Merce Cunningham

Paramodernities: A Series of Dance Experiments, Netta Yerushalmy ODC Theater, Feb. 23rd

Installment #2 – A Conversation with Julian Carter Continued

“Paramodernities #4: An Inter-Body Event” A Response to Merce Cunningham’s Rainforest, Sounddance, Points in Space, Beach Birds (1968-1991)

M: Eventually, I want to talk about how modernity is articulated through all three of the Paramodernities we saw. It’s interesting that we can’t make the segments of the dance line up in our conversation about them. Everything we consider seems to take us forward, or back.

J:  Right. I like how this nonlinear quality in our response amplifies Yerushalmy’s complex construction of time. I also like your observation that history is a locational technology. It’s part of what I find both interesting and disjunctive about Yerushalmy’s beginning with Nijinsky: unlike Cunningham or Ailey–the other dance-makers she took apart for San Francisco audiences–Nijinsky’s movement isn’t part of routine training anymore, which is why she had to go to reconstructed work to get its components. The early twentieth-century modernist avant-garde habitus is the dance equivalent of an archaic dialect. From our moment it’s easy to confuse its archaism with its simple pastness. But in its moment this aesthetic was simultaneously “modern” and also intentionally “primitive.” Rite of Spring was in its time shocking in part because it refused to maintain a safely superior distance from an imagined cultural past in which white Europeans were not yet “civilized.” I thought about the Orientalist racial fantasies embedded in the sheer awkward angularity of Nijinsky’s choreography and wondered why the lecture text didn’t draw on postcolonial theory at all since it could imaginably help us think about the connection between dance and the specifically racial underpinnings of the nation-state and its imperial metastasizations. I see what you mean when you suggest that some of the theoretical themes of “Paramodernities #1” might have resurfaced in DeFrantz’s lecture in “Paramodernities #5” One way this happened in his explicit introduction of racism as the condition within which both dance and theory are made. But we’ll get back to that later.

At the end of “Paramodernity #1” Yerushalmy came downstage center and whipped out about 10 vertical jumps landing in that knock-kneed pigeon-toed stance: wonderful and terrifying, her evident athletic capacity no guarantee that her ligaments would put up with that abuse. The last word on the modern was recklessness. Maybe it was also despairing, and maybe that’s hindsight. In 1913 we didn’t know World War was coming. One, let alone two. In any case, the contemporary dancers of “Paramodernity #4” appeared from upstage while she sprang into the air. Their bodies seemed very much of our current moment. About the same height and equally elongated, the chief visual difference between them was that he wore a greenish shirt and hers was red; and she wore her hair natural, which made her silhouette resemble an upside-down exclamation mark. When did Yerushalmy’s more compact body leave the stage? Three readers came from the center of the house to thread their way between the dancers, taking the straightest line across the marly to sit against the back wall the way one might hang out in the studio watching a rehearsal.I felt as though I was somehow in or behind the mirror toward which the dancers were performing.

M: I felt a jump into “Paramodernity #4” – all of a sudden we were transported into 1960’s Cunningham-land. I wonder what the piece would have been like with music (at the end the dancers noted its absence due to some technical glitch). Their movements were very clear references or copies of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary, which they called their “dictionary.” I like this idea and wonder if encyclopedia might even be a better term. I’m recalling an essay by  Charles Van Dore, “The Idea of an Encyclopedia” (1962), which advocates for a rethinking of the American encyclopedia that is “dull” and unimaginative in its purpose. Van Dore proposes that encyclopedias “should create a synthesis where none is thought to be possible. It should carve a new order out of the chaos that has swept away the old. It should think of itself as an important – perhaps even the most important – tool for the reconstruction of a world that has meaning.” I am drawn to thinking about how “Paramodernity #4” created a “new” version and vision of Cunningham and what it teaches or instructs us about modern thinking. Aside from Cunningham’s place in dance history, what do his dances say about how to speak?

I’ve always felt that in a different version of my dance career I could have been a Cunningham dancer. There is something timeless about his movement for me, something that my body physically is drawn to.

