Edwin Denby, New York Herald Tribune,
January 29, 1945.
…Mr. Cunningham reminds you that there are pure dance values in
pure modern technique. He is a virtuoso, relaxed, lyrical, elastic
like a playing animal. He has an instinct for a form that makes
its point by repetition, each repetition being a little different,
and the phrasing of each difference exceptionally limpid. He has
a variety of drive and speed which phrases his dances, and better
still an improvisatory naturalness of emphasis which keeps his gesture
from looking stylized or formalized.
The kind of elastic physical rhythm he has strikes me as something
peculiarly American, and it is delicately supported by the elastic
phrases of John Cage’s music. But Cunningham’s stage
character is still too cautious to carry a solo program…A
serious solo program calls for more risks in expression. Amiable
popularizers like the trio don’t lead you to expect much of
a risk. Cunningham does, by his poetic style, by his brilliant
gifts. There is no reason why he shouldn’t develop into a
Doris Hering, Dance Magazine, February 1954.
"Collage" proved far more interesting than the other
group composition-by-chance called "Suite by Chance."
This nihilistic excursion used something called "For Magnetic
Tape" by Christian Wolff. To a series of silences and squeals
that set the teeth on edge, Mr. Cunningham and his group meandered
about unrelated to each other and unrelated to the audience. It
was an ordeal.
It was hard to believe that such aimlessness could come from the
same person who created (yes, by those old conventional means) a
suite of dances called "Septet." Performed to Satie’s
lovely musical arabesques…the dance flowed gently through
seven idealizations of human bodies in rhythmed play…
A dance like this ["Dime a Dance"], or the effervescent
“Banjo” reveal Mr. Cunningham to be so fertile in movement
invention that one cannot help but wonder why he bothers with choreographing
on fly specks or rolls of dice. After all, art is not a game, but
an act of revelation.
Jill Johnston, The Village Voice, 1963.
The curious thing about this kind of dancing is that emotion is
created by motion rather than the reverse, which is the traditional
view in modern dance. But since there is no specified emotion,
I believe that what you feel in the movement is the impact of a
total action. Each movement means only itself and it moves you
by its pure existence, by being so much itself. It is Cunningham’s
magic as a performer to make every action a unique and complete
experience. The gesture is the performer; the performer is the
gesture. In response or in motion the quality and the man appear
indivisibly, with the concentrated potency of complete confidence
in the fact of a movement or the fact of a silence.
Edwin Denby. Dance Perspectives,
From the start Merce was an extraordinary dramatic dancer with
a very special and a very large dramatic imagination, and there
hasn’t been anybody like him since in that particular field…
As far as his technique and his technical inventions are concerned,
they are very interesting and I think that they are generally understood
now though they weren’t for a long time. I have felt that
by avoiding the drama out of which Martha Graham made her pieces,
he discovered lyric aspects of dance that were much lighter than
any that were discovered by people who were closer to Martha. And
as he was doing this—as he was inventing this kind of abstract,
non-coherent, non-logically coherent, non-narrative piece—he
also invented the technical basic stance (out of which to dance)
which gave him and company freedom of movement that was very difficult
in the early Martha Graham kind of movement at the time when he
was in her company…When Merce found a similar basic stance
it wasn’t, I think, through her as much as through his own
sense of where the body feels able to move and finding the place
in which the body can move in any direction at any speed, without
hesitation, without stammering.
Marcia B. Siegel, “Come in Earth. Are you There?,”
1970. In At the Vanishing Point (New York: Saturday Review
Press/E.P. Dutton, 1972).
Never to my knowledge has Merce Cunningham given an “interpretation”
of any of his dances, nor do any of his associates. They will talk
about the movement, what it is like, how it was made, what chance
operations were used in putting it together, but they won’t divulge
the message or even the mood, as if it wasn’t their business to
be concerned with those things. Since I have no reason to believe
that Cunningham and his people are either so naïve as to be
unaware that they are always creating some kind of theater event,
or so cagey as to pretend that they are not, I can only assume that
they are deliberately maintaining their neutrality. There is in
their attitude a certain fatalistic cheerfulness; they intend to
do their job no matter what goes on around them. If every member
of the audience has a different idea of what they’re doing, or if
the stage environment changes, still the integrity of their own
task is constant. You can imagine them completing their appointed
rounds in the dark, or if a dancer were injured or the theater were
Nevertheless, a Cunningham dance is a theatrical entity, especially
in contrast to the work of some younger choreographers who have
distilled his theories into more austere and concentrated forms.
