Marianne Preger-Simon’s memoir Dancing with Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham’s artistic trajectory has always orbited around the uncanny as he conjured dances by the roll of dice and built eerie computer models of dancers sometimes impossible for anyone to live up to. After focusing so keenly on the nonhuman, Cunningham may not have apprehended the unrelenting humanism and tenderness through which he would be remembered. While his work has inspired discussion of accelerated industrialization, a broad cultural gesture toward the digital, and all things that make New York City modern, now Marianne Preger-Simon’s memoir Dancing with Merce Cunningham rescues the conversation about her and fellow artists’ lived experiences from weighty, theoretic explanations of Cunningham that attempt to talk over their dancing. In this memoir, the reader not only is informed of Cunningham’s choreography but also the relationships and community that brought it to life.

Preger describes touring as an original member of the Cunningham Dance Company and how she and her peers endeavored to perform “pure dance,” or movement without a clear narrative or reference: “[Dancers] do what they are taught, in as precise, full, rhythmically accurate a manner as possible … what we dancers contributed was our unique bodies, spirits, and understanding.”

For Preger, Cunningham’s choreography is purely personal. In clear snapshots she fashions a collage of life in the 1950s New York art scene, written with sincere, heartfelt admiration for Cunningham and the once little-known company’s journey to critical renown. And as a memoir of professional maturation, Preger shows how readily she absorbed the advice of her mentors and it is clear that she wants to share everything she gained from their expertise.

Cunningham is centered for the majority of the book, and Preger approaches her subject multiple times in an attempt to catch him off guard or see through his professional demeanor. Preger invites the reader into the games she played with Cunningham and even a moment she tried to flirt with him. Indeed, Cunningham’s humor is present in his work, or at least in the way he discussed his work, and between these pages Preger lets the reader in on the joke. This earnest attempt to know Cunningham provides much of the book’s fulcrum to talk about the past and bring its audience closer, if not to him, then certainly to his artwork.

Merce’s Minutiae (1954) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with Remy Charlip costumes and Robert Rauschenberg set; left to right: Marianne Preger-Simon (on floor), Viola Farber, Carolyn Brown, Karen Kanner (photograph by John G. Ross)

Though this memoir offers more than a portrait of Cunningham, reminiscence of Cunningham intuits a lot of the critical points argued about his work that may make the reader lean in to know more about the past New York art scene. What does Preger mean when she says Cunningham was “essentially physical”? And is that somehow related to her later statement that he would not “mind” the narrative interpretations his audience might project onto primarily abstract choreography? What exactly was Cunningham thinking when Preger first approached him telling him where he could find rehearsal space? Were there any hints of Cunningham’s relationship with John Cage? And what was it like when their relationship became known?

There are never moments when Preger’s account of Cunningham or peers devolves into sophomoric gossip. Even when she recollects private discussions, she is giving us a mature response to a mindful appraisal of how the past shaped her. What the book could use, however, is more of Preger’s interpretation at moments where her perspective is uniquely qualified to make evaluations. This she leaves up to the reader perhaps too often.

In a poetic moment, Preger recounts one of her favorite entrances to a dance, Minutiae, by maneuvering from behind one of Rauschenberg’s first “Combines,” a large, self-standing piece colored a bright orange that signals excitement and hazard. Given Preger’s talent as a storyteller, the greats of American modernism, like the difficult Rauschenberg set, are not much of an obstacle to slide around, take the stage, and melt the intimidating atmosphere surrounding the modern artwork. (The reader learns that the Rauschenberg piece had comics on its non-audience-facing side that Preger would read before her cue.)

With Merce, Dallas, Texas, October 1987 (photograph by Carolyn Brown)

With photos, handwritten postcards, poetry, and diary entries, Preger has crafted a compelling personal narrative that may hopefully lead further discussions on Cunningham — an artist who keeps us, like Preger, continually returning to his work. Dancing with Merce Cunningham is topped-off by a promising afterword by Alastair Macaulay, a leading dance critic who expects to write a book on Cunningham. Though it is troubling to think of dancers’ accounts performing as a mere stepping-stone to acquiring a critical understanding of the artwork, Preger offers a valuable resource to continue studying Cunningham. Still, Preger’s memoir can balance very well on its own, which is to be expected from someone who’s danced for so long.

Dancing with Merce Cunningham by Marianne Preger-Simon was published by the University Press of Florida in March of 2019.

Dillon Heyck is a writer interested in performance, pop culture, and activism. His work has appeared on In Media Res and other publications.