By Jill Johnston
Copyright Jill Johnston 2009
(Originally published in the Village Voice and Art in America and reprinted by permission of the author, whose many milestones include being the first dance critic of the Village Voice – and thus the oracle of Judson. Dance Insider subscribers get access to five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, as well as 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances around the world from 1998 through 2015. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to email@example.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. If the Merce Cunningham Dance Company no longer exists, the Cunningham works “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” previously performed in Paris by the company, “Inlets 2,” and “Beach Birds” will be reprised next May 30 – June 2 at the Theatre National de la Danse Chaillot (across the river from another monument, the Eiffel Tower) by the company of the Centre national de danse contemporaine d’Angers (whose recent directors include the influential Emmanuelle Huynh), featuring veteran Cunningham dancer Ashley Chen. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance .)
It is not easy to see. Outside the theater, living as we do, most of us see very little with our eyes wide open…. It is rare to see more than a general outline. Or to see more and still enter. That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering. Not only crucial but mysterious, so I won’t say any more except to note that I think most people who go to dance concerts don’t see very well, not even dancers, sometimes dancers especially, and most often critics, who must attend special classes in becoming blind.
Mr. Cunningham presented a new dance, “Aeon,” almost 50 minutes long, to a score by John Cage and with decor by Robert Rauschenberg. “Aeon” is a dance of great scale. It moves through so much, in range of quality, physical force, the human condition, that the whole thing is staggering to think of in retrospect. Human events: the activity of dancers on a proscenium stage. Other human events: the ways people communicate with each other, or speak for themselves. Exterior events: explosions, clouds, lights, a machine, sounds. And always the dancing, the superb dancing. The stillness too, which is never a mere choreographic stop, but an act of undaunted containment, of simple yet magnificent composure, of not-being which is the essence of being. A complete act, not a choreographic or dramatic transition.
Cunningham’s own range in this dance is fantastic. Not only those typical sudden shifts from motion to stillness, but the subtle gradations of energy (I have a vivid memory of an ‘incident’ originating as a vibration in the thighs, transferred to the stomach, traveling upward to the arms and shoulders and exploding like a geyser at the top); not to mention all the complicated coordinations, and wordless drama that every movement event secretes.
Cunningham is a great dancer, and you know it not by his technical range and command alone; you feel it in the whole man, the whole man is in it every time. You may see a procession of selves and the man never makes a move not true to himself.
— From “Dance: Cunningham in Connecticut,” The Village Voice, September 7, 1961.
The exclusion of Cunningham this summer, despite the anniversary, despite the fact that Limon is a charter member of the whole affair and that Graham is almost a national monument, is a sad reminder of how impossible it is at any moment in a history of anything for certain (controlling) groups of people to see where a thing is going, to put their fingers on the heartbeat of a movement…. Maybe New London should stick to a museum policy only. In this category they can hardly miss. And Limon and Graham easily command the field where statues are in question. They both have attitudes about themselves and about dancing that have more to do with the glory of Greece and grandeur of Rome than they do with life in America at the present moment.
— From “DANCE: New London,” The Village Voice, August 30, 1962.
The dance world is embarrassingly backward. Cunningham should pack Philharmonic Hall for a week at least. He has no peer in the dance as a consummate artist. Moreover, he continues to be abreast, if not in advance of all recent developments…. Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century…. The curious thing about this kind of dancing is that emotion is created by motion rather than the reverse, which is the traditional view of 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.
— From “DANCE: Cunningham, Limon,” The Village Voice, September 5, 1963.
In the 1980s Cunningham presents a profile of extremes. His iconoclastic approach to choreography (launched in the ’50s in collusion with Cage) — the dance and music co-existing in a common time frame, but otherwise independent of each other; the application of chance procedures to the movement itself; the defocusing of the space in an allover look, no element supposedly more important than another — is still state-of-the-art work. And where Cunningham sees examples of work by younger choreographers in which dance movement is measured in meter, to the music, or in which movement appears to represent anything other than itself, he will characterize it as 19th-century work. Yet in some respects Cunningham himself exhibits 19th-century characteristics. In the ’50s, and even in the ’60s, this 19th-centuryness could hardly have been apparent, if at all, because the deep, or a priori, structure of the work, the gender-given aspect, still went unquestioned, and was therefore invisible.
Conscious gender play has in the meantime entered into the choreographic considerations of a number of younger artists (among them David Gordon, Mark Morris, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs). But Cunningham himself clearly continues not to question this ‘deep structure.’ Most apparent, and most boring, in the range of male/female breaching in his work is the predictable lift. “Roratorio,” with its extensive social partnering, has more than the full complements of lifts to be expected in a Cunningham dance. Again, he inherits this convention from the ballet, yet generally the way his men lift or carry or place or drag his women is much more like a vestigial echo of the ballet than anything resembling the no-nonsense support of the ballerina for the purpose of exposing her line and ‘sex’ and sweeping her through pedestals in the air. Although Cunningham’s manipulations of women are comparatively matter-of-fact, frequently like an afterthought, en passant really, they still appear to affirm, if only perfunctorily, the assumed dependency, weakness, helplessness, etcetera, of women. Certainly, his women remain armless in this way, except in the conventional decorative sense. But Cunningham would no doubt say that lifting is, simply, along with leaps, jumps, turns, etc., part of the raw material of his medium, something that bodies can do on stage, and to which he can apply his chance operations, obtaining the most interesting variations in rhythm and sequence.
“Roratorio,” like all Cunningham’s dance, brims with the most wonderful changes in speed, direction, rhythm, dynamics, groupings, as the whole piece moves stage left to right, in a linear action (not, incidentally, unlike the circular structure of “Finnegans Wake”), finally exiting to the right as the dancers carry off the seven or so stools that accompany them as they traverse the space. But the one variation you won’t find is in the lifting of women. Men always lift women, or “girls,” as Cunningham calls them throughout “The Dancer and the Dance,” the excellent book of interviews with him by Jacqueline Lesschaeve. And these days, no doubt because Cunningham, in his late 60s has lost even a hint of virtuosity in his own dancing (he essentially walks, and gestures), the vigor and expansiveness in his work is all projected through the males in his company.
At one time, say as late as 1972, when Carolyn Brown quit the company, Cunningham’s men and women were at least technically somewhat closer together. He had more mature women dancing with him then, not only technically accomplished (Brown was of prima quality) but with interesting character as well, and he and the men also of course were nearer in age. Now there are great gaps in his demography. He is 67, one of his men is 40, the rest are in their early 30s, and 20s. His men are fun to watch, his women are good, certainly attractive, but only Cunningham, immobile and arthritic as he is, carries the weight of character, of presence, of the necessary eccentric factor, that makes any company great. The general impression is of a marvelous gaunt grandfather tree, craggy and leafless, weathered and patinated, amazing in its knotty configurations, its sheer endurance, sticking way up over a band of brightly colored acorns dancing at the foot of its trunk.
There was a certain perfect reverberation between Cunningham, on stage, and Cage, in his box, in “Roratorio.” Cage delivered his Joyce text like some hoary old poet; Cunningham appeared on stage like some ancient satyr. And the panoply of noise along with the explosion of movement that surrounded them invoked that great line of Thomas: “Do not go gentle….”
— From “Jigs, Japes, and Joyce,” Art in America, January 1987.