Cunningham (2019) - full transcript

The iconic Merce Cunningham and the last generation of his dance company is stunningly profiled in Alla Kovgan's 3D documentary, through recreations of his landmark works and archival footage of Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg.


CUNNINGHAM: I never was
interested in dancing that referred

fo a mood, or a
feeling, or in a sense,

expressed the music.

So that the dancing
does not refer.

It is what it is.

It's that whole
visual experience.



Out. Stretch.


Two, down and down.

Up. Yeah. Step.

Hold. Hold. Hold.


JOURNALIST: Tonight, the world of
dance welcomes Merce Cunningham.

He has asked us not to call him
an avant-garde choreographer,

or a modern dance choreographer.

So I'm going to ask him
what we may call him.

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I'm a dancer.

says everything?

that's sufficient for me.


CUNNINGHAM: Since my dancers
and I are a group of human beings,

we are that on the stage,

as we are in real life,

people moving
around in various ways.

But we don't
interpret something.

We present something,
we do something,

and then any kind
of interpretation is left

up to anybody looking
at it in the audience.

CUNNINGHAM: My idea about
movement is that any movement

is possible for dancing.

That ranges all the way
from nothing, of course,

up to the most extended
kind of movement

that one might think up.

background is in modern dance,

is it, Merce Cunningham?


JOURNALIST: Now, did you
evolve a technique of your own?

physically or technically,

I was interested in extending

movement possibilities
as I saw them.

I thought that a ballet
technique for the legs

was astonishing, and I thought
many things in the modern dance

were remarkable for the torso.

And so I tried to find
ways to combine those

to make a body which
was flexible and pliant

and allowed for as many
movement possibilities

as I could see.

CUNNINGHAM: Dance exercises
over dancers an insidious attraction

that makes them work hours daily

at perfecting an instrument

which is really
deteriorating from birth.

To what end this
eternal daily struggle?

Because inside of
all that is an ecstasy.

Brief perhaps, not
always released,

but when it is, like
a moment in balance

when all things great
and small coincide.

This can happen at any moment,

and when it does for a dancer,

he can smile without knowing it.

There is no guarantee
of this, but it does exist.

We see it, and we know it.



CUNNINGHAM: Myself, I don't
think of discipline as, like, rules.

I think of discipline as
being something private,

which, in the case of a dancer,

he realizes that the discipline,

say, of going to
class, is part of his life.

He arrives at this
point within himself.

It's more like meditation,
devotion, I think,

than anything else.


school in Seattle, Washington,

and Mr. Cage was there,

and he taught us a
composition class.

And it was so remarkable,
I never forgot this.

The next year, I
went to New York,

and Mr. Cage joined eventually.

So he's been writing
music for me ever since.


CAGE: People have,
um, often defended art

on the grounds
that life was a mess,

and that, therefore,
we needed art

in order to escape from life.

I would like to have an art
that was so, uh, bewildering,

complex, and, uh, illogical
that we would return

to everyday life with,
uh, great pleasure.



There is no such thing

as silence.

CAGE: I have nothing to say,

and I am saying it.

And that is poetry

as I need it.


BROWN: First time I
met Merce Cunningham,

he was touring the
States with John Cage.

I'd never seen
anyone move like that,

from such a quiet center,

with such animal authority
and human passion.

CAGE: Merce Cunningham's
doctor used to be Dr. Lotman.

Dr. Lotman's the
one who prescribed

Merce's vitamin pills
and breakfast powders.

He told Merce to sit when
he didn't have to stand,

to lie down when
he didn't have to sit,

and to sleep whenever
he could sleep.

Possessed of an
active disposition,

Cunningham keeps busy
even when he's sitting.

With pen or pencil
he makes calendars,

circling the days
involving performances

or other engagements.

One calendar finished,
he starts another.

For years, sitting at
the breakfast table,

he taught himself Russian.

This enabled him to speak
in their language to members

of the Bolshoi Ballet
before performing

with his company for them.

Having learned
to knit, he knitted

the many-colored costume
he wears in "Lavish Escapade."


CUNNINGHAM: I simply decided
years ago that I would make

a dance free of the music.

And then we would put the
sound and the dance together.

JOURNALIST: Then, actually,
you have never heard his music,

and has he seen your
dance? CUNNINGHAM: No.

night of the performance,

you will combine the two?

[CHUCKLING]: With any luck.

