Reshuffling the Deck: Merce Cunningham Performs at the Wortham Center

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Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Photo by Tony Dougherty

The logic of one event coming as responsive to another seems inadequate now. We look at and listen to several at once. For dancing it was all those words about meaning that got in the way. Right now,
they are broken up.
do not
we have
to shuffle
and deal
them out
-Merce Cunningham, Changes, 1968

Merce Cunningham, master of change and chance, altered the terrain of modern dance forever. If Martha Graham is the mother of modern dance, Cunningham is the rebellious child. Cunningham was a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1939-1945. But, by 1952, when Cunningham launched his first dance company, no trace of Graham could be found. Clearly, Cunningham paved the way for post modern dance.

His early experiences in the I Ching grounded the role of chance in his work, which, some 200 pieces later, is still active. Employing chance gave Cunningham a way to override habit and create fresh relationships between movement, music, and visual art.

I came of age as a dancer when Cunningham technique was the mainstay in training. Its emphasis on uprightness and mathematical structure appealed to my preference of artifice- free dance. Cunningham freed dance from the confines of story, narrative structure, meaning, and reliance on music. A generation of choreographers, including myself, benefited from this particular set of freedoms. Dance was finally free to be itself. Many things can happen all at once. Even the viewer was freed from the sometimes difficult task of “figuring it all out.”

Cunningham may well be considered the greatest living choreographer, if not artist, of our time. I’m not alone in that opinion; Cunningham has won almost every major award including the National Medal of the Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, and a MacAurthur Fellowship. No other artist has embraced technology, chance, and uncertainty like Cunningham. He set the standard for experimentation at every front in dance.

He began collaborating with new music legend, John Cage, in 1944. Their personal and professional relationship continued until Cage’s death in 1992. He’s collaborated with the giants of abstract art including Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns. Cunningham calls the set element of his work, “décor.”

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), on their 4th Society for the Performing Arts visit to Houston, will be performing two seminal works in Houston. Ground Level Overlay (1995) and Split Sides (2004). These two works provide a perfect entry into Cunningham’s world for any dance lover. There’s no one way to look at a Cunningham dance. A complex layering of movement, music, décor, and costume creates a dynamic whole. There is no message—only a rich and varied experience.

The first work on the program, Ground Level Overlay was developed using DanceForms, a computer choreography tool Cunningham began using in 1991. DanceForms was developed by a joint project between the computer science and dance departments at Simon Fraser University. Choreographer and computer scientist, Thecla Schiphorst, tutored Cunningham on the program and he has been using it successfully ever since.

DanceForms makes the work even more rhythmically and technically complex as the program is capable of making movements that dancers cannot actually do. The dancers need ample time to get the movement into their bodies. “DanceForms 1.0 is both a powerful choreographic tool, and an interesting device for archiving movement phrases (or even entire dances). It presents the moving body in a built domain whose possibilities are limitless, and this challenges dancers to extend their movement potential to incredible virtuosity. It has deeply influenced the way that Merce builds movement, and the way that his dancers locomote through space,” states Cunningham dancer Jonah Bokaer.

Cunningham’s dances are known for their cool detatched feel. But, according to MCDC’s archivist, David Vaughan, Ground Level Overlay is a highly dramatic work that conveys a “something happening in the streets, urbane feel.” Although the movement for Ground Level Overlay was developed using DanceForms, Cunningham still goes into the studio to teach the dancers the old fashioned way. At 86, Cunningham is still active in every aspect of the company and gets around with the aid of a wheelchair, walker, and holding on to the barre.

The décor is by Leonardo Drew, an African American sculptor, who had never done previous work for dance or theater. Cunningham was intrigued with one of Drew’s sculptures he noticed at a friend’s house. Shortly afterwards, he invited Drew to do the décor for the piece. Drew had never even seen a Cunningham dance before.

There’s always a good story behind the music in any Cunningham piece. The music was recorded in a two million gallon water tank at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. The tank, known as the “The Cistern Chapel,” boasts a reverberation time of 45 seconds and has a nearly perfect evenness in tone quality. Musicians Stuart Dempster, Takehisa Kosugi, and Christian Wolff will be playing live, interacting with these taped recordings, creating yet another layer of sound.

Chance plays a substantial role Cunningham’s Spit Sides, the second work on the program. There is two of everything in this piece: two separate dances, two sets of costumes, two separate decors created by two separate visual artists, and two lighting plots. And, let’s not forget, music by two major rock bands, Radiohead and the Icelandic group, Sigur Ros. A roll of the die will determine what dance we see first, with what décor, and so on. There are 32 combinations possible. The dancers, used to a life of uncertainty, are ready to perform either dance in an instant.

Unfortunately, Radiohead and Sigur Ros will be not performing live as they did at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2004. Dempster, Kosugi, and Wolff will be playing Radiohead and Sigur Ros’s music live.

Cunningham himself will be on hand with the die to determine the order of the evening. The dancers will find out at that moment what dance comes first. Cunningham dancers are old hats at last minute decisions. It’s customary for the dancers learn of their costumes, décor, and music for the first time on opening night. The dancers rehearse in silence. The whole evening comes together for the audience.

One set of décor is by a young photographer, Robert Heishman, who participated in a workshop with the company’s then general manager, Trevor Carlson, in Kansas City. Heishman was still in high school at the time. Carlson was so impressed with Heishman’s work that he showed it to Cunningham and the rest is history. The second set of décor is by London-based artist, Catherine Yass. “It’s one of the funniest dances Cunningham has ever made with lots of variety in the choreography,” states Vaughan.

According to author Roger Copeland, Cunningham has single-handedly modernized modern dance. This octogenarian is still shuffling the deck, making dances that challenge our brains, and rocking the status quo.

SPA presents The Merce Cunningham Dance Company on Friday, October 21, at 8 p.m. at Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater. Call 713-227-4SPA or visit


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