Last Friday, Yale Dance Theater presented The Legacy of Merce Cunningham in a great big open space – the university’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium.  This Friday, I’m still thinking about it.

Merce Cunningham is dead, and his company formally disbanded.  Yet a unique choreographic approach dedicated to highlighting qualities of un-repeatability and randomness in the universe persists.   Cunningham’s work pokes holes in the way we always try to locate beginnings, middles and endings in the harsh neutrality of ever-flowing occurrence.

The gym was an unusual venue for seeing modern dance, despite the obvious kinesthetic connections.  It made me recall how  my own first exposure to the art form was for phys-ed credit in college, where we learned to slowly curve the spine down vertebra by vertebra, a classic Cunningham technique.  The dancers had a chance to tell us afterwards how dwarfed they felt moving from their rehearsal studio to this grand hall of physicality, performing movements that seemed to carry very different qualities with no walls close around them and no mirrors to look in.   Enhancing the openness they were experiencing viscerally and making it more intense, the dancers were called upon to exercise choices provided for them within the choreography.

This kind of Choice – not “improvisation” per se but a vein of spontanaeity embedded within a defined set of choreographic instructions – consists of, for example, what corner to head towards, or whether to start off on a 45-degree or a 90-degree angle.   The result of each dancer exercising their options in this manner created – as it creates each time it is performed – an “unpattern” of graceful inevitability, composed of bodies that cut dislocated trajectories yet somehow managed not to collide.  The total effect gave the appearance of swallows on the early evening sky above the autumn river in Connecticut, the way they gather and swell and then pull away, exposing rhythms within chaos.

The program featured a “MinEvent,”  an uninterrupted sequence of excerpts drawn from full-length pieces produced over the years.  Each MinEvent is unique; this one included parts of Pond Way(1998), Rorotorio (1983), Numbers (1982) and Canfield (1969).  Pond Way had premiered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival when I was working there, another small gift of coincidence.

Meg Harper and Jennifer Goggins, both former principal dancers with the company and now legacy-bearers who had worked all semester with the Yale students, spoke about the working process as well as Cunningham’s intent.  They explained what the audience members who gathered for this experience would NOT see.

First and foremost, we would not see narrative.  No story was meant to be conveyed by the movement, no build up of tension and then struggle then cathartic release, no cause and effect.

Along with structured Choice for the dancers, Cunningham was extremely keen on incorporating chance operations in building up his choreography.  He and his long-time artistic collaborator, composer John Cage, used the I-Ching as an instrument of Chance to dictate how they would put together particular forms and sequences.  In performance, the dance and music created in this manner were meant to take place within the same physical space, but be unrelated.  For the presentation, we were treated to a Cage composition performed live alongside the dance by Yale School of Music Musicians.

It is this break from narrative that is one of the most seductive qualities of the work, in my opinion.  The mind is thwarted in its pattern-seeking.  Cause and effect is limited to muscles pulling bones, a torso falling over the hips, an arm twisting,  a sound being made, and then another sound…

Cunningham and Cage, as collaborators playing together, setting up rigorous conditions for Games of Choice and Chance, exploring their limitations and possibilities, seemingly made space happen.

It’s still happening.



Over the course of the semester, the students of Yale Dance Theater reflected on the legacy of Merce Cunningham’s ideas on the YDT blog at