How We Met: Merce Cunningham and M C Richards

Naseem Khan
Saturday 20 August 1994 23:02

Merce Cunningham, 75, is America's premier contemporary dance choreographer. He danced in Martha Graham's company, then started his own, in 1953; with the composer John Cage, he created a new form of modern dance. He and his company are at the Edinburgh Festival (27-28 August).

MC Richards is a potter, painter, writer, poet and teacher. Born in Oregon in 1916, she is best known as author of the 1964 minor classic Centering: Poetry, Pottery and the Person. She now divides her time between California, where she teaches, and a self-sustaining community in Pennsylvania.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: The first time I saw MC was in the summer of '47, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. John Cage and I were going to teach there. We wanted to visit it because of its reputation in the arts, but at the same time, frankly, it was an occupation for the summer - not so easy to get in those days.

I was sitting out on the porch looking on to the lake and the windows were open. Inside I could hear two people talking. One of them was leaning over with her hair falling forward, that marvellous head of hair MC has. The other one, who I assumed was her student, was talking avidly, complaining about something. After a time I thought, maybe I shouldn't listen to this, but I wasn't disturbing them and it was such a lovely place. MC meanwhile was listening very carefully. After a while she began to speak, pointing out all the things the student didn't have to complain about. She finished up by saying she should 'count her blessings'. That immediately struck me.

I met her shortly afterwards, and took to her at once. She has a remarkable spirit, a fortitude about life.

We don't see each other very often now, but she does come to New York occasionally. When we meet, it's as if we're just picking up where we left off. At Black Mountain College, she came to take classes with me. She wasn't trained, but nor were many others - it was just something she wanted to find out about, and I liked that. I think of what Buckminster Fuller said about the importance of 'life-long learning'. MC has managed that superbly. One should always have something to interest one.

John Cage and I went back to Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952. By this time we were friends with MC. I remember Cage arranged an event which is now known as 'the first happening'. It was an evening in which each of us did what we did separately - it all went on at the same time and lasted, I think, an hour.

MC, I seem to remember, read aloud and John Cage was reading too. Meanwhile Robert Rauschenberg was up a ladder playing a Victrola, David Tudor was playing the piano and I was dancing. It was in the dining-room, the seats were arranged in four triangles and I danced between them. At one point, I remember, a little dog chased me. MC liked the spirