This is a meditation on what drew me so powerfully to choreographer Merce Cunningham. They say that some people understand life in the moment, while others need a good distance in order to see the full picture. This essay places me decidedly into the second camp. The wait may be long, but the vista gains in perspective.
To me, choreographer Merce Cunningham represents a daring detachment from the support lines we cling to: narrative, connection to music and scenic design, taste, and preference. By ripping away every support, Merce gave himself the opportunity to ‘peer into the void’ and see what remained.
Of course, the joke is that after removing all the major supports, the connections to music and set design, taste and preference were still there. It was a neat magic trick: make the quarter disappear and – Voila! – here it is, coming out of your ear!
Perhaps stories, connections, preferences are part of the human condition. But Merce did the brave thing. He cut the ties, so he could discover the ties that remained.
In effect, he asks: “What is essential after any possible extraneous trappings have been stripped away?” Merce’s choreography was the ultimate reductive art, and his definition of dance reflects that: “Dance is movement in time and space,” nothing more, and nothing less.
I was immensely drawn to Merce – drawn enough to spend three years working for the Cunningham Dance Foundation (I worked there in the late 80’s/early 90’s, first as Assistant to Archivist David Vaughan, then Office Manager, and finally Assistant to the Executive Director), drawn enough to spend my spare time watching rehearsals and performances, drawn enough to volunteer to go on tour with the company to California and Washington, DC.
Merce presented me with a stubborn mystery. I sensed that he had something that I needed, yet I could not crack the riddle. Was it the life of the artist he had created for himself? Was the answer in the work itself? Was it in the theory of his work? Was the puzzle about dance, or about life?
Today, my answer lies in one word: “Courage.”
I was drawn to his example of a human being that dared to cut all ties to what had gone before. Even more, I was excited by his mission to actively seek the unknown, to purposefully strategize new techniques with the specific goal of encouraging the appearance of that “fleeting moment when you feel alive,” as Merce put it, that feeling of something new fresh, non-habitual.
I remember how thrilled Merce was when he pushed his dancers to try something new in rehearsal, to lunge further than they thought they were capable of, to try an unlikely combination of footwork, torso and arms. He relished that moment of newness, even awkwardness. No, he chased after it. Once a dancer had mastered a new movement, it lost that moment of wonder, that moment when the fabric of the mundane world cracked open for an instant to reveal a glimpse of mystery. Once the moment yielded that ‘juice,’ then Merce was ready to move on to the next discovery.
Merce ventured into the unknown. He made friends with it. He invited it into his work, and it gave his work its greatness. He wrote his own script and, gradually, his life took shape around him, rather than him conforming to what life had presented him with.
(Remember that he started his professional career in the Martha Graham Company. As he pioneered his art, many an early, derisive headline begged “Have Mercy, Merce!” Yes “It takes courage to be a choreographer” as Merce said in his last interview with Alastair Macauley. Gradually audiences, reviewers and supporters came around until Merce was the center of a dance company, foundation and school, all dedicated to facilitating his creative output.)
Like the anecdote about Rabbi Zusia, who on his deathbed told his followers that he was not afraid that his Maker would ask why he was not more like Moses or Abraham, but rather, “why he was not more fully Zusia?”; Merce was fully Merce.
I needed that example. Like a turtle, peering out from deep within its shell, I watched and tried to understand what I was seeing.
So this is what it is like to live unafraid. So when you let go the strings and supports holding you up, you do not fall. Instead, you rise! The strings and supports might have been holding you up, but they also might be holding you back.
Merce designed his own life and his own art form more completely than anyone I have ever met, except perhaps his one-time partner and frequent collaborator John Cage, who I also had the privilege to meet and spend time with. They radiated joy. They, more than most, lived in that “fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
Pir-O-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan says in Bowl of Saki, “Whatever your life’s pursuit – art, poetry, sculpture, music, whatever your occupation might be – you can be as spiritual as clergy, always living a life of praise.” Merce lived his art as devotedly as any monk, and, to my eyes, he reached a level of attainment that is a model not just of a choreographer, but of a self-actualized human being.
Today, many years later, I begin to understand. I am beginning to come out of my shell. I am cutting the ties and supports, letting go my past, only to see a new story emerging, one less dependent upon the narratives of others, and more intrinsic to who I am. I don’t need to be more like Merce, but I do need to be more fully ‘Reba.’
I was privileged to know Merce. I am grateful to him, and I also thank my younger self, who 20 years ago followed a mystery and constructed my life to be near someone who inspired me, even if I did not yet understand why.
Slow and steady wins the race. For this turtle, the answers are finally starting to come.
Reba Linker is author and coach specializing in inspirational books for women. Her book, Follow the Yarn, leads by example, daring and encouraging others to ‘follow their own yarn,’ tell their own stories, and discover their own true voice.
Author’s Note: I wish to thank Lynn Wichern, Executive Director of the Merce Cunningham Trust, for her kind assistance with photographs for this post.