Judith Dunn uses nonsequential movement, Yvonne Rainer stresses
the simultaneous, antiemotional quality of events, and Twyla Tharp
turns chance operations into mathematical monotony. None of these
choreographers uses other theater elements to the extent Cunningham
does, and where their work seems cold and abstract, his takes on
a dramatic life that he apparently neither dictates nor denies.
The audience does have to find its own specific metaphors and relationships,
but each piece usually has an overall sensibility that is apparent
Arlene Croce, “The Avant-Garde on Broadway,” 1969.
In Afterimages (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977).
|Video clip from Walkaround Time. (Caution:
Walkaround Time doesn’t
as they say, ‘work.’ I took it as one of Cunningham’s
lesser projects in demystifying Art. It has something to do with
a Jasper Johns assemblage (which is assembled only in the last minute
by the dancers, after they’ve used it as environmental décor)
based on the Marcel Duchamp construction called The Large Glass—which
Duchamp himself quit work on because it bored him. There’s a curious
solo for the choreographer in which, not quite hidden from the audience,
he removes and re-dons all his outer clothing while running in place.
After a while, the lived-in look of the piece becomes not so much
a comment on the commonplace as an expression of it—and that includes
the Victor Borge-like joke in the middle.
Jennifer Dunning, “Dance: Merce Cunningham Troupe,”
New York Times, March 12, 1984, Page C12.
The range of things people see in Mr. Cunningham’s uncluttered
choreography is intriguing, from hints of emotional relationships
to mundane daily chores. His gray, churning “Canfield”
once reminded an audience member of watching laundry go through
the wash cycle. Mr. Cunningham’s “Channels/Inserts,”
created in 1981 for film, is a goofy romp for all its abstruse arithmetical
ordering. And to see the dancers trotting, flailing and sprinting
up in the air and across the stage, dressed in Charles Atlas’s
bright, scruffy sweaters and tights, conjures up images of the load
Anna Kisselgoff, “A Live and Digital Tapestry of Interwoven
Movements,” New York Times, April 6, 2001, Section
E, page 3.
Spectacular was the word for "Biped," Merce Cunningham's
haunting mixed-media production at Lincoln Center Festival two years
ago, and spectacular it remains at City Center, where it was performed
on Wednesday night.
Here is one of the visionary masterpieces of our time; its riveting
full-bodied choreography is carved out of a mysterious space in
which live dancers interact with digitally created animated figures
projected on two scrims. For all its ghostliness, the piece gleams
with the passion of human encounters.
John Rockwell, “A Delayed Surrender
To an Irresistible Art,” New York Times, August 11, 2002,
Section 2, page 6.
What I began to like about Merce's dances was the abstraction,
but I took him at his word when he said, in interviews, that the
impetus behind them—and hence the preferred mode of contemplating
them—was purely formal. One looked at a Cunningham dance like one
looked at a Pollock painting, or maybe more appropriately a Rauschenberg
painting or collage. I enjoyed doing this, and I loved some of his
But then things shifted again, and for me—not for others, who got
there long before—the shift began when I saw "Ocean" in
the Netherlands in 1994. A fishy dance, performed in the round with
a blue-green ambiance and 112 musicians surrounding the audience
and making mournful tones (a Cageian concept realized by Andrew
Culver), with electronic sounds by David Tudor that could sound
like the putt-putt of an outboard motor, it seemed as abstract as
ever but underlaid with irrefutable ichthyic and human subtexts.
I loved it so much that I presented it in Damrosch Park two years
later. I had begun now to see Merce's work as implicitly (never
explicitly) humanist, a kind of fleeting drama of ever evolving,
ever newly intersecting characters and combinations. Not that all
of the dances could be so interpreted; Merce has always engaged
in more strictly formal or virtuosic experiments, like the new "Loose
Time" that was on both Lincoln Center programs this summer.
Or they still seem strictly formal to me; perhaps one day I'll perceive
their humanist subtext, too.