Merce Cunningham remembered

Photographer - Joe Tabacca

‘He was like the sun – get too close and you’d get burned’

Valda Setterfield danced with the company in 1961 and 1965-75 When I came to New York in 1958, I was 23 and didn’t know a thing. A British dancer said to me: “You know, they have very interesting ideas in New York that we don’t have.” I felt maybe I’d made a mistake, but then I watched Merce’s class and thought: “This is why I came to America!”

The class had an anatomical sense to it – it went into an amazing range of shapes and steps, as well as the most exhilarating rhythmic combinations. It was thrilling. Afterwards, we all went out to supper at the Automat and my new life began.

We didn’t exactly sign contracts in those days. I finally figured out I was in the company when Merce was making a new piece called Place. I seemed to be the odd girl out, without a partner, until one day he came and stood behind me and said: “All right, let’s begin.” I thought: “Oh my god, I’m going to be his partner!”

It was a very fast sequence: it whizzed back and forth across the stage. I had a very hard time because his speed was phenomenal. He was absolutely fantastic to be on stage with – one of the most present people I’ve ever worked with. He was sensational, thin as a rail but with amazing power – and very strong.

My mother always said I should smile more, and my teachers said I’d get a job if I was more personable. But at one point Merce said to me: “Don’t make everything so pretty.” And I suddenly thought: “Thank God I can drop all that stuff.” I was lucky – Merce and I found ways to really talk to each other, and that wasn’t true for everyone. He always said: “I don’t tell people what to do. If they don’t ask me questions, they’re not ready to hear the answer.”

Merce was like the sun. He had the most astonishing power – and if you got too close, or stayed a little too long, well, you might get burned. But if you knew how to approach him, you could flourish and grow. That’s what he did for me.

‘In many ways, being in the company was a cold experience’

Karole Armitage, 1976-81
I recently watched some films of Merce’s early work and they reaffirmed his greatness to me. The dance itself was just on fire. It wasn’t only a moment in time, but also something of tremendous lasting power.

I joined his company in 1976. I had trained in classical ballet in the days when the war between modern dance and ballet was strong. It was exciting to learn new ideas about space, rhythm and weight. The cast of characters was wonderful. Not only Merce but John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. These people were regular members of the world we inhabited.


In many ways, being in the company was a cold experience. Merce did not talk to anyone, ever. He gave no corrections, no communication. He’d walk in the room, say, “We are doing this piece”, turn on the stopwatch and comment at the end, “Two seconds too slow”, or, “Two seconds too fast”. In the course of five years of rehearsing – all day every day – he said two sentences to me. The first was: “You need more tensile strength.” I was 18 and I didn’t know what he meant. The other one was: “Thank you for the cheese.” Because I gave him a selection of French cheese.

I think it was the only way he could cope. He was a very private person who based his philosophy of collaboration – that everyone worked on their own, simultaneously – on his own psychology. I think he was fundamentally shy. I suppose some of it had to do with being gay. That may be why he was somewhat guarded. Although everyone knew [Cunningham and John Cage were a couple], it was never spoken about. Even though almost everyone in the company was gay and we were very open among ourselves, there was a respect for Merce’s privacy.

He was a very sweet person. Whenever he was asked to speak publicly, he was charming, witty, smart and warm, but there was never any of that in the working situation. But we danced with him, so we shared energy, and that’s a great thing.

‘We rehearsed in complete silence’

Michael Cole, 1989-98
The first time I met Merce was during spring break. I’d come up to New York and was walking to the Cunningham studio – and the person coming in my direction was Merce himself. He had a grocery bag filled with tea and cat food. I said: “Oh! You’re Merce Cunningham!” And he said: “I think I am, yes.”

At college, my teachers were very mean. They would yell at you; there was a lot of shame involved. At the Cunningham studio, it was different – it was quiet. He never admonished anybody. The work was about the work. That was such a breath of fresh air. I thought: “Wow! This is the place for me.”

How difficult was the choreography? Ha! I’d never encountered anything like it: long, long balances, very tricky rhythms, very odd combinations, but there was a sense of wit to it all. I’m one of the 15 dancers who worked with Merce before and after he began choreographing with the aid of computer software. Before, Merce would work out the steps with coins or dice, the whole chance operations thing. CRWDSPCR [a 1993 work] was one of his early computer-aided pieces. From that point onwards, he would make a phrase just for the legs, say, then he would teach a completely different phrase for the arms, and then another for the torso and the head. It was up to us to put it all together and make sense of it. That’s where it really started to get crazy.

We rehearsed completely in silence, but I personally think Merce was the single most musical choreographer out there. You’d work on a phrase in the dance on 11 counts, the next one on 42, after that on threes, and you’d really make that rhythmic throughline visible with your body. You’d see the melodies.

Merce didn’t speak to us very often, but in your first performance, he’d definitely tell you to have fun. Typically, he’d sit downstage right and watch the entire show like a hawk, but on your last exit, he would grab you by the arm and squeeze it. He wouldn’t say anything, but in that squeeze, you knew you had arrived. “Well done,” he was saying. “You’ve made it – welcome to the family.”

‘I came for 10 weeks – and stayed for years’

Daniel Squire, 1998-2009
I saw the Cunningham Company in 1995 and was blown away. I’d never seen people working so hard on stage before. I was used to dancers showing what they’d already figured out, but what I witnessed was people engaged in very clear challenges. I was so taken with it, I went to New York for 10 weeks to train at the Cunningham studio and stayed for 18 years. Merce performed in those 1995 shows – he must have been 76 – and he was still performing while I was an understudy.

However, he became physically more and more limited [Cunningham had arthritis]. He stopped touring but he didn’t stop making work. Given his health, some people might have taken the day off. But Merce didn’t do that. He came in. He was just so genuinely interested in what he was doing, it constantly fascinated him.

After my very last show, which took place shortly before his death, I told Merce about that first time I saw the company, about seeing people challenged. He said: “Thank you for taking that so much to heart.” I thought: “Interesting – he’s creating this environment where people bring what they bring, connect to what they connect with, and go on their own different journeys.” The lack of narrative or character meant you could really be yourself in the work.

Audience reactions were so varied. It was about different people engaging with it in their own way. The work wasn’t ever intended to be abstract. I think that’s one of the great things he left behind: a huge body of work that can be reinterpreted by dancers – and by audiences too. As people change, as society changes, his work will be seen in different ways. I think it will transcend history.


Articles Contemporary Dance