MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, celebrating dancer Merce Cunningham. Elizabeth Farnsworth looks at a long career.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He has been performing for more than 60 years, and has produced a style so idiosyncratic, it is almost immediately recognizable as his work. There were years when some audiences found his dances too modern, too challenging. He often choreographs by chance, throwing dice to decide where a dancer will go, and how. And movements may be independent of any rhythm or theme. But over the decades, Merce Cunningham has won over legions of admirers. In July, his company filled the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center four nights straight with a celebratory program that paid homage to his lifetime of experimental work.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: One, one. One, two, three. One.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Though arthritis limits Cunningham's motion, he still practices with his dancers five days a week, leads his company on their tours around the world, and continues to produce new work each year.
BANU OGAN, Dancer: I remember sort of thinking, "I will never be able to do this fluidly." You know? And he gave me like a certain amount of foot changes, and then an amount of arm changes and he said, "Now, the arms go not with the feet, but you do them sort of fluidly throughout the phrase." And I thought, "There's no way I'll be able to do this." And then eventually it came, and I remember feeling like, "Oh, yay." And now it feels good, you know?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, the son of a lawyer and homemaker, neither with any connection to theater. He studied dance in his hometown with a former vaudeville performer, and attended the Cornish School, now the Cornish College of the Arts, in Seattle. In 1939, he joined modern dance pioneer Martha Graham's company. She used to say he was so buoyant, he seemed made for air. Six years later, Cunningham left Graham's company to pursue his own vision. He collaborated closely with composer John Cage, who was experimenting with sound, using even twigs as instruments. The two, along with painter Robert Rauschenberg and other artists, produced over 50 works in which music, dance and set were often kept separate. At times, dancers rehearsed without even knowing what the music would be. And in recent years, Cunningham has begun using computers to break down motion and find new ways to move. In his most recent work, "Biped," which debuted in April in Berkeley, California, Cunningham experimented with computer animation artists to develop a haunting dance which included digitally produced figures projected onto a scrim in front of the stage. Over the years, legions of dancers, including great ones like Mikhail Baryshnikov, have performed Cunningham's works, and his choreography continues to influence modern dance worldwide. His company tours Europe this fall, and will premier a new work at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., In the spring. I spoke to him recently in a rehearsal room at the Kennedy Center.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Merce Cunningham, thank you very much for being with us.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have been dancing on stage for, what, 60 years now -- more than that if we go back to your childhood, I guess?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Sixty years plus.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Plus. How did it all start? When did you know you wanted to with a dancer?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, I actually wanted to be in the theater. But I had in Centralia, Washington, I had tap dancing with Mrs. Maude Barrett, who was a remarkable woman with an enormous energy and thrust to make you want to do what she was giving you, which were, particularly, tap dances. She taught us in her kitchen at some point, on the linoleum. And I can still hear her, see it actually, making taps with her foot. She hit the front, the side, and the back. And then we would get out these little clips and plod away. And she'd say, "No, that's not it." And then she'd get up and do it. And I can still hear the difference. The rhythm was so wonderful. And then, eventually, I, with her daughter, we did exhibition ballroom dancing, and we performed in clubs and amateur shows.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So just from the time you took those lessons with her, you loved it?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yeah. Well, I... theater. I knew it was theater. How, then I didn't know, but theater, obviously.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why modern dance and not ballet, not traditional ballet?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: I know nothing about so-called serious dance. And then I went to the Cornish School in Seattle after high school. And there it was a school run by a remarkable woman again, Ms. Nellie Cornish, where her idea, if you wanted to be in the arts, you should know something about all of them, visual and performance. So I wanted to be... I went to be principally to be in the theater about being an actor, but there was dancing, and I took it. And Ms. Cornish said when she was making out my schedule, she said, "Well, of course, you will do the modern dance." And I didn't know one from the other. So I said, "All right."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amazing how these things are decided.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, it's chance. And in the end, I think for me it was very good chance.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As you well know, there's been lots of writing about the fact that you design a dance sometimes by chance. You've even thrown dice, and depending on the roll of the dice, decided important elements of the dance. Tell us about that and why you do it.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Because on the simplest possible level, it opens up things I wouldn't have thought of. It opens up. And chance does this for anybody. You can toss the coin about something in your daily life. And you do what it says, and you find out something you hadn't thought of before. Well, in the larger sense with this, I have done it in all of the dances, used it in various ways, all of the dances since... 