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Dialogue, 10-31: The Cunningham Conundrum
Lee Shapley: Don't Believe the Hype
Paul Ben-Itzak: Hype Merce!
Lee Shapley writes:
On October 17, I attended
the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's performance at the Brooklyn
Academy of Music and I was sorely disappointed. I am well aware
of the important place in history that Cunningham occupies, but
this concert's relevance today, in 2003, escaped me.
Cunningham has always
been famous for his dealings in chance procedures (an idea borrowed
from the Dadaists at the beginning of the last century) and how
this changed the landscape of modern dance. I would argue that Cunningham's
approach to these ideas has remained the same or so close to the
same over the years that they really aren't very relevant anymore.
Furthermore, some of his chance procedures involve such a limited
number of possible prepared and rehearsed outcomes (i.e., choosing
either the black and white costumes or the colorful costumes or
choosing lighting grid #1 or lighting grid #2 that is almost identical
to #1) that it is almost a joke to call them "chance procedures."
The look of his pieces
has changed over time, but is this mainly just a result of the artists
his management and funders seek out to juxtapose with his dances?
How different is one Cunningham piece to the next once you remove
My main concern is that
this performance has been highly promoted and now reviewed throughout
the NYC area and all of the press that I have seen so far (the New
York Times and Village Voice) surrounding this show has been highly
positive. This performance has been called "A brave new vista,"
"fresh," and "avant-garde." This bothers me. Cunningham is simply
not making fresh, new, exciting work. Just as Jackson Pollock or
the cubists were revolutionary and exciting during their time, it
would be wrong to call any of their work presented today new, fresh
or avant-garde. They were artists of their time. For me, watching
this performance was like taking a trip to a large institutional
museum, as opposed a trip to the exciting galleries in Williamsburg
or Chelsea where I can expect to find work that is truly fresh and
Cunningham must be one
of the most highly funded companies in all of NYC, however, watching
this concert made me feel like that was money wasted. Most companies
here are struggling on tiny annual budgets to just break even and
dancers must work other jobs and forego health care. At the same
time, the Cunningham Foundation is receiving grants of up to $1
million. I feel like it is time for the money to be distributed
more evenly. More funding should be going to choreographers and
dance companies with new ideas who are expanding on the possibilities
of contemporary dance and who are contributing to the present, rather
than repeating themselves over and over again. Cunningham may represent
cutting edge art to the Altrias of the world, but in reality this
was only really true (or was it?) back in 1953. When an artist is
presented by the mayor of New York City, can that artist be considered
revolutionary, or merely a new part of the establishment?
I feel like Cunningham's
relevance in the current artistic climate must be addressed. There
is a great deal of amazing work that is being made today by a myriad
of new artists whose shows are under-funded and under-attended,
at least partially as a result of so much money, publicity and attention
being directed towards dance from two or three generations ago.
Even if you wholeheartedly
disagree with me, I feel that someone should express this point
of view and start a discussion.
Lee Shapley is a dance artist and Alexander technique teacher
living in New York City. He is a founding member of De Facto Dance.
(Organization listed for identification purposes only.)
Paul Ben-Itzak responds:
Hey, can I give a positive
review to a work I haven't seen yet? For the moment, I think I'll
leave it to my colleague Robin Hoffman to review "Split Sides,"
the latest work from Merce Cunningham, which I may review later
in Paris. (To read Robin's review, please click here.)
But I'd like to address Mr. Shapley's concerns -- in which he is
not alone among some in the younger generation of choreographers
and dancers -- on a broader level.
First, I don't accept
the artistic premise of Mr. Shapley's argument. Granted there are
seasoned choreographers who seem to be regurgitating their past
successes; Merce Cunningham is not one of them.
Far from being calcified,
Cunngham's NEW work is more inventive and his way of working more
innovative than 90 percent of what I see from the younger generation
But even if Cunningham's
oeuvre was entirely constituted of works from 50 years ago, I don't
see a problem in funding and otherwise supporting dance's version
of the 'institutional museum.' I'd take the most obscure artist
from the halls of the Met Museum over most of what I saw the last
time I toured the Chelsea galleries. With Merce, we're talking Picasso,
and seeing a new piece by this master is like it would be if Picasso
were still alive and we got to walk into the Met or the MOMA and
see new work by him every year. Even better to see a new piece in
a mode in which he'd been working for 50 years. The analogy is not
universal; oh that Paul Taylor's older works were respected like
museum masterpieces, or even Balanchine's, and that Taylor wouldn't
have to trot out a new one every year regardless of whether the
muse is with him.
The muse is always with
But Mr. Shapley's complaint
is not just aesthetic. Running through it is envy -- this is money
that could be going to his contemporaries, instead of that old fogey
-- and underlying that is the same ol' "poor dance" lack of esteem
for the field that says, there's not enough to go around.
Looking at the big picture
requires that instead of sitting in the audience, folding our arms
and harumphing when the mayor of New York City doesn't just send
a proclamation but makes time to introduce an artist who, let's
face it, as establishment as he may seem to us, is still pretty
out there, we should be standing up and applauding, or even shouting,
"About time, Mr. Mayor."
When the mayor goes
to a dance concert, it focuses the spotlight not just on Merce,
but on dance. When the local New York media hype Merce, they are
hyping dance -- as opposed to, say, movies. That's ink that didn't
go to movies, but to our art. Rather than begrudging Merce the deserved
attention accorded to his choreography and his company, we should
be thanking him for the attention he brings to dance.
(PS: The headlines for this article are mine.)
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