Presidential Lecture Series
Merce Cunningham
John Rockwell
Stanford Humanities Center
  Selected Reviews

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 great dancer.

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 DenbyDance Perspectives, Summer 1968. 

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 in flames.

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 to everyone.

limelines separator

Arlene Croce, “The Avant-Garde on Broadway,” 1969.  In Afterimages (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977). 

Video clip from Walkaround Time. (Caution: large file!)

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.

limelines separator

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 in spin-dry.

limelines separator

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.

limelines separator

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 dancers…

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.

limelines separator

Stanford University Libraries ©2005.

All images, video clips and incidental art © and used by permission of
The Cunningham Dance Foundation.


Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University