The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Merce Cunningham
He was born Mercier Philip , he is universally known as Merce, you don't usually have to add his surname, Cunningham . Merce Cunningham . Choreographer, that's all. That's enough. The world's greatest they say, few would bother to argue. Fewer still would dare to challenge the idea that, for innovation, daring, imagination, originality, Merce Cunningham has worked at the highest level for more than fifty years. He's now eighty-three and if there is any waning in his powers it pretty hard to see. In New York this autumn his new work Split Sides involve the random selection on the night of the order in which two rock bands would perform, which costumes would be worn, which of two backdrops, and different lighting schemes, and of course the order of the dances was similarly chosen. The result, performances built out of 32 possible permutations. Typical Cunningham , who's worked on the element of chance in performance since the composer John Cage introduced it to him some fifty years ago. More recently Merce produced a forty minute piece in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern where dancers mingle with, relate to, dance in three separate performance areas within the huge, magical Weather Project installation by Olafur Eliasson . It was entrancing, lyrical and magical. Merce was taught by Martha Graham, influenced by people like John Cage and visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and his trade marks include the separate development of movement and music, the absolute commitment to pure dance, and of course the use of chance elements in work. All of which is a hopelessly inadequate way of even hinting at the complexity of the man and his work.For fifty years he has fought through early periods of incomprehension and downright hostility, embracing en-route opportunities offered by everything that came his way, right up to the recent use of computer technology in the creation of his latest works.
I'm going to wind you back many years to when you were twenty, and you were introduced to Martha Graham. You knew then that you were going to be a dancer, did you?
Well I had been a student at the Cornish School in Seattle , Washington which was a school for the arts, and I had gone to study drama, actually, and dance. But the woman who ran the school, a Miss Nellie Cornish , this remarkable lady thought that if you wanted to be in the arts, you should just as well know something about all of them. So we had as well as the dance and the drama we had music and visual training in drawing and diction and also to think, for which I've been grateful all my life.
But it was the dance even then which attracted you?
Well actually I went to be in drama, in the theatre, but I had had tap dancing as an adolescent and was under its spell, and when I went to the school I of course wanted to study dance and Miss Cornish suggested the modern dance, taught by Bonnie Bird who had been in the Martha Graham company. So this was all new to me, I knew nothing about serious, so to speak, dancing at all. But I said all right, I'll do that, and I spent two years at the school.
And then you went to this class at which Martha Graham appeared?
Well after the two years of Summer School in Mills College in Oakland, California and there were a number of modern dance people, and of course, since my work had been with the Graham work I naturally took that there and Graham came at some point to be the teacher for the last part of the session and she said at one point near the end of all this, if you come to New York I'll put you in a piece. I said I will.
And when you joined the Graham company and she was quite surprised that you turned up, I gather.
Well she said I didn't think you'd come. And all I could think of was 'lady, you don't know me'.
But you knew that she was the person that you wanted to work with, there was something about her that attracted you?
Oh yes. I think she was extraordinary, well just for nothing else, if nothing else, certainly in the theatre, and to perform with her, to be on the stage with her was a remarkable experience.
How much did she teach you just about dancing and movement?
Oh she, we had the technique class every day, five days a week, and then we would have, when we, when there were to be performances we would have rehearsals naturally, working on the piece. So there was in that sense daily contact, but we were members of the company and I was the youngest then. And, it was, and simply, frankly being in New York was so superb for me. I stepped on the pavement in New York for the first time and knew this was where I was going to be.
But your technique as a dancer came from Martha Graham ?
I had, naturally her work for several years in the time I was with her company and I also had infrequently ballet training at the School of American Ballet .
Classical ballet training.
Classical ballet, the school that is the Balanchine School of course it is. And I went once or twice a week, that's all the time I would have, but it was strictly classical work.
But were you then in a state that you thought I'm not interested in the classical tradition or did you just see what you could do with and beyond the classical tradition?
Well I wanted to learn as a dancer as much about dancing as I could get. And the Graham experience, not only the technique, but working in her company and performing when there were performances, all of that. But I also, I went to see all kinds of dancing, I didn't have any prejudice that way. Because I was simply interested in the way people moved.
