Art

A Letter to Merce Cunningham

Dear Merce Cunningham,

Some years ago I took a beginners class at your West Village studio and it kicked my ass. Although the steps weren’t so far off from classical ballet, which I’ve studied for many years, I felt awkward and uncoordinated dancing in the center of the space, not totally sure of what I was doing. Yet I wanted to get it. I wanted to master that elusive balance of precise movement, power and rhythm that I always admired about your work.

Now as your company comes to a close this winter, I have been on the look out for all things Merce. Wanting to understand you better and hoping that I could still understand you even after you have passed, I visited Charles Atlas’s video tribute to you now at the New Museum not just once, but twice.

Installation view of Charles Atlas's "Joints Array" (2011) now on view at the New Museum (all photos by the author)

The first time I saw “Joints Array,” I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed, and slightly creeped out. In the narrow lobby gallery of the New Museum over 25 TV’s, large and small, some stacked on top of each other, others standing on tables or poles, display a running video of fragments of your body. Your elbows, ankles, wrists, hands and knees twitch and snap to a score of loud street traffic by your partner-in-crime and avant-garde composer, John Cage. These pieces of your dancer’s body, struggling it seems to escape from the small monitors that hold them, reminded me of body parts stuck in laboratory jars. It was a harsh, alienating experience that Cage’s grating music did nothing to alleviate. I wondered where was the movement, the dance? Could a work that chops you up into several TV screens really be an honest tribute to the whole body and person that was you?

Charles Atlas, "Joints Array" (2011)

But then I went back, this time with a friend who used to dance in your company over 30 years ago and was the person who converted me to all things Cunningham. She saw things a bit differently than I did. She explained to me that she would study every inch of your body in class, trying to figure out how you were able to move the way you did. She explained to me that the Cunnigham technique, unlike so many other types of dance that narrate a story or an emotion, was about pure movement and sound, nothing else. Like the abstract works by artists of the New York School of Painting, many of whom you collaborated with including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, your work was paired down to the core of dance and to the simplicity of a body moving in space.

The dancer's body: A close-up of Cunningham's wrist

From that perspective, Atlas’s piece is very true to you. Atlas was, after all, another close Cunningham collaborator who along with you was an early innovator of “mediadance,” dance created specifically for the camera that expresses the time-based properties of film through movement.

I did begin to see Atlas’ meticulous documentation of your movement as an intimate, even loving, portrait. During my second visit Cage’s music also seemed calmer. It became ambient noise, transporting me to the places — streets, parks, rooftops — where Atlas recorded you that appear in the corners of the frame.

A visitor studies the body of Merce Cunningham

“Joints Array” may be hard for those who didn’t know you well to fully appreciate, as it was for me initially. Yet it is very Merce (if you don’t mind me saying so), and most importantly, a piece of you that will remain even as the chance to see live Cunningham dance slips through our fingers.

With admiration,

— Liza

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“Joints Array” will be on view at the New Museum (235 Bowery, New York, NY) until August 28.

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