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Paul Greenberg / Aug. 4, 2009

Dancing Still

The news that Merce Cunningham has died at 90 stirs disbelief. Like the report of a unicorn dying.

There was so much praise heaped on this dancer of dancers for what seemed like a century, and just about was, that something within rebels at heaping on still more in retrospect.

For who hadn’t at least heard his name, or seen it on a poster while passing through LaGuardia or Grand Central at one time or another?

Dancer, choreographer, force beyond or maybe opposed to nature, he was a life-long revolutionary against his own art. But that doesn’t say nearly enough. He was always avant the avant-garde, or maybe just on a different path altogether, as if he were in a different dimension, dancing to a different drummer, and not caring whether anybody would follow. Which of course meant that just about everybody in dance tried to.

Merce Cunningham, it said in his obituary, was a great influence. He was an influence, all right, the way a cyclone is an influence on the Kansas plains. Nothing is the same after one of those things sweeps through. Or rather everything is gone. To say that he exemplified modern dance in the 20th century doesn’t sound right, maybe because he made modern dance old-fashioned.

He wasn’t so much a dancer as an out-and-out whirlwind, and where he would stop, nobody knew, surely including himself on occasion. As a dancer, he was more of an electrical current, and as a choreographer he was … a kind of splattering explosion followed by its opposite, an absolute stillness. Sometimes both at the same time, a sight that can’t be described. But he could dance it.

Merce Cunningham wasn’t so much a theatrical phenomenon as a zoological one.

There was no judging him by anyone else’s standards. Certainly not by Baryshnikov’s or Astaire’s. Not even by Balanchine’s. He made them all look … traditional. He danced and thought on a different plane, or maybe danced and non-thought. The worship that a Martha Graham or a long-ago Isadora Duncan inspired might come closest to both the fascination and unease he could inspire.

If he’d been a writer, Merce Cunningham would have been the kind who turns grammar upside down, inside out, and every way but loose, and then just tosses the whole thing aside as beside-the-point.

What’s more, he could do it while standing still.

He once tried to put what he was up to in words. He said he was after stillness in motion and motion in stillness. I’m not sure what that piece of zen meant. Maybe we weren’t supposed to be sure, about anything, when watching him or his dancers. If great art is never pat, then his art certainly qualified. He took us to the strangest places.

And he did it approximately forever. The namesake of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company appeared in its every performance till he got to be 70. He celebrated his 80th birthday by dancing a duet with Baryshnikov at Lincoln Center, even if he had to hold on to a barre to do it. Yet he was the one you watched, mesmerized. He celebrated his 90th birthday with a gala at the Brookyln Academy of Music. He was a New York constant – all around the town.

Of course he would gravitate to New York from his birthplace in Washington State at an early age; that’s what American dancers did. And still do. New York, New York, he made it a wonderful town even during those years when it wasn’t. Or at least he made it an even stranger one. Who else would try to dance to John Cage’s music? Well, actually a number of talented dancers did, but Merce Cunningham succeeded.

After all those years, and all that adulation, and all that talk about him après-dance, Merce Cunningham came to seem more institution than dancer, more poster than real. It had never been easy to think of him as real anyway. He was an Icarus who never fell to Earth – for he had no need of wings. He flew without them. And all of us groundlings just looked up in awe, admiration and, we admit it, an occasional yawn. After a decade or three, or four, awe and admiration start to seem canned.

Maybe that’s what bothered some of us. And why we started to feel about Merce Cunningham the way good ol’ Holden Caulfield did about the over-advertised Alfred-Lunt-and-Lynn-Fontanne in “Catcher in the Rye.” Don’t misunderstand, ol’ Holden liked ‘em just fine, but in the end he couldn’t help feeling they were “too good.”

Some of us came to feel the same way about Merce Cunningham. It’s a terribly tiring thing, threescore years and ten of praise. It wears out the listener, makes him lonesome, ornery and mean whenever the name of the Great Artist is mentioned, and still another gala anniversary celebration must be observed. It’s an altogether human reaction: Enough is enough and too much is too much. We rebel.

It’s all a natural response to the occasional extra-terrestrial who comes around, and around and around and around, like some bright comet, before finally tearing himself away from the dreary pull of our ordinary gravity and incomprehension. At last his brightness goes whirling away into the darkness – yet still seems fixed in the firmament.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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