J: I haven’t had that feeling– but it is interesting that from such different places we each had a sense of being solicited to join the performance. I also liked the movement dictionary–and I see what you mean about the encyclopedic element to Yerushalmy’s project. When the dancers demonstrated their dictionary they simultaneously described its classification system: here are the movements that bend to the left, and here are the movements that travel backward. I found it oddly charming that they kept executing new “entries” after they stopped naming them.

The other thing I responded to about “Paramodernity #4”  is its formal elegance, both spatial and conceptual. I appreciated how Claudia LaRocco paid tribute to Cunningham’s explorations of chance: she brought two other people onstage with her to read materials she hadn’t heard until they performed them next to her (a different pair performed their equally fresh and surprising texts the next night). The writers – both in their entry and in their little row at the back of the stage – seemed to me to do some of the work of a corps, strung out in a comparatively static row that provided a kind of counterpart to the continuous kinetic work the two soloists were doing.

M: “Paramodernity #4” had a meditative quality to it but seemed a little long, as if I could almost close my eyes for a minute and not miss anything. It is interesting to think of the speakers/writers as a kind of corps de ballet. The Ancient Greek chorus moved, spoke, and sang to help move the drama along. Why did words matter to creating “Paramodernity #4”? I’m not exactly sure what Yerushalmy was trying to do, yet I thought maybe the addition of the writers/speakers was an attempt at closing distance. One way I’ve thought about Cunningham choreography is how is large and distant it feels and looks: the reach of bodies in space, the vacant stage, large backdrops (e.g. in Pond’s Way). Even the dancers maintain steady and long gazes. So maybe the speech in the piece is an attempt at breaking up that Cunningham distance. At the end, the dancers came downstage to talk to the audience, prompting us to ask questions while they moved, which further broke this distance — we learned about how the movements felt and what the dancers were thinking. While all this speech enlivened the piece quite a bit, I’m not sure how much it added conceptually. Cunningham choreography, to me, always speaks for itself.

J: The meditative element you describe reminds me of an essay called “We Are All Very Anxious” that proposed the characteristic affect of the “postwar” US–when Cunningham was making the dances Yerushalmy worked with– was boredom. I don’t mean that as any kind of dig. When I’m teaching people how to go to live performance I explain that letting yourself drift is one of your available options, and noticing when and how that happens is part of the experience of audiencing, full of information both about the art and about you as the substance in which it lands. I tell them that the performance is what happens between artist and audience. That is why it’s usually theorized as ephemeral. Yet performance can also contain some traces of its own past, some information about the world in which the piece was made and the contours of past ephemeralities. That is, the way I drifted in response to  “Paramodernity #4” might reflect something about the specifically midcentury modernity to which it responds. When Cunningham’s movement speaks for itself, one of the things Yerushalmy has it say is that the present is all there is: and it stretches to fill every moment. This might be part of why at the end of the piece the dancers came downstage–to the same place that Yerushalmy did her knock-kneed jump sequence in fact–and repeated one phrase about 30 times while chatting with the audience.

I want to circle back to LaRocco’s opening observation that everybody calls Merce Merce, like calling Cher Cher. I found this distracting both because I don’t (I call him Cunningham, or Merce Cunningham–I know it’s old-fashioned of me but there’s something about presuming a right to social intimacy with strangers that rubs my feminist sensibilities wrong) and because we never revisited the themes of pop celebrity and feminine glamor that the comparison raised. Was LaRocco suggesting something about Cunningham’s gender? If so, was that a displaced acknowledging of his gayness? The suggestion flashed by and was gone, resurfacing only in the dancers’ later acknowledgment that Merce preserved standard gender roles for lifts and supports, while they undid these through the simple device of having the person we were supposed to receive as a woman learn the parts Cunningham choreographed for people we see as men. As though we can now, from our postmodern state of constant war, look back at the compositions of “postwar” modernity and make compensatory adjustments to Cunningham’s choreographic closet. As though his gayness weren’t an open secret then too. As though he needs us to recuperate his decision-making, the things he didn’t leave open to chance: who lifts, and who is lifted.

M: We haven’t touched on the questions Yerushalmy projected on the screen. These asked us to consider repetition, legitimacy, modernity, and racism. One of these–“Are the modernities of the body always white?”–was the starting point for “Paramodernities #3: the Aterlives of Slavery” A Response to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.