20 or more years, more than that, 30 years probably … in various ways, because it is such a large way of working. It can be so complex that it's almost impossible to decipher it. What it does do for me is if something comes up even that is, you might say it's physically impossible for humans, okay. But you look at what it is, and you see something else that you can do, which you had not thought of before.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: So that's the kind of philosophy all right, but it's also a marvelous way for me to work, because it is a way of getting at something in a way that I might not think of.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And were you also rejecting ... were you trying to avoid clichés that can occur in narrative dance? Is that part of what you were doing? I mean, in dance it tells a story.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes, yes. Well, narrative dance has never interested me regardless, because I think that movement by itself is so fascinating and that one can experience it directly. But the chance thing has furthered that. And also, it just isn't easy to do, because of the complexities it leads you into. But you do find out things, not only about dancing, but about people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It is really a philosophy of life that this is a reflection of it, isn't it? I mean, being attuned to the very moment, instead of looking at what's happening next, is that part of what you're talking about?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes, exactly. Yes. You get someplace. In that sense it's like Zen. You are what you are at the moment of time and space. Okay, now what do you do next? Instead of having planned something, you go by chance, using the chance operation, and it sends you some other place, and you have to figure out how to get there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh. Is this why... is it true, by the way... I read that you did... sometimes you introduced your dancers to the music the day of the dance. You didn't write the dance for the music. Is that true? You were collaborating with John Cage, your longtime partner.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that true that you did that?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Oh, of course. We still do. Everybody thinks it's odd, but you do it in your life every day. But it's, again, in a way, it's political move. It's saying that one person isn't better than somebody else -- in this case the composer and the choreographer -- that we both ... that the two arts occupy a length of time, say two minutes, five minutes, thirty minutes, whatever. And the composer cuts it up in one way, and the dancer can cut it up in another, and they do it at the same time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've always collaborated also with artists who were very much ahead of their times, you might say, Robert Rauchenberg and others. And in the July birthday performance, you have digital artists involved. Tell us about that and how you got into that.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, it's the motion capture work. I can't speak in technical terms, because it's too complicated for me, but I met Paul Kaiser and Charlie Escar, and I saw their work, their individual work with computer and on screens and so on. And we wondered if we could work together some way. We ended up ... my having to make a number of very short phrases for two of my dancers, which we then took to the dancers and the phrases to San Francisco to be shot in a motion picture studio. And we shot them, and that was the beginning material for the two digital men. Then later we did some more shooting of movement. All of this was used by the two men to make material which they could then put on project, which in the case of "Biped" is projected on a large scrim, which is in the front. If you're the public, here's the scrim, and the shapes would appear. They're both figures recognizable, say, as human or distorted humans. And behind it were the dancers doing the dance. You could see through this. And it makes a double image, in a way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you explain your ability to stay so young? I mean, you still dance. You're doing major performances every year. You're using the most ... the most cutting edge technology-art. How do you do it? MERCE CUNNINGHAM: I get up every morning, and I try stand up straight, and then I try to bend over. And from that I try to begin. That's not easy. It's very hard. But most of all, I think it's simply about dancing. It's been what I do all my life. And it's what interests me. And it remains just as fascinating now as when I began, because I constantly am finding something I don't know about, so that I try to find some way to deal with that. Then further, I live at a time when there is an enormous change in visual ... both in art, with the artists with whom I've worked, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenberg, for example. They've brought very different visual ideas into art. And I've been lucky enough to have been able to collaborate with them. And in this situation, it was another visual thing. You see, I think that's what puts the dance, for me, and technology together. It's visual. It's what you look at. With dancing, it's something you watch. You don't have to like it, but that's the way you experience it, by looking. And so is so much of the technology. So I thought, from the beginning, well, they should go together.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think your main contribution to dance has been so far?
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Oh, I suppose to keep on going. I don't know. But I do ... have felt very strongly for many years about the ideas with which I work, that they are interesting ideas in terms of movement and in terms of dance. And in the beginning, there was of course a great deal of opposition to the kind of work I was doing. And I remember sitting one day and thinking, well, I don't really like what they say, because I think these ideas are part of the world I live in. Now, I may not be working at them very brightly. That's okay. I could put up with that. But the ideas themselves were fascinating. And I think if you simply look around at the way the technology is in our lives at any moment, that unless you just want to avoid it totally -- and of course, you can be inundated about it -- you have the slide through some way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Merce Cunningham, thank you very much.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: (Laughs) You're welcome. Thank you.