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[[ July 24 - , 2002, Lincoln Center, New York City ]]
Merce Cunningham 50 Years
Alicia Zuckerman interviews Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham, now 83, is one of the most creative minds in dance. Half a century ago, he was the lone choreographer among a band of avant-garde collaborators, among them composers John Cage, David Tudor, and Morton Feldman, and visual artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. Seated on a wooden bench in the lobby of his studio in New York City's West Village, he discussed discovering technology, chance, and his six decades as a New Yorker. This week, his company's 50th anniversary season launches with a work from each decade at the Lincoln Center Festival 2002.
AZ You're credited with being the first major choreographer to use digital technology. How did that all start?
MC Over ten years ago, a friend had told me about a system called Lifeforms. I looked at it and thought immediately, "Oh, this is something to investigate." I didn't know anything about a computer at all. I would fumble around and crash everything. But I thought, "Well, it doesn't matter, I don't know anything so I'm not making mistakes." And finally I began to get a little, very little, facility. I remember the day that one of the dancers got what I was trying to show. I thought: "It works! If one gets it, we can all get it."
AZ What kind of computer do you use?
MC A Macintosh G4 laptop.
AZ How does the program Lifeforms work?
MC In Lifeforms, you have 3 screens. One is a stage grid. It looks like a checkerboard on which you can put figures. The second one is a timeline. I think it's based on camera time, 30 frames per second, so it's visual timing. The third one, which is the one most used by me, is the figure editor, on which you have a figure which looks like ... As John Cage said, "It looks like a dancer." So you move that figure on the timeline.
AZ How much of your work now would you say you do using Lifeforms?
MC It may even be close to 50 percent. It takes a long time, but part of that might be me.
AZ Did you catch any flack for using computers in your choreography?
MC Oh, yes. But they said that about the typewriter, they said that about the automobile, and about the movies. Well, from my point of view, it seems foolish. I hated typewriters because if you misspelled a word you had to always go back and erase it. Here you just go back and spell check (laughs). When people got on point, you know, everyone thought that was incredibly unnatural. But there's no question that this is where is it has to go, simply because of the fact that like computers, dance is visual. You look at it! When I saw Lifeforms, I said, "Well, it's visual. Working with a computer is just like working with dance." You do a lot of it through your eyes when you're operating in space. You're looking. It's not about how long it is, but about what the dancers are doing.
AZ Did your older works, your chance works, tie into technology at all?
MC With chance operations you're not so much dealing with technology as with one of the oldest ideas in history, the Book of Changes, the Chinese book. (The I Ching.) So fascinating that you can tell your fortune. But the fortune is for the moment you do it, at that point in time and that point in space. Well, that's dance for me in a way, because it's at this moment in this space that you're doing this. The next moment you're in another space in another time doing something else. So using chance has simply broadened the way I might think about how people could move.
AZ You've always been very interested in making visuals and music important elements of your dances. But often these elements only come together for the first time in performance. Can you talk about that?
MC The principle is that because these are three independent arts -- the dance, the music, and the visual -- they could be combined in a way that they come together as independent elements and produce something out of it that no one would have thought of. People say to me, "well, does it always work?" That's actually to me a rather foolish question. Does anything always work? It works for me simply because I find out something that I didn't know about before.
AZ That's a philosophy that you could use in all aspects of life.
MC Well, that's what it is about (laughs). You can toss a coin as to whether you should cross a street or not. The only trouble is that during that tossing you might be too late. And John Cage said that he didn't really use chance when he looked for mushrooms (laughs).
AZ You spent the years 1939 - 1945, the war years, dancing with Martha Graham. What was that like?
MC The Graham company at that time was in no sense the way dance companies now are supported one way or another. One simply wanted to be there. I had studied her technique at summer dance school at Mills where I met Graham. And she said, "If you come to New York, I'll put you in a piece. " I said,"I'll come."
AZ How old were you?
MC I was just barely 20 and I came to New York. And I loved New York from the minute I stepped on it. I knew this was home. It has never changed. All the troubles, all the difficulties, and you can name thousands of them, New York remains an extraordinary place. You walk down one street and it's like being every place in the world. And I liked being on the stage with her (Graham) enormously. There was something about her when you were performing with her. We really were together. And I'm remembering it, it's a strong feeling about her that when she was on the stage with people, she was on the stage with them.
AZ Is it hard now, not to be dancing, not to be onstage?
MC Yes, I love being onstage. It's home. It's so familiar. I miss also not being able to move freely because of my various infirmities. But it doesn't stop me from figuring things out. One of the handicaps in a way is how I translate it to the dancers. But they hold on (laughs), they look puzzled, and then I do it again (laughs), so that we really manage, I think.
AZ Is choreographing different now that you're not executing all of the movements yourself?
MC It's different. In a way it's the same because you're looking for movement. So I find other ways to look for movement. But it is different because I can't show it as clearly, so I talk more. I used to think dancers shouldn't talk, you should just do it, but then I realized now I can't do that. So I find ways to explain it more. We work together.
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