I mean it sounds as if there was a kind of, sort of blank sheet. You were a kind of tabula rasa ready to take anything in.
Yes, I even attempted at one point to study, very briefly, Bharatnatyam, the Indian dance because when I first saw it I was so fascinated by the rhythmic thing of it, and of course the skill with which it was done. I wanted to know what was underneath all that. I didn't last very long, but, but it was a marvellous experience.
Now it, it's said that quite early on you decided that although Graham was wonderful, the narrative approach to dance was not something that you were interested in. And how quickly did this evolve and is that the correct way to describe it.
Yes. I think it was the third year, perhaps the fourth. I was there five, six years, whatever, that I began to think that I wanted to do something else. I didn't know what it was, but that this was not what I wanted to do. And you have to realize in that time, in the forties and even into the fifties, but certainly that, there was not a great deal of dancing in New York , serious dancing. There were people teaching it and they would have say, as Graham did, one or two programmes a year, and that way, yes, it increased naturally. But so that if one didn't have that, what did one have? And it seemed to be the only two possibilities then for, say, so to speak, earning your living at dancing was in the ballet company, it would be the, then the ballet was the Monte Carlo, or in Broadway shows. And I tried a Broadway show. It was amazing to have a salary once a week. But I didn't like it.
What was the show?
The show was One Touch of Venus and it had choreography by Agnes de Mille .
That wasn't bad.
And I rehearsed for a week and then went to Boston to perform in it. And I lasted a week and I knew it wasn't, whatever else, this isn't what I wanted. So I went back to my cold water flat.
So you began thinking about making your own dance, almost for economic reasons?
Well I, no because I wouldn't have made any money from it. No, but John Cage came to be in New York because he was interested in furthering his musical, the compositional part of him and he suggested we give a programme together, and that would be about 1944 I think. And I made six solos and Cage made music for each of them and we presented it in a very small theatre in New York , it was like a dance studio, but it was adequate enough for this kind of performance.
But you felt deeply that you wanted to be in charge, so to say of the movements that you danced. Because it's a big step from being a dancer to a choreographer.
Yes. Yes. Oh Yes. Yes, and I worked terribly hard, and the performance, it was one performance of course, but it was a way to begin. And then I, from it I just continued.
But you knew that that was how you wanted to express yourself, that dancing by itself wasn't enough.
Right. Yes. Also I wasn't interested, as you might gather since I had left the Graham situation, I wasn't in, interested in the orat, narration or expressing some particular emotional situation. I was interested in movement. It's at that time that we began to separate the music and the dance and that was so interesting to me.
Was that his suggestion? Cage's suggestion?
Well his feeling was that not, one of the two elements should not support the other or be in charge, that they should be equal but separate. And I liked that idea.
Yes, the idea of going rumpety, tumpety tump and, and matching the music was awful.
Yes. Yes, well as he said it's a form of slavery and so those first solos about three or four of them were made, were, we, given a kind of time structure between us as to how long, and certain divisions, we separated and he made the music to the structure and I made the dance.
So there was a fairly tight structure, there were a certain number of milestones at that stage?
Yes. Yes. They were quite strict in one way but in between there was this incredible freedom. Because you didn't have to follow music, he didn't have to follow the dance. So when the elements got together they produced something that neither one of us alone could have imagined.
Why didn't this come out as a mess? I mean, that, that's still a question that in the hands of most people.
Because, because, no. Because Cage was, regardless of what anybody thinks about what he did, was very clear about structures. And these were structures in time. As he said when asked this question, why do you separate the music and the dance, once Cage replied 'well you see, Merce does his thing and I do mine, and for your convenience we put it together'.
Extremely clever elliptical answer.
Now you were only 34 though when you took this huge leap, and did you know then that of course the separation of music and dance was one principle, absence of narrative was another principle, this was clear, that this was the basic philosophy of the Merce Cunningham and Dance Company?
