Long a Maligned Maverick, Merce Cunningham Finds He and Modern Dance Are Now in Step

updated 04/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/27/1981 01:00AM

His dances have no story, no symbolic meaning and no normal continuity—he often flips a coin to see which movement comes first. In one work the dancers paint each other. In another the performers can hardly be seen because the stage is so dimly lit.

As a result of such heretical hijinks, dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham has suffered enough brickbats to bring down a dozen less sturdy egos. But remarkably, at 61, Cunningham has emerged as the biggest influence on the new generation of avant-garde choreographers, and he is at last getting something he never sought or probably dreamed of: national acceptance. His dances for PBS' Great Performances series have led to larger, more mainstream audiences at the New York City Center as well as a current tour of Midwestern cities including Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio. "Something clicked," marvels company dancer Alan Good. "They even laugh in the right places."

Having rejected both the formalities of ballet and the conventions of most modern dance, Cunningham is accustomed to cries of outrage. Once, in usually tolerant Paris, he and a partner were pelted with vegetables, and, he recounts, "We were so hungry we were just grateful for the food." Critics were no kinder. "We were a tiny few against a howling mob," recalls his partner of 20 years, Carolyn Brown. "We just held hands and kept on believing."

Cunningham's credo is startlingly simple. "There is nothing more fascinating than movement," he says. "Other modern dancers want to use movement to present a story or a mood. I want to present movement for itself, not just human movement but any kind of movement—animals, trees swaying in a breeze, anything." One recent work was created in a hospital while Cunningham recuperated from a knee operation. Called The Bedridden Hop, it consists mainly of arm movements.

There is little in the choreographer's background to have prompted a convention-flaunting life. He was born in Centralia, Wash., where his father practiced law and one brother became a lawyer, the other a judge. Merce took his first dance lesson at 12 from an ex-vaudevillian who was a church friend of his mother's—it was in soft-shoe. Later he studied in Seattle, where the piano player for his class was John Cage, the avant-garde composer with whom Cunningham has collaborated for almost four decades and lived the last nine years. "He was really astonishing," Cage, now 69, reflects. "He had this powerful, intense presence from the beginning. There is something about his movement which suggests, oh, an animal instinct."

Cunningham moved on to New York and partnered Martha Graham, becoming a soloist legendary for his high leaps. But he was not a man to be choreographed by others. What he wanted "was out of her world," says Merce. "But then it was out of everybody else's world, too." He and Cage cut out on their own, touring the hinterlands in borrowed cars. But about the only kindred spirits they found were painters like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (who has done sets and costumes for many Cunningham works). "All we had in common was our excitement and our poverty," Rauschenberg recalls.

Nowadays Cunningham tours are eagerly anticipated, and this summer his company of 14 will head for Europe. For Merce, there is no other life but teaching (his studio has more than 200 students), dancing and choreographing. He keeps no radio or stereo in his Chelsea loft and rarely sees rivals' works. "He's a very private man," says Carolyn Brown. "I danced with him for two decades, spent hours with him on tour, and we even took a vacation together—he fidgeted a lot. But I still don't feel I know that man."

"You have to be crazy to want to do all this," Cunningham admits. "If I had another choice in life, I would run for it." That, retorts Cage, is nonsense. "The spirit of the dance is in him," says the composer. "He has a fantastic appetite for dancing, and he's still stuffing himself."

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