Merce Cunningham Trust

February 19, 2015
St. Paul's School Newsletter
Are Dance and Music Independent?
Merce Cunningham was considered a radical in the world of modern dance in many ways, the most profound of which was the dancer/choreographer’s interpretation of “the relationship between dance and music, which may occur in the same time and space, but should be created independently of one another.”

Cunningham’s work, says SPSBC Director Jennifer Howard ’92, was revolutionary and visionary in that way. That’s why she set out to bring his choreography to the SPS dancers during the Winter Term. For the last few weeks, former Cunningham dancer Jamie Scott (now with the Trisha Brown Dance Company) and Tricia Lent of the Merce Cunningham Trust have worked with the ballet company to create a “MinEvent” – a “collage” or series of Cunningham excerpts presented as one piece, accompanied by music not specifically created for those works. The pieces will be performed in the Oates Performing Arts Center on February 20 (7:30 p.m.) and February 22 (2 p.m.).

The catch is that, while the dancers understand and have rehearsed the movement and the rhythm associated with Cunningham’s choreography, they will not hear the accompanying music of New York-based composer Fast Forward until they are in the midst of the live performances. The Friday score will differ from the Sunday score and both will be replaced by a third musical accompaniment (offered by a different composer) when the dancers perform the pieces in their spring concert.

“It caused some anxiety for some of the dancers,” says Howard, “but I wanted them to learn Cunningham for many reasons. He challenged people with the definition of dance and its relationship to music. The technique itself allows the dancers to move differently and adds layers to their understanding of movement.”

SPSBC member Ian Palmer admits to being apprehensive about Cunningham’s technique when the company began studying the choreographer’s work in the Fall Term. Having embraced the grandeur of traditional ballet, Palmer worried that the simplicity inherent in the Cunningham pieces would prove mundane. He has since developed a great appreciation for the work.

“There’s an intertwined physicality and mentality that I hadn’t actively experienced in ballet,” says Palmer. “Because of the prominent lack of music or musicality, the dancer has to amplify movement. This isn’t at all foreign to other dances, but Cunningham technique forces focus on the movement. And from the performance quality required for Cunningham comes improvement for everything else.”

Fellow dancer Maya Weiss says that, for her, music has always been an integral part of dance, her favorite choreography the type that weaves itself into the score.

“Separating dance and music just seemed fundamentally wrong to me,” says Weiss. “But dancing Cunningham’s technique makes you realize every movement makes its own music, depending on its quality and speed. Without music, you are forced to come up with your own score from the steps you are given.”

Jamie Scott, who worked with the SPSBC for two weeks leading up to this weekend’s performances, spoke of the body’s “infinite rhythms” and how the beauty of performing Cunningham is that his work eliminates the constraints of music.

“Most people either love or hate Merce’s work,” says Scott. “It is exposed, naked. There is nothing embellished about it.”

That is precisely what Howard appreciates about the style, and another of her reasons for bringing Cunningham’s work to the St. Paul’s community.

“Merce didn’t direct you to look at any one thing, which can be both challenging and liberating,” Howard says. “It allows you to have your own experience as an observer. I thought it would bring a new experience for the community in terms of interpretation. It’s about whatever you see; whatever you want it to mean. It’s very personal.”
See the article online here.