Well I wouldn't say I put it that way, I'm not a philosopher. But I, it's the way I work and I, if I could say it, I enjoyed working that way.
JOHN TUSA : Was it difficult finding dancers who would work in this way or...?
Well there were very few. Naturally. The original company at Black Mountain was six, seven actually and then for a number of years after that I, we, as we continued to make dances and I would give classes like a small studio situation and we gradually began to tour. Not vast tours but to go out and play something in a, present something in a situation where it wouldn't be just New York . If they wanted to, could see it, but we might have to capture some strangers.
But they were pretty tough weren't they, I mean the reviews were very hostile, weren't they?
Oh, yeah, terribly. But I thought, I really thought I don't think they're right. I may not be doing this very well, but I think the ideas involved in it are interesting enough to continue them.
That took a huge act of courage didn't it, because er, I mean people must have said that you and Cage were, were pretty well mad. I mean you were going so against what was done in dance.
Yes, but er certainly I am stubborn.
But you could have been wrong.
Of course I could. But I didn't think the ideas were wrong. I think that there was, I knew there was something there that was interesting about how to put things together. Whether it were in time, or as later with the visual artists, in, with visuals sets, with the visual activity. Again the same principle the, we did not ask the visual artist or tell him what to do in any sense. If he wanted information I was delighted to give it, but I didn't force anything because we wanted the same principle of three separate things which could come together and produce something which otherwise we couldn't have imagined.
When you say that an artist like Rauschenberg or Warhol and many others you worked with that they would come and ask for information, what sort of information could you give them?
Well, well, whatever they wanted. If they wanted to know how long it was going to be, or if they, or if they wanted to see it. I wasn't objecting all this. It's just to leave the other artists, the, the working this way as free as one could possibly do. Certainly with one of the things that one would have to make clear to the visual artist is that if he put something in the space, then there wouldn't be space for the dance. So that, so that that might make them think another way.
But would they ask even for indications of mood? And I know that it..
No, no, no. They would ask often, like and they would sometimes come and watch, and, for any number of reasons, simply to see what we were doing. Or if they wanted more practical things I was always happy to give whatever, but not to put something in their way.
And then you wouldn't say please bring me back your sketches and I'll see if I like them.
No. I would wait. We have, very often in the course of this kind of working, the day of the performance is the first day we hear the music and the... Well with the costumes, it's a little different because they often have to fit them on to the dancers, but we wouldn't see them complete. In other words, what I'm trying to say is, it's not to make anything mysterious about this, it was a way of really working, not simply this, which allowed the individual artist to think in his or her way and then when it came together if there were things that had to be adjusted for example about the costumes, that we both, we could agree on. But not something where I told him this should or should not be.
Ah. I just want to take you through to the point of acceptance and recognition so to say, which was in 1964 in London . Before that you'd had a torrid time in Paris where they'd thrown tomatoes at you.
Well they threw things at us, but as I said then, their aim wasn't very good so it was all right.
But even then when you came to London , 1964 and I, I saw the show at the, at the Phoenix , and I remember Lamont Young 's music with the tin lids scratched over the exit signs and things.
I can't say for a moment I understood it, but my god, I never, I never forgot it. But that was when the company was recognized as a force in world dance, wasn't it?
I think that tour, the whole tour, London certainly because I was amazed that we even played a week and then when we stayed for 3 more weeks it was a marvellous experience. I wouldn't say it was easy, it was, I don't mean in terms of the public, but just for our way of working, but still it was a remarkable experience.
Did that reception and the recognition make you feel different about yourselves.
Yes, I realized first of all that European audiences, London for example, were seeing this in a different way than the Americans, and same thing even when they threw things, in France, because one of the women who had helped us there was Benedicte Pesle, who is still our presenter in Paris, our, our agent. When they threw things I was sitting in my dressing room thinking well it's very sad because I always wanted to play Paris naturally and then when this happened, this was it, it was the end of it, but Benedicte Pesle came in and looked at me and she said now Merce, we must prepare for the next time. And she's been doing it ever since.