JOURNALIST: What, then,
reactions have you had to that?

[LAUGHING] Well, all the
way from absolute stupefaction

on the part of an
audience to, uh...

to people liking it very much.





began to work with dancers

who were trained
in other techniques,

it didn't function for me.

So I decided that
maybe if I could teach...


I must say the
first class I gave,

There was one
person who showed up,

a wonderful Marianne

who said, "Well, will
you give the class?"

And I said yes. So I began.

DILLEY: I've always felt,

during the time when
I worked with him,

although he was giving out

all of the activity that we did,

there was a great space
for you to do it yourself.

FARBER: I think that
Merce was interested

in what could be considered
our flaws as dancers.

And he hesitated to correct us

unless he just got
irritated by what he saw.

I think he was much
more of an artist

rather than a teacher

who was going to try
to get us to do things

up to some perfect
and ideal standard.

found I was doing things

that I never dreamed
were possible.

And the world was
opening up in a whole way

that I hadn't understood.

GUS: The thing that's so
hard about working with Merce

is that he demands that
you are first of all yourself

as a human being,

and from that, a dancer.


SETTERFIELD: And you move on it?

Yes. There again,
you can walk up or not.

never liked that competitive thing

that so much of dancing
seemed to me to have,

so I never tried to do
that in my own situation.

I went on the assumption
that each dancer was a person

who had certain abilities.

I would attempt to
let each of the dancers

find out for himself
how he danced,

what kind of a person
he was in that situation.

It's not politics,
it was dancing,

but that's as reasonable
a place to do that

as any other situation.

MAN: One, two, three,
four, five, six, seven, eight.


CUNNINGHAM: In the early '50s,

that point that my company,
So to speak, began.

I didn't form it. It just began.

We just sort of got together
and tried to keep together.

That's all there is to it.


Suddenly, there's a
company of three people,

or eight people, or 60 people,

I don't think it matters,
it's only in proportion.

Then you have to
consider all of those people

in all the ways. The
fact that they are people,

they must somehow get
from day to day, you know,

and have some place to sleep,
something to eat, all of that.

And all of that has to be
taken into consideration,

as well as the fact
that you are now

not only responsible for
making a dance for yourself,

but for these other dancers too.

And that implies something
about clothing, heh,

covering them up some way,

something about music,
however you think of that,

and all that gets more...

involves more funds,
one way or another.

But you do it, don't you?

way you function?

Yes. You find a way
to function or you quit.

JOURNALIST: Yes, of course.

you do during rehearsal?

How does this all happen?
CUNNINGHAM: We rehearse,

and then I will keep
track via stopwatch

of a given section.

One of the pieces that we
used to do was "Suite for Five,"

and we could go several months
without rehearsing that dance,

and then do it and we
would come out within,

oh, at the most, 10
seconds difference.

BROWN: Merce's way of
working with a stopwatch,

which so shocked the
modern dance world,

led to the company's
reputation of being cold, inhuman,

expressionless automatons.

CUNNINGHAM: It seemed to
me that, in the society around us,

there were so many scientific
possibilities coming up

that one did not have to think

in terms of one thing
following another,

but, say, in a field.

And I began to make dances

with those
possibilities in mind.

So to speak,
compositional method

was by using chance,
or random means.


CUNNINGHAM: If I don't like what
comes up with the chance procedures,

do I then throw it away?

In other words,
do I let my taste

enter this thing?

And I, uh, don't.

I try it out.

audiences were artists.

The great American painters,

they were just
becoming well-known.

They were still poor.

RAUSCHENBERG: Well, the people
who really seemed to accept my work

were dancers and musicians,

while I was considered a
clown by nearly everyone else.

And, uh, I found
a lot more rapport

with, uh, their ideas

about what, uh, art was

than I did with
a lot of painters.

CAGE: We became
friends immediately.

We understood, without speaking,

how the other one felt.

Almost a sense of identity.


Rauschenberg described it once,

he said we have only
two things in common,

our ideas and our
poverty. Ha-ha-ha.

I thought that was a
marvelous description.

And it brought us together.


not the easiest person to work with

in the first place.
He hates sets.


RAUSCHENBERG: He hates costumes.

So I mean, you really
have to work around

without his even noticing.


CUNNINGHAM: I said, "Bob, I
want to wear a chair on my back"

in one of the dances.
He looked at me,

and then a few
minutes later he said:

"If you have a chair,
can I have a door?"

