Writings / 1951

The Function of a Technique for Dance

The Dance Has Many Faces, ed. by Walter Sorell, World Publishing Co.

Technique is the disciplining of one's energies through physical action in order to free that energy at any desired instant in its highest possible physical and spiritual form. For the disciplined energy of a dancer is the life-energy magnified and focused for whatever brief fraction of time it lasts. . .

The most essential thing in dance discipline is devotion, the steadfast and willing devotion to the labor that makes the classwork not a gymnastic hour and a half, or at the lowest level, a daily drudgery, but a devotion that allows the classroom discipline to be moments of dancing too. And not in any sense the feeling that each class gives an eager opportunity for willful and rhapsodic self-expression, but that each class allows in itself, and further the dancer towards, the synthesis of the physical and spiritual energies.

The final and wished-for transparency of the body as an instrument and as a channel to the source of energy becomes possible under the discipline the dancer sets for himself – the rigid limitations he works within, in order to arrive at freedom.

An art process is not essentially a natural process; it is an invented one. It can take actions of organization from the way nature functions, but essentially man invents the process. And from or for that process he derives a discipline to make and keep the process functioning. That discipline too is not a natural process. The daily discipline, the continued keeping of the elasticity of the muscles, the continued control of the mind over the body's actions, the constant hoped-for flow of the spirit into physical movement, both new and renewed, is not a natural way. It is unnatural in its demands on all the sources of energy. But the final synthesis can be a natural result, natural in the sense that the mind, body and spirit function as one. The technical aim is not to do a few or many things spectacularly, but to do whatever is done well, whether a smaller or greater amount of actual physical skill is required, and approaching as a goal, the flawless. To walk magnificently and thereby evoke the spirit of a god seems surpassingly more marvelous than to leap and squirm in the air in some incredible fashion, and leave only the image of oneself. And for that very reason, the dancer strives for complete and tempered body-skill, for complete identification with the movement in as devastatingly impersonal a fashion as possible. Not to show off, but to show; not to exhibit, but to transmit the tenderness of the human spirit through the disciplined action of a human body.

--Merce Cunningham, from The Function of a Technique for Dance (1951), as published in Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years. Aperture, 1997 (p.60) David Vaughan, Editor.