When you say that European audiences, I think you said looked or saw differently, can you express what you think it was that was different in the way..?
well I, I think for instance we played Germany and not so much about the, er the dancing, but there were situations there where the contemporary composers had some connection with the way Cage and, and David Tudor was in, with us, in those programmes also, the way they thought about contemporary music so they could perhaps accept the sound and the way it was put together in ways that other places were not at all familiar with.
I guess I know the answer to this, but I'll ask it anyway. Does the word 'control' when it comes to how you work with your pieces, does the word 'control' play any part in what you do?
Oh yes. It's control, not in the sense of, of guiding it towards some particular expression, but how the movement is done. How far can we go, given our ideas about moving, how far can we push that. Not to gain something about expression, but to gain, it was simply a wider range of movement even. Er Winter Branch for example which was comprised physically of falls, of people falling on the ground, getting up and then walking off and then other people coming in and doing falls. The falls are very physically complicated and have to be taught, it isn't just you drop to the ground, because as in dancing it involves how long it takes you, all, all concerning..
You mean there are quick falls and short falls?
Yes, oh absolutely. So how do you train for that? So that comes into the technique class. Now, and the same thing happens with most of what we do. In recent years I've pushed things because of using the computer, the dance forms. I've seen possibilities that I hadn't seen before and I try them out in the technique classes to see if we can push movement further.
You've often talked about chance and I don't want you to repeat yourself endlessly, but you've said that, the point about using the random and relying on chance in your work, is that it helps you to eliminate clichés.
Yes, because your physical memory is, you remember how to do things certain ways, like it goes in this direction, or it takes this amount of time. But what if using chance means it comes up that you don't go in that direction but another one and you may, and the movement may take instead of this amount of time, it, by, through chance it indicates you might try doing it quicker. Okay, then you have to figure out a way to do that. You have to, I have to, or the dancers are with them, we have to figure out a way which changes our, or adds to, I think, our physical memories of how movements are done.
'Cos otherwise the physical memory would keep the body kind of stuck in the way it's always done it before.
Yes, I so often see, well I don't see programmes very often but if I do I watch young dancers, and say they've found an interesting, whether they use chance or not doesn't matter, but they do a certain phrase which they like, so they always repeat it exactly the same, which may be a pr, and always through the same space and always in the same time. Now what if they tried to do that phrase, exactly as it is, but in half the time? Or, double the time? This came through um, a lot of this way of looking came from working with film and video with Charles Atlas and Elliott Caplin .
When we made dance films together, and I'd never had anything to do with a camera and Charles Atlas was our stage manager. And he said you should look through the camera. I'd listened to dancers who'd worked in television and, and they always almost a hundred percent of the time they said, I'd say well how did you feel about it or something, they would say well I didn't like it because it didn't look like what I thought it should or the space was too small or too something. So I looked through a camera, Charlie showed me how to do it and I thought oh it's marvellous. It's totally different from the stage, so you don't have to do the same thing. You could do something else.
And that then introduced new, new ideas?
Oh yes. For instance if you notice on particularly television, if you repeat too often they turn the channel, so if you want to repeat, but if you shifted the camera each time you repeat it, so you saw something different. And you can shift with the camera, you can make small, er small differences which are noticeable through the TV camera but which are not necessarily noticeable on stage. So it just gives another thing, it's not that the, that one is wrong, or, it's just you have a chance to shift the way you think and work. It's not easy, it was terribly difficult.
I want to go back to you as a dancer, because everybody says you were a wonderful dancer, and a very athletic dancer. Was there just the kind of physical, animal side to it, or did you feel you were expressing something, communicating something?
No, well I think movement by itself, regardless of somebody saying this is how I'm sad or whatever, I think movement by itself is what absolutely touches me. Not something where, where the movement is to describe something, but where the movement itself has a life. Now using these things the way I have, chance and the film all of that and with separating the music and the dance, broke up any ideas I might think, oh it has to go this way, because there were these other possibilities and so you try them out or I did, and would find that they were often in the end more interesting to do because you were pushed into a way of moving that you didn't, you had to learn about.
So it didn't take away from what I assume is the physical exhilaration of dance from time to time?
