by Paul Parish
"The greatest choreographer alive," Merce Cunningham, died last week at the age of 90. The New York Times, his hometown paper, gave most of the front page to the story. Incidentally, he was gay.
Not all great artists are gay. And not all great gay artists are the same. But queers do have an advantage in the process of baiting the bourgeoisie, putting the genteel tradition on the ropes, which was the great project of 20th-century artists. And Merce was the greatest ever. His dances are amongst the strangest things and the most beautiful the world has ever seen.
He was the highest and most extreme of the modernists, and of all the greats, he's the hardest to appreciate. He's as hard to read as Finnegans Wake, and for most of his career there was a steady march out of the theater by audience members who could not stand the mental discord that what they were seeing made them feel.
He came in the second wave of modernists, after Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, Balanchine and Marcel Duchamp had begun things. Duchamp had bought a urinal at a hardware store and put it in an art exhibition, Balanchine had taken the skirts off the dancers, Martha Graham had danced from her vagina. Merce went further – to rule out any form of expression, he embraced randomness: His typical method in his great years was to make a palette of moves, and arrange them in time and space by throwing dice or flipping coins. Which direction? what arm? what leg? what step? facing which way? and so on. And then he adhered strictly to the results he got, which were almost impossible to execute. So there's no boy meets girl, no romance, no nothing except strangely beautiful moves done by dancers who're challenged beyond anything ever seen before. One of his dancers, the flawless Tom Caley, told me he never saw light at the end of the technical tunnel.
By the end of his life, when he'd been crippled and was working like Beethoven in a medium whose essential sense he no longer possessed, Cunningham used computerized "life-forms" to generate choreography – like a Sims developer – except that he was looking for moves he'd never seen before. The dancers were tied up in knots, with their arms locked behind them, trying to leap and turn. One of them told me she'd finally figured out how to breathe, and from then on she could do it.
There were two poles of closeted gay artists, with Jerome Robbins and Merce Cunningham at opposite ends of the spectrum. Both were great choreographers, both incorporated the postures and moves of ordinary people seen on the street – lounging against lampposts, waiting for the bus, doing whatever people do when unself-conscious – into dances that captured, in a completely new way, the way Americans looked at mid-century.
But Robbins displayed all the anxieties of a queer who feared exposure, and stayed one step ahead of the game by serving up the latest in cool. Merce, on the other hand, seemed profoundly confident in his own way of being: to be a changeling, a moonchild, the queer who, by nature, sees things through a different lens from the heterosexual majority, and has an unjadeable appetite for the new.
Merce was always a maverick. Born in Centralia, Washington, it's said that he set up hurdles in the side yard and jumped them for fun, but he never went out for track. Whether or not that's true, it's the key to my understanding his way of being gay and of being an artist.
It's important to remember that queer artists of his day could live in an alternative reality: as it were, in the subjunctive mood. In New York in the 1940s and 50s, where he moved after meeting Martha Graham at Mills College and accepting her invitation to join her company, the Bohemian life was easy: if you didn't want to, you hardly ever had to deal with straight people. The painters and dancers and actors all lived virtually rent-free in old, unheated warehouses downtown, and took each others' classes, and needed money mostly to pay for class. Imagination was free.
Unlike Robbins, Merce was not popular in his own country. His shows could sell out in Paris or London, but not in New York, nor at UC Berkeley, CA, where Robert Cole provided an annual residency and many of his dances had their premiere. But there was a core of passionate admirers. A skeptic at first, I became one – but I always had to take a nap before going to one of his shows. "Pictures" made me cry, "Sounddance" made me scream. "Beach Birds" and "Rune" took me to a nameless place of unbearable beauty. Professors Marni and David Wood taught his technique in their dance program at Cal, and sent many dancers to his company, including the great Ellen Cornfield.
His friend Nancy Dalva asked him at the end of his life, "Merce, how is it that without music, without narrative, and with your using chance procedures to remove yourself, to keep from imposing your personality on the movement, that your dances are so passionate?" "Because," he said, "I love dancing!"
It's the truth.