Flash History, 10-7: Merce
A Dance Memoir
By Elinor Rogosin
Copyright 2011 Elinor Rogosin
During the summer of 1952, I discovered Merce Cunningham's class in a loft on W. 8th Street, not far from New York University, where I was taking a summer course. It was not so much a conscious decision to transfer from the Martha Graham School and technique to the Cunningham classes, but a matter of chance. Modern dance was extremely passionate about such allegiances at that time. And when I introduced myself before the first class, I told Merce, in a confessional tone, that my previous training had been at the Martha Graham School. He reacted to my admission with an amused smile, but said nothing. Then one day, after I had been studying with him for a while, he surprised me by remarking, "You're more lyrical than most of those who've studied with Martha." Referring to the first names of our teachers was part of the early modern dance heritage, and I thought of Merce's comment as a compliment.
That long ago class on W. 8th Street started around noon, the hottest part of the day in an unusually hot summer. Unmindful of the heat, we would climb the three floors to the studio-loft, and then change our clothes in a makeshift, corner dressing room. Three or four of us would come every day, while two or three other students would pop in and out of the class. Except for a young matron who was interested in the arts, we were all in our late teens, serious about dance and self-absorbed in our own progress.
Warm-ups would start in a standing position: bodies erect, feet parallel, arms down. On Merce's count, we would bend over, pulsing front to the center... then up... to the side... up... to the other side... like figures in an animated, geometric drawing. Instead of music, his soft, unhurried voice accompanied our work throughout the class. As the combinations progressed in complexity, I became so impressed by Merce's graceful, elegant way of moving and his deft, nonchalant style that I copied him as closely as I could, hoping to will myself into his shadow.
About half an hour after the class began, we would be sweating so profusely from the midday heat that one by one we would reach for our towels to wipe our faces dry. Merce would wrap his towel around his neck, prize-fighter style. Otherwise, he would remain as seemingly unaffected by the intense heat as by anything else that might or might not happen.
Two cats that belonged to the dancer who owned the loft often visited our class. They would meander through the hole of a partitioning wall and then saunter across the floor near the ballet barre on the back wall. On Merce's advice, we would let them go their own way and continue our work as if they weren't there. Of course, he was right: we never overstepped each other's territory.
The heat of the summer continued and so did we. One day in the midst of a hot spell that was so unbearable that offices and factories closed early, Merce encouraged us with one of his casual understatements that so easily defined a problem: "People cope with hot weather in various ways. For dancers it's good for stretching muscles. You can develop a very deep pli´ in this weather and that's important. The Japanese, you know...."
Aside from the weather, the other constant topic of conversation was centered on a large, free-standing blackboard with musical notations jotted on it. "John Cage and I are working on some musical/time theories," Merce explained, answering our many questions. "He is exploring the differences between Eastern and Western scales, and the effect they have on music and movement."
At the end of that summer in 1952, I returned to college in Philadelphia, and didn't see Merce Cunningham until two years later when I took his classes once again. His studio at that time was an old gym on Sheridan Square in Manhattan's West Village. The class had doubled in size. However, my dance loyalties were still divided.
An invisible cord tied me to the Graham School, though I had personal feelings about the second-hand atmosphere of the classes there. Few of the teachers could transcend Martha Graham's strong personality, yet her words and manner were dutifully imitated. In contrast, I found the simplicity of the classes given by Merce Cunningham, the curly-haired man with the impish smile and the quiet, even, low-keyed personality, to be a refreshing experience.
There was a peripheral similarity between the focus of Cunningham's approach to technique, and Graham's dynamic use of the contraction-release, as both utilized a fluid spine. However, the Graham contraction-release was often used to express an emotional connotation, while the pulsating spine that Cunningham worked with is just that, a fluid spine. He was an attentive, purposeful teacher who made the work seem simple: we have muscles, bones, a head, torso, spine, arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, toes and we move them separately, together, and in an infinite variety of combinations.
We did our best to copy his movements, but it takes time to develop strength and control. While technique provides the discipline and a form to mask the barest idiosyncrasies, the unique personality of each individual is revealed through his or her own moving body. Sometimes a personality transforms itself through dance into an image of beauty. Merce is one of these people. It was very much in evidence, as he carefully demonstrated even the simplest patterns to his students.
A decade had gone by before I saw Merce again. I was in London with my husband on our way to resettle in New York City after living abroad for many years. When I read that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company would be giving a week of performances at the Sadler's Wells Theatre, I was both surprised and delighted. In all the years since I first took class with Merce in that W. 8th Street studio, I had never seen any of his theatrical, dance performances.
That 1964 London season was a success. My own experience was confusing. I went to the performance with great anticipation and came away with a sense of bewilderment. I was so shocked by the taut expression on Merce's face that it unnerved me. It was an instance of life having more power than art, for I was as affected by the physical change that had come far too early in my former teacher's life as I was by the evening's program.
I recall only bits and pieces from that night. Merce crossing the stage with a chair strapped to his back, in "Antic Meet," and I found that mystifying. Merce playing around with a multi-sleeved sweater, and that was amusing. Merce in white overalls doing a sort of soft-shoe dance, and that was delightful. But during most of the program, I kept visualizing Merce as he had looked the last time that I had seen him in his Sheridan Square studio.
It was not until the Cunningham company's 1970 appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that I began to appreciate the clear poetry of Merce's choreography. The overall clarity of the dancers' movements in ballets like "Signals" and "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run" reminded me of contemporary, abstract painting. The choreography has that same architectural sense of space and profound simplicity.
Since then, I have been to many performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and have been amazed by the beautiful dancing. Merce, who once moved with a fawn-like grace, and was the focal point of any Cunningham work, slowly reduced his performing.
Into his late eighties, despite suffering from severe arthritis, Merce Cunningham continued to teach and to choreograph until his death in 2009, using a computer program for experimentation. For Merce it's simple: you let your heart follow your inspiration and never give up, whatever the odds.... Or as he so eloquently conce explained: "There's something about dancing, that if you love it enough, it helps you to survive. I have performed in some marvelous theaters and some that were not so marvelous; but, each time, I thought, here's a chance again. Maybe I'll find out something that I didn't know before. It doesn't matter whether it's little or big, but each time the process has to be like a spring rather than like something that's been fixed. At least, that's always been my thinking. I've thought, 'Here's a new chance' with each new day."
Since those hot, summer days almost 60 years ago when a small group of dance students found their way to a small loft studio in Manhattan, many, many students have studied with Merce Cunningham. As the decades piled up, one on top of another, some students joined his company, some became professional dancers with other companies or went on to form their own dance troupes, and some, like me, have become part of a devoted audience. It was in those sweaty classes on W. 8th Street that I not only understood something about aesthetics, and improved my dance technique, but more than anything, I learned that perseverance and discipline are the magic ingredients that mask a vision.
Elinor Rogosin has been and out of the dance world almost all her life. She has studied ballet at the School of American Ballet and contemporary dance with Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins in addition to studying with Merce Cunningham. She is a former editor of the Dance Scholars Newsletter, and has worked in public relations for Capezio Ballet Makers and the publisher Marcel Dekker. In recent years, she has been living in Sarasota, Florida and teaching at Ringling College of Art & Design, and most recently published a memoir, "Chasing Love: A Mother's Journey." A small portion of this essay originally appeared in the author's "The Dancemakers" (Walker & Sons), and is reprinted here by permission of the author.