Not, not at all, I think it added, for myself it did.
Somebody described you, you know it, as a young dancer, like a gazelle, or like a lily blowing in the field, seem to me two pretty extreme options, but did you have a self image of yourself as a dancer, because you're obviously very striking on the stage?
Well I, I, to start with I absolutely loved to dance. I don't know how to put it. From the time I did the tap-dancing, ever since. And it was something I just do. Want to do, well then you can leave it at that, or you can further it by training or, and or, or all kinds of other ways. And as each thing that I would do, I could see oh this is something I don't know about, and so I would, not, not about how you feel about it, even, but even movements that were in a way, might remain what one would call awkward, but even that I would try out because it furthered the physical range.
Did you reject it because it was awkward?
No, I would try to figure out how to do it.
You used the word pushing I think a number of times, or like that, and you are obviously famous for pushing yourself, pushing your body to extremes. Was that conscious in, inside you that you knew that you were taking risks?
Oh yes. Yes I've had enough injuries to put, but not purposely in any way, and if something is clearly might cause injury I would not do it.
But were you testing yourself?
Yes. Oh yes, how do you, how can you go a little further? How can you do a movement that you've done over and over again and think you have it perfect or whatever? How can you do it in a way that it becomes awkward again, so you have to, to find it all over again.
That word awkward.
Yes. Well I think that brilliant dancing always looks to me, really brilliant dancing really, not just somebody who has a technical range which is extraordinary, but beyond that, there's always flaws and I'm, you're delighted or I'm delighted, it's again John Cage who had a small percussion group and he told one of the players that she had played everything absolutely accurately, now just go a little further and make a few mistakes. And that's what to me, always has been, you have to go further and make some mistakes. So you don't settle it in a mould of some kind, thinking that that's perfect.
I just want to stay with the word awkward for a moment. This is your category recognizing that there is something at first sight which is original, unexpected, unorthodox.
Yes, yes, yes. And how can one, how can I or with the dancers find a way to make this work, physically. You're doing something that's at first glance you might say is impossible, and often it is. But if you try it out you'll find something else that you didn't know about.
But dancing as you did finally gave you arthritis, yes?
Yes, yes. But I don't think that that's necessarily the work. I don't think it didn't contribute, but you see I had to often dance on stages which were cement. So that's one of the cause, and I, I know a number of dancers who have the same experience.
But you resent that? Do you ever think back and say why the hell did I end up with arthritis?
No I don't resent it. No, no, no.
If I'd been more careful.
I, I'm sorry I have it. But no I don't resent it, I can see that it's part of life, so, so I'm attempting to deal with it.
Yeah, and even the limitations when you have to stop working directly with dancers. I know you went into computers which we'll discuss later, but the withdrawal from the physical contact with the dancers, that must have been painful.
Yes. That, and I still don't like it, I still get up and try and show them, or help them certainly, but now I do more talking. I don't think I talked very much when I taught for example. When I could physically move easily I would just do it, and then I could explain something, well if you did this with your leg it would be easier to do that movement. But now I talk more.
Your artistic relationship with John Cage over fifty years, and you've never talked about your personal one and that, that's fine. Who learnt more from who in that relationship?
Well I think that I learned more from Cage. There were ideas very often about, in him, primarily his musical composition of course, but also about in later years in painting. He took up painting and making drawings and paintings and those again were done again very often with chance operations.
So it was that idea of allowing chance to add a dimension to your work that was the most important thing.
To enter. Yes. Yes. Well I think the chance thing came about between us both really because it was the early fifties and it was the time they published the Chinese Book of Changes, the first publication which was so full, the book itself was so fascinating of course and it had that extraordinary introduction by Carl Jung, where he asks the I-Ching um, casts it to see what the I-Ching thinks about being presented in a new language, it had never been translated before, I gathered that. And the book's answer is this astonishing thing of going forward, or, something, the way they phrased it of course. And then there was an Institute of Random Numbers, which, where they said they found the use of random or chance operations in, in digging up numbers was just as good as logic. And so I thought well I would like to try this on simple levels. So I tried it, just on very simple ways, but in class. Where I would make a phrase that I thought, to give to the students, but then using pennies, at that time, see if by chance, how the phrase would come up differently. And then having done that, how do you get that across to the student? And it was so fascinating and some of them were, were impossible of course, but so fascinating the way it broadens your mind, certainly my thinking.
