Roll the dice and take your chances

The choreographer Merce Cunningham remains, at 76, a serious gambler. And the odds continue to be stacked in his favour. By Sophie Constanti INTERVIEW
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The Independent Culture
"Tossing a coin can save you all kinds of mental harassment," declares Merce Cunningham, the lines around his eyes and mouth deepening into tangential furrows as a wry smile gives way to laughter. Cunningham, of course, is famous for tossing coins - and throwing dice. For almost half a century, the American choreographer has been using chance as a means of organising choices and making decisions. His dedicated adoption of the I Ching - an ancient Chinese text containing 64 hexograms based on yin and yang symbols - as a basis for chance operations dates back to the Fifties. His initial application of chance methodology to choreographic processes was in 1951 and resulted in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. It featured a score by the maverick composer John Cage who, until his death in 1992, was Cunningham's partner and closest artistic collaborator.

If Cage was the mad inventor in that partnership, Cunningham was the intrepid explorer. Working together - and with like-minded associates such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Christian Wolff - Cunningham and Cage systematically challenged the received idea of interdependency between theatrical elements. For them, movement, sound and decor were separate, independent entities which, during performance, just happened to co-exist in the same space and time. Nowadays, such notions no longer seem radical. Indeed, Bertolt Brecht had railed against the Gesamtkunstwerk in the Thirties. But it was Cunningham who, with steady logic, succeeded in freeing dance from the constraints of music and narrative, and demonstrated that dance needn't be about or rely upon anything but movement itself. In recent years, there has been a growing reaction against the intellectual detachment of Cunningham's approach and a revival of interest in the art of dancing to music. Ironically, Mark Morris, the choreographer at the forefront of this revival, is also the most important American modern dance creator to have emerged since Cunningham. While Morris's choreography - clever as it is - has an immediate, easy appeal, the Cunningham experience has always proved too dry and too esoteric for some viewers: they admire but cannot connect with it; they acknowledge the dances' rhythmic complexities but cannot really see or grasp them. And there are also those who appreciate - or actively dislike - both Cunningham's and Morris's work. Even Cunningham's admirers have sometimes felt that, while the dances are veritable angel food, the music (and occasionally the decor) are nearly always the unwanted side dishes.

Although nobody expects dance, decor or noise to bear any relation to each other at a Cunningham performance, the result can still regularly irritate. Sometimes the scores act like some excruciating interference to the dance; sometimes one is able to shut out the noise; sometimes music and dance gel, not in any "dancing to music" sense, but in some unforced, often absurd consensus. This is not surprising given that dance and music rarely bang heads before opening night - that is, the dancers learn the choreography, and the score is prepared separately. It may be going against the whole spirit of Cunningham's work to argue that the music - always an autonomous element - doesn't do the dance any favours. Why should it? But I'd venture that decor and costumes have never impinged on the dance to the same degree as some of Cage's accompaniments and the contributions of other composers such as David Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi. Sometimes the design has been as extraordinarily beautiful as the dance - Rauschenberg's pointillist landscape for Summerspace; Warhol's silver, helium-filled cushions for RainForest; or Johns's realisation of Duchamp's The Large Glass for Walkaround Time - sometimes just unnoticeable.

Next week, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will visit London as part of this year's Dance Umbrella festival. Riverside Studios will host three evenings of what Cunningham calls "Events" - performances in which sections of dance, music and design are mixed up and collaged together. Then the company will shift to Sadler's Wells to dance three works - Beach Birds, Ground Level Overlay and CRWDSPCR.

Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919 - a month before Margot Fonteyn's birth in the equally undistinguished town of Reigate, Surrey. His father was a lawyer and his two brothers also studied law. From the age of 12, Cunningham attended the private dance school of Mrs JW Barrett, a former vaudeville performer. He was more intent on being an actor than a dancer, but as a student at the Cornish School in Seattle, where Bonnie Bird taught dance and John Cage accompanied classes on the piano during the Thirties, Cunningham decided to change course. He was the second man to join Martha Graham's company (the first was Erick Hawkins), and on Cage's persuasion eventually left Graham to concentrate on making and performing his own choreography. Since his first solo recital at the age of 25, Cunningham has created some of the most rewardingly pure and difficult modern dance of the past 50 years.

