r.i.p. merce cunningham


seminal and ground-breaking choreographer, long-time collaborator/life partner with john cage, and you should know about him if you don’t [boing boing]

nyt page.

But who is Merce Cunningham and why should the Melbourne International Arts Festival celebrate him and his associates in a comprehensive residency programme? Bluntly, Cunningham and his long term partnership with John Cage established a precedent of artists who think. While this statement might appear counter-intuitive to current practitioners jealously guarding their licence to embody relationships with the world, Cunningham and Cage along with the constellation of artists they gathered into their orbit over the years, interrogated, analysed and proceeded to imagine what making dance, music and design might autonomously and democratically be. Though Cunningham protests its matter-of-factness, the approach exploded performance conventions. Influenced in turn by artists like Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce, by Cage’s immersion in Zen, by Cunningham’s affinity with Einstein’s pronouncements on the time-space continuum, by the growing affluence of the US in postwar conditions, the partnership provoked a quiet and unstoppable revolution.

Their radical point of departure concerns their belief in the innate expressivity of movement, sound and design. Moreover, echoing Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’, any action or noise could contribute to this expressivity if so composed within the art work. Lines, jumps and squeaks are, simply in their Joycean ‘thing-ness,’ without any recourse to external narratives or overlays, expressive. In order to realise this unadorned expressivity, choreographer, composer and designer would agree upon the duration of the work and then disperse to action their constructions separately. The process created performances whereby relations between elements operating as free agents were dependent on what spectators might detect as meaningful in their coexistence. To further eliminate habitual instincts and preferences, Cunningham’s choreographic processes gravitated around manipulating movement phrases by throwing dice or the I-Ching sticks to determine how units of the phrases were re-built by whom and where and when. The effect of stripping away personal feelings enabled Cunningham to paint the stage as if a canvas: “Imitating the way nature makes a space and puts lots of things into it, heavy and light, little and big, all unrelated, yet each affecting all the others.” Significantly, as well as predicting our current preoccupations with human beings as but one component in complex environmental systems, the compositional methods also foreground process over product, a motivating factor of subsequent postmodern approaches to art. [link]


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