So digging deep into the non-rational side of your understanding.
Yes. Yes. Yes. And then also, seems, that's when I applied this of course to making movement phrases and to time, but it was the statement of Einstein's which I read at that time, where he said there are no fixed points in space. And I, it was like a flash of lightning, felt well that's marvellous for the stage. Instead of thinking it's front and centre, a, a point, to allow any point, very Buddhist, any point in the space to be as important as any other. It opened the way one could think. How, not just that you face the way that you might think is unfamiliar, but how do you get to that? How do you get from wherever you were before instead of using ways that are familiar to you, your physical behaviour, you know, you have to really find out how to get the dancer, in beginning cases, myself, how do I get from here to here.
So even coming onto the stage you could, you use the roll of chance as a way of finding out how you get onto the stage and to a particular point of the stage.
That's right. And not only, about anything, whether you exited, or whether you entered, so it just opened that, at least for my way of thinking, it opened up possibilities, that I, I could have said, well I don't want to deal with it. But I was stubborn.
When you work, you've been described, and maybe this was years ago, I don't know, as sitting at the back of a room dreaming up steps. Is that word 'dreaming' right?
No. No. No. I make them up. I don't dream them up, I make them up. I'm sitting there, sitting, and I used to not sit, I'd be up doing it. Sitting there thinking how do you put this together with this and make it work for the dancer. So I don't think, well you can call it dreaming, but I don't.
It doesn't sound like it.
No. It's really a, a, it's really practical, odd as it sounds.
And how do you avoid repeating yourself, because you must find yourself saying oh no, I've done that so many times before.
Yes. I try, well just personally I try to remember, kind, acts of say with two dancers together, if I've had them move, do certain kinds of things before, I try to avoid those to see, because I always know there's something else, there always is. But how do you find it. How do you instead of accepting a certain way say that, if the man is dancing with the woman, how he lifts her for example, or how he holds her. There are limitations about this, naturally, but one gets into habits, as you do as just in life, in every day life. And so if I caught myself that way, then I would, using chance means find another way.
Uh huh. And you said that dancing is, is looking.
Yes, I think you have to watch. You have to watch how steps are put together, where are your feet in this and, in recent years, I've added action in the upper torso and the arms in the way they're used.
What, which you didn't do before?
Earlier on in the dances, if you look at the arms, their arms are held, usually quite to the side, or rather, to my eye now, simple arm positions. They weren't then, they, I didn't think of it that way, but this way, there's a complication in the arms which when we began to use it, I had seen it on the computer, and I wondered if this was possible to get to the dancers. So I would bring it and try to show them, and it was, I can't describe it except it involved being able to change each arm to different kinds of positions and not think that there were limits to that.
Because this takes us back to the arthritis and the computer. As a result of the arthritis you started to work on the computer. Did you ever have any doubts about the use of the computer, because I think it has turned out to be something which has given you huge liberation and discovered new things.
No. No. No I had no doubts at all. The first day I saw it, life forms, they came and showed me a film, TV or something and I said yes, immediately, because although it was very few things it could do then, that's ten years ago or more, everything that was in the computer looked useful to me. I, say for a teacher of dance, that you could put in the way an exercise is done, and then slow it down so that the pupil could see the exact construction. Even though when they did it, they could not do it that slow, they would have a wider knowledge of what made it up.
It is a, it must be a very hard business, and you wrote in your, your notebook in 1998 'we're beginning the rehearsals again, the same old routes, can we find a variation'.
This, this is the constant question is it?
Yes. Yes. Every time I go to make a new piece the first thing I try to do is get at something I don't know about.
And do you feel tired sometimes, when you think I'm damned if I know what I'm going to do with something which is original.