My meeting with Cunningham takes place in the dimly lit games room of some hotel apartments in Paris. He is sitting on a sofa, his back dancer- straight, his hair a halo of light, untameable frizz, his skin glowing despite the ravages of age. At the age of 76, Cunningham has lost the muscular solidity he once possessed as a dancer; now he's a smaller, more wiry figure, whose extremities betray the signs of arthritis. He is friendly and talkative, charming and formal all at once; modern and open-minded, yet quaintly old-fashioned and discreet. He's also intensely private. Although Cage's name frequently crops up in our conversation, it doesn't open any appropriate route to asking Cunningham about life without him. And having caught Cunningham on such fine form - thoughtful, enthusiastic, articulate, giggly (given that he has done so many interviews you half expect him to look desperately bored or reel off standard answers to the questions he's been asked hundreds of times before) - it seems wasteful to tear him away from the subject on which, unsurprisingly, he is most voluble: choreography. But while his danceworks may be models of autonomy (during both creation and performance), it is the flexible, holistic logic of Cunningham's approach to his own life which is at the heart of everything he does. Perhaps he is alluding to Cage when, ostensibly discussing dance composition, he talks about how "life continues and changes. It's not about any one person. It changes on bad levels (with all our problems), but there are interesting levels, too. Take technology and the possibilities there are if you don't pin your mind down to how you think something should go."

Change, chance, technology: the currency of youth? The septuagenarian Cunningham shows no sign of settling into a geriatric comfort-zone. He is more prolific than choreographers to whom he could be a grandfather (even great-grandfather). In the six years since his company's last repertory season in London, he has made at least 15 works. During the Seventies, he was one of the first choreographers to embrace the new video technology, reconceiving stage works for video in collaboration with film-makers like Charles Atlas and, more recently, Elliot Caplan; and for the past seven or eight years he has been using the computer program Life Forms as a choreographic tool. The Life Forms "dancer" is known as the sequence editor. "It looks like the Michelin man, only not so fat," explains Cunningham, "and what you use are the joints. You can't separate the fingers yet, but otherwise it will do anything you like. I try to work within what I think are human limits, but because of the Life Forms 'time line' - which is constructed not on metre but on camera time of 30 frames per second - you can put in all kinds of things which are not possible for the body to do." At present, Cunningham works on Life Forms in a small back room and brings the information into the studio by memorising it or making notes, and he still demonstrates as much movement as he can manage.

One of the fallacies surrounding Cunningham's foray into computer technology is that he now uses Life Forms to create entire danceworks. "I may put in many of the movements but by no means all of them. Ocean [originally conceived for the James Joyce / John Cage festival in Zurich in 1991, and designed to be performed in the round with a 112-piece orchestra located on the outer circumference] has maybe one third of movement phrases from the computer." Cunningham was immediately attracted to Life Forms because "it's visual. With other forms of notation you have to know how to read the symbols. But anyone looking at this figure can see it's meant to be a human. And that's the way dancers work: they watch a teacher or choreographer do something and then they attempt to do it. And Life Forms is three-dimensional, so if you put a shape on a dancer and can't see what the back leg is doing, you just turn it all around. You can look at it from the top, bottom, side - even underneath, I think."

Cunningham's enthusiasm for Life Forms hasn't so much replaced his belief in the value of chance as led to a complex marriage between computer and dice. In "a small, funny store in Minneapolis", the choreographer found eight differently coloured, eight-sided dice. These, he points out, correspond exactly to the I Ching (in that 8 x 8 = 64). To Cunningham, "using chance operations to make your decisions allows you to examine the possibilities of those decisions rather than merely see them as either good or bad." But this philosophy of limitation-cum-clarification requires a choreographer as great as Cunningham if it is to yield results.

For British audiences who rate Cunningham's work as some of the most stimulating modern dance being produced in the world today, the opportunity to see his company in both Events and repertory is long overdue. Cunningham's choreography combines the lightness and speed of ballet with the flexible spine- and body-part isolations of contemporary techniques, and it has a geometrical and sculptural sophistication that goes beyond both. Yet how does a man who asserts that "dancing is very limited by the human shape" and then, in the next breath, expresses his wonder at how "everybody moves differently" manage to turn both these things to choreographic and pedagogic advantage? "Well, one side is discipline. The other side is freedom." But where do you draw the line? "You don't draw a line," is the short answer. "You put them both together at the same time - or try to!" laughs Cunningham. "You look at the precise way of doing a step, make it as clear as it can be, and then don't insist everybody does it the same way." In every class he teaches, Cunningham tries to give his dancers "something that provokes them... something they can't do easily". He doesn't place any deliberate emphasis on gender difference, preferring instead to observe the contrasting physical abilities of men and women. "For example, women can move in a remarkably beautiful, slow way. I don't see any point in not allowing that because of some idea about unisex or whatever."

For some followers, the high point of a Cunningham company performance is when the choreographer comes on stage for one of his now characteristically brief solos. Cunningham feels that "appear" is a more apt term than "perform" for what he does in the theatre these days. His personal appearances are becoming less frequent due to "age and obvious infirmities", he says. "But I like to be on the stage, I must admit. It's hard to explain that without... some idea about grandeur. When I'm no longer performing, I don't know whether the critics will sigh with relief or regret," chuckles the dancer who made his Paris Opera debut at the age of 72.

The Merce Cunningham Dance company will perform Events at Riverside Studios, London W6 (0181-741 2255) 24-26 Oct; and a programme of three works at Sadler's Wells (0171-713 6000) 28-29 Oct