Be with Merce — in books, films & classes

Dance · Film
498 Third Avenue, photo courtesy of James Klosty, “Merce Cunningham Redux

Looking in the rear view mirror, it appears that no artist in our great century of American dance — the 20th — had a more revolutionary impact on the art form as did Merce Cunningham. His genius (it long endured; he lived and worked into his 90s) reduced dance to its essence, while expanding it onto a plane where he tinkered with profound elements of time, space and form. Cunningham inextricably linked dance to human existence, while deploying dancers of such unique (and peculiar) dexterity and presence that they seemed far removed from the likes of us. Cunningham’s choreography (and his own dancing) made dance as normal — and abnormal — as daily life. He played his cosmic game with human chess pieces, and did so with disarming humility and deprecating humor.

There are many ways to tap Cunningham’s genius, four for our story today.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM REDUX a new, enhanced photo-essay book by James Klosty

Mel Wong, Merce Cunningham, RAINFOREST, 1971
photo James Klosty

Beyond being a genius, Merce Cunningham was incredibly photogenic. James Klosty’s Merce Cunningham was the first book ever published about Cunningham. It appeared in 1975, right when I was dancing and you better believe I pored over this book.

For the 100th anniversary of Cunningham’s birth, Mr. Klosty has reincarnated his book as MERCE CUNNINGHAM REDUX, in duotone printing, redesigned and completely reimagined with an additional 140 pages of photographs, many never-before published.

This is an historic keepsake I am proud to own.

CUNNINGHAM (2019) dir. Alla Kovgan – This splendid 3-D film (reviewed in artsmeme, “Merce’s Marvelous Movie,” excerpted below) opens in theaters December 13.

“The film, which proceeds chronologically, is chock-filled with gorgeous re-stagings of seminal works in splendid mise-en-scenes (one in a forest glen, another in an airport terminal, also used: the Westbeth rooftop). It spans the first swathe of Cunningham’s (post-Martha Graham) career, leaving off circa 1970 — rather abruptly, begging a second chapter. It also reveals, as much as possible, this hybrid faun-man — a role model of strangeness — as an exceptionally kind and caring human being. His life was a surrogate for ‘dedicated artist,’ as well as, and in his first years as a choreographer he was a ‘starving’ one. Heard in the film in his own voice, Merce crystallizes his nearly unwavering, and monastic, view of dance and dancers. This will be revelatory for non dancers to ponder.” read the full review here

IF THE DANCER DANCES (2018) dir Maia Wechsler now available on video-on-demand on Itunes, Amazon, Vimeo, Google, Sony

Stephen Petronio, one of today’s leading dance-makers, is determined to help his dancers breathe new life into RainForest (1968), an iconic work by the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham. With help from three members of the former Cunningham company, the film tracks Petronio’s dancers as they strive to re-stage this great work, revealing what it takes to keep a dance – and a legacy – alive. Timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial, IF THE DANCER DANCES  is the first documentary on the subject of Cunningham’s work since his passing in 2009.

Study with Cunningham dancer Holley Farmer at CalArts

Merce Cunningham is gone, but his legacy is alive and vibrant, in film, photography, books and classes.
Photo: Rafael Hernandez, courtesy of CalArts

Renowned dancer and educator Holley Farmer has joined the faculty and will direct the BFA Program in Dance at CalArts, the school has recently announced. A principal dancer for 12 years with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Farmer is currently teaching Cunningham’s technique to students in The Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at CalArts.

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