quite extraordinary with the Statue of Liberty. If you go out further you can still see it.
FRANK J. OTERI: This will be put on the Web in July, so it’s somehow appropriate.