Oh yes. Always.
Because there's another piece in your notebook for the previous year and you've drawn a picture of an ugly giraffe on a hot tin roof, is what you say in the text, you say, like the mind on a weary day.
Yes. Well it's when you're tired.
So how do you get out of that?
I get up, well I don't do that anymore, but I used to, I'd get up and try something, I'd go to the barre, or go out on the, on the, the studio floor and try something and then I would, using chance means throw pennies or whatever, to, so the order would be different, and then I would have to figure it out all over again. So that my mind, instead of lamenting that, oh this is dreary, and this is the same. And by using this, I see something different then I, I try it. Well now I have to tell the dancers to. And more often than not they've been helpful shall we say.
So you work through problems?
Oh yes. I think I always have. Well you have the drawing books so you know. I've, I began to draw about twenty years ago.
You draw animals and things.
Well animals, and I like nature, insects and things like that. Somehow I've an affinity to that. I can't draw straight lines, so, so I don't bother about those things.
But does that help you with making dances?
Oh yes I'm sure it does. But what it does do if, if I'm feeling I'm not doing very well, if I start to make a drawing it puts my mind someplace else and it takes it off of all this thing about, oh how sad it is or whatever. I get very interested in drawing the eye of a lizard, so it takes your attention that way and then very often it end up helping me to think about movement.
You once said that dance is not for unsteady souls. What did that mean?
It simply means that if you're crazy enough to be a dancer, and you love dancing you'll stay with it, but it's rocky.
There are no easy satisfactions?
Well I, I'm, there is satisfaction.
But not easy?
Oh no. No, but, but if you do something, anything in life, you can say it's not easy, but it may be satisfying in one way or another.
You're pretty resilient aren't you, I mean you overcame the inability to work directly with your dancers. On the day after John Cage 's death, after a fifty year relationship you were back in the studio working. How difficult was that?
Well I came in the studio the day after John died and there was David Tudor , the musician with whom we'd all worked for so many years, and we talked about John for a few minutes, and then I, I said to David , well David , I think I'm just going to start rehearsal. And David Tudor said I'm glad to see you're going back to work.
Yes. But you also said that from the time of John Cage 's death you start, you have to start to speak for yourself. So it changed you in all sorts of ways?
Oh yes. Oh yes. Well when I had to make the decisions and made perhaps, we'd change, make them together, or he would make them, but now I did it. And I remember thinking that, well, they have to be done, so I'll do it. So it was not a question of, that I was going to fail. You can fail anyway, but the decisions have to be made so you do it.
So it was pretty a late age to have to accept that full responsibility?
Well perhaps it was, I guess.
But you did it. Again in one of your sketch books you say, you wonder, and this is after you've heard an English drama director talking about making Shakespeare relevant to modern times, and you say I wonder if we have moved from word description to picture description, with the eye taking precedence over the ear and mind. Do you feel that that is the appeal of your work, that it engages us in picture description?
I think that's part of it. I do, but you see we, we, and certainly America , and I think other countries also, we are so addicted to the television that our whole experience, or a great, great part of our experience comes through that, and that's primarily visual. One may not like the visual or whatever, that's something else, but the, a way of carrying something on, instead of through words, now is so much through visual activity, on a sort of movie level years ago, old movies, the compensation was often interesting to hear. But now they do, they say something and then they blow up a car, you know, that kind of thing, but that's visual. Well you may not like it, but it's visual. And I do think that's very much a part of our experience now.
Does that make our acceptance of your work that much easier, that the culture and our physical surroundings have changed?
Well I think it's one of the things. I don't mean to say that because of what we did caused that, for heavens sakes, but I think that working with Cage and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, those painters seeing things the way they see things, through that kind of eye has added to my experience enormously.
Do you think that there will be a Cunningham School of Choreography and that your works will be done as Balanchine is done now?
Well I don't know about that. My belief is in order to do the kind of work we do, and do it really well, I think you have to have studied our technique, but it would, it would take a lot of effort on people's parts and, and maybe they're looking at something else.
Merce Cunningham , thank you very much.
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