And I said,
"Certainly. Why not?"


RAUSCHENBERG: One of the most
amazing things about our collaboration

was sort of a
carte-blanche trust,

where nobody is
really responsible,

but as a group of people,
are not irresponsible.

And I think that creates a
kind of a wonderful feeling

about the
possibilities of society.

know what will happen

until it's put, let's say,
in the first performance.

I prefer to risk, so to
speak, to chance that,

that this combination of things,

some of which I
don't know about,

may produce something else.


to be so jealous of John

because John couldn't
do anything wrong,

but making costumes and
sets... [MAN LAUGHING]

I was always in the
furniture business,

and you can trip overeither
the set or the costumes.

But you can't trip on a note.


in "Summerspace,"

all I said was that the
dance didn't have any center.

knew what you meant.

There was gonna be just
as much dancing in the wings.

So I planned a kind
of a camouflage.

So if anybody hesitated,

they were lost in
the background.


on "Summerspace" today.

In Summerspace,

the principal momentum
was the concern

for steps that carry
one through space.

Like the passage of birds

stopping for moments
on the ground,

and then going on,

or automobiles
throbbing along turnpikes

and under and
over clover leaves.

The dance came out to have
a great deal of turning in it,

which was upsetting
to the dancers.

"I can't turn."

"How do you turn?"

The only way
to do it is to do it.

CUNNINGHAM: I continued
to work out the dance

every day after teaching,

with all of us growing
wearier as the weeks went on.

And we presented it
on a Sunday matinee,

in the spot costumes

and against the
pointillist backdrop

by Robert Rauschenberg,

and with the graph
music by Morton Feldman.

The audience was puzzled.


CUNNINGHAM: When we started, we
didn't want to simply stay in New York

and give one program
maybe in a small theater,

and then hope for
the rest of the year

to pay it off, and so on.

So we began to drive.

CAGE: The Cunningham
Company used to make

transcontinental tours

in a Volkswagen Microbus.

Once, when we drove
up to a gas station in Ohio,

and the dancers,
as usual, all piled out

to go to the toilets and
exercise around the pumps.

The station attendant asked me

whether we were a
group of comedians.

I said, "No. We're
from New York."

The real collaboration

was all getting into
that Volkswagen bus.

RAUSCHENBERG: I had to sit next
to the driver when we played Scrabble.

Until Carolyn Brown's husband
said that she would have

to leave the company if we
didn't stop playing Scrabble

while we drove
looking for mushrooms.

CUNNINGHAM: It was fun too.

It was horrible too.

CUNNINGHAM: But that's
what we could do, so we did it.

MAN: John...

CAGE: It's been
eaten up by animals.

and they are changing the name.

DILLEY: There are nine of you
chugging along from one place

to another, and, uh,
they were very tribal.

And John was incredibly
generous all the time.

He organized these
lovely picnics and...

In those days, we had our
food and lodgings paid for

and got 25 dollars a
performance, and that was it.

CAGE: On top of which they
said the music was impossible.

And there was a lady who
wrote to say that she had come

to New York from a distance,
and that in order to do that

she had had to
employ a babysitter.

And they printed
this in the paper.

The critic printed it.

And that when she got there,

what she saw and what she heard

was so bad, you see,

that she had, so to speak,

been cheated out
of all this money...

The ticket, the train
ticket, and the babysitter.

And then the critic
added that we had no right

to treat people in
this cruel fashion.


JOURNALIST: When you and
Cage were first touring together

during those early years,
did you have enough belief

in what you were doing
to not be discouraged

by the negative reactions?

only thing for me is that

I really am deeply
fond of dancing.

So no matter how
dire the situation was,

how desperate, I
would wake up one day

and start to work
and suddenly realize

that it was just as interesting
as it always had been,

regardless of the circumstances.

But we also, as we toured,

we began to have
friends... Not many.

But every place there
would be a few people

who would be very interested
in what we had done.


What's gratifying
to a dancer, really,

is performing, more than...
More than anything else.

Rehearsal has a certain
class, has a certain kind

of gratification,
but not, you know,

not as much as performing,
and we do it so little.

And then when it's
over, what is there?

You know, you go
back to your solitary flat,

and your horrible job,

and there's nothing.

I never thought
that's what it's about.

I think the real thing is
the fact that you continue,

that you keep on doing things,

because it isn't
about the money,

or not having money, or...

anything like that, it's
about making something.

CUNNINGHAM: How do you make
a movement alive, technique or not?

How do you keep in the
dancing, however long studied,

practiced, and repeated,
that spontaneous act

the stance of a
cat can give you?

It is for me a question of faith

and a continuous belief

in the surprise of the instant.

Put aside fatigue, aches,

injuries to the body
and the psyche.

Let the shape and the time
of a single or multiple action

take its weight and measure.

It will be expressive.

BROWN: My first
recollection of "Crises"

was Merce was making for himself

all these wonderful solos.

I mean, they were mad

and lots of dramatic
stuff in them,

and we never got to do that.

And Viola and I said,
“In the next piece

we want to be witches."
And that's what he made.


BROWN: People
take Merce at his word.

They absolutely believe
him that it's only steps

that he's putting on the
stage, but it isn't true.

It's not a dance of two people.

I mean, the women
do certain things,

but all of the, uh, real action

is initiated by him.

I'm picked up and carried,

and it's also very
little face to face.

That's very much true, I think,

in almost all of
the duet things.


NEELS:/f I were to go
to him and say, "Merce",

what does this... This exotic
fall that Gus and I do mean?

"What's it supposed
to mean?" You know?

MAN: He'd snort
and turn his back.

He'd take it away from us.

He'd say, don't do it.

Which side are
you going to go to?

All right, hold on,
hold on. Hold on.

Just down,
that's it. That's all.

Is that all right?

Now turn, Gus. That's
right, so that way, Gus.

That's fine.

Now, Sandra, let go.
Take your arms away.

That's right. Now, excuse me...

Now curve your trunk.

Give me this arm.
Bring it right up.

That's it.

DILLEY: Unfortunately,
it doesn't come

ever with any
clear understanding

as to why you are or are not
being included, except that...

Merce is like a painter,

and we're all like
different colors.

And he wants some colors,
and other times, he doesn't.


BROWN: I think there's
a great sense of love

within the company, one
for the other, and, uh...

Merce isn't able to
express that... openly,

but after a while you sense it.

expresses it openly?

Not really... no.




MAN: San Francisco.





4 From dusk till dawn ♪

♪ I've got another
world Of delusion... T

CUNNINGHAM: In "Winterbranch,"
the general idea was darkness.

It was all about violence.
JOURNALIST: I'm interested

to hear you say it
was about violence

because I think, on the whole,

you don't like these

CUNNINGHAM: You see, this piece

by the combination
of the elements

produces this violent display,

but the kind of
violence it produces

is special to each spectator.

One was race riots, and
one was atomic bomb,

and one was concentration camps,

and on and on.




CUNNINGHAM: The most violent
reaction we received from it was New York.

It was before there was
a great deal of violence

in the United States.

And now we do it and
people no longer take it

as being violent
because they know

there might be violence
when they go out in the street

or even in the
seat next to them.


JOURNALIST: Now, this world tour

that you just came
back from, tell us about it.

CUNNINGHAM: Well, we started in
Strasbourg and we ended in Tokyo.

And in between
was Paris and Venice

and Vienna and
cities in Germany,

and a month in
London and Stockholm.

Then we went to Poland,

and then we went
to Czechoslovakia.

We were the first Western
dancers to come there.

And we played in a
hall with 3000 people.





JOURNALIST: But you arouse
such controversy that all audiences

don't greet you the same
way, do they, Merce?

CUNNINGHAM: How do you say
that what was the audience like?

Everybody in the
audience is different.

They may all dislike it.

Dislike it for
different reasons.

No more music!

Stop music! MAN:
I've got in my mind

a kind of point of
view of the world,

and I see a kind
of arrow advancing,

and I see Rembrandt's
doing something,

Michelangelo's doing something,

and then John
Cage did something.

I want to go further,
of course. It's natural.

CAGE: This is
Renaissance point of view,

a European point of view,

that everything's
going in a single line.

And we're not
going in a single line.

We're in a field. MAN: Yeah...

And you can also
enter into the field.



were held over in London.


Merce screwed up,
and they liked us.

Almost ruined our reputation!


CAGE: Mr. Sarabhai
from Ahmadabad in India,

after seeing a performance
by the Cunningham Company,

asked Merce

whether his dancing was
popular in the United States.

Merce explained that
programs were given principally

in universities and colleges.

Mr. Sarabhai said,
"That isn't what I mean."

Do people do it after dinner?”



BROWN: Oh, God.

Six months with the same group

of 20 people is hard.

Anyway, when Bob
left, this was a time

when communication
was particularly poor

between dancers and Merce.

We were kind of scared
of what was going on,

because Merce
was very distressed

and had the responsibility
of the whole thing,

and was dancing
gorgeously the whole time.




Oh, it's beautiful.
It really is.

Oh! It's infinite

because it goes in with the sky.

Oh, it is fantastic.

JOURNALIST: One of the
strengths of this great company

is its ability to draw to itself

as full-time collaborators
top visual and musical artists,

like Cage, Warhol,
Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Mr. Johns cuts the finishing
touches into the costumes,

and Andy Warhol's silver pillows

wander the stage
cloud-like, looking for a home.

consider your work avant-garde?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I never
use the word about myself.

JOURNALIST: But you would
then say that yours is new dance.

How would you describe it?

Well, no, I don't
describe it. I do it.





Do it with me. Step
right, left, right, left.

Bah, bah. Leg,
back, turn up, down.

One, four, seven, eight.

Three, four, six.


Sweetie, anything I'm
doing is probably wrong.

No, it's nothing.

two, three, one, two, three,

four, five, six,
seven, eight, nine,

10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16,

17, 18, 19, 22.

Five, six, seven, eight, nine,

10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16,

17, 18, 19, 23.


Six, seven, eight, nine,

10, 11, 12, 13 14, 15, 16, 17,

18, 19, 24.

Five, six, seven, eight, nine,

10, 11, 12, 13, 14,
15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 25.

Five, six, seven, eight, nine,

10, 11, 12, 13, 14,

15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 26.

Five, six, seven, eight, nine,

10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16,

17, 18, 19, 20, stop. All right?

think the urge to communicate

more directly with you is
fairly strong in the dancers,

but they hold it back.

JOURNALIST: Which puts
them into some kind of a conflict.

They have to deal
with the situation,

and they have to figure
so much out for themselves.

Excuse me. Um.

I think that's what
I gamble on. Heh.

you gamble on? Yes, yes.

That is, it's toward the good

rather than the
bad, heh-heh-heh.

I know that doesn't always work.


But I rather think it works

more times than it doesn't.

That is, by putting
somebody in a situation

where they have to make
a decision about something,

is what it amounts
to, rather than

being dependent upon a kind of

now you do this,
then you do this,

and then you do this,
and then you do this.

Excuse me, I must go upstairs.


CAGE: Aware of
the many activities

connected with The Cunningham
Dance Foundation Incorporated,

Jim Klosty asked Merce

whether he felt
like a patriarch.

Two thousand dollars
from the contractor.

Our $5869 and 90 cents,

giving us thus a net

of $23,355 and 10
cents from the benefit.

CAGE: Merce said, "No",

I feel like a bystander
who's been trapped.”


never believed that idea

that dancing was the
greatest of the arts.

There are too
many low things in it.

Too many feet to take care of,

a great deal of
sweat and plain labor.


But when it clicks,
there's the rub.

It becomes memorable,

and one can be
seduced all over again.



BROWN: The age difference
between Merce and his company

was not that great in
the '50s, as it is now.

So that the family
aspect of the early years

is missing, I think.

And they don't share
their lives in the same way.

They don't eat together,
um, play together.


BROWN: There was a human being
there, a more total person on stage,

and we were different
from one another,

and he saw those differences.

And I think, today
he's interested

in orchestrating a large
company of dancers.

And in most of the new pieces,

they function as a
group, as a company.



CAGE: Merce has been
working so long now,

that some very fine dancers
who used to dance with him,

Carolyn Brown, for
instance, and Viola Farber,

and more recently,
Valda Setterfield, have left.

And at the present
moment, the company

is, uh, almost entirely new,

and yet it's magnificent.

CUNNINGHAM: That's because
you have to allow for everybody.

Every single person
has a possibility.

So what I do is not to imitate
Carolyn, but to try some way

to find something that
simply allows each person

to be what they are,

and if I'm lucky,
it will happen.

But I trust that.


would just like to say

that I'm very grateful for
the dancers in my company,

and the way they
have put up with me...

[CHUCKLES]...and all the
things that we have done together.

I think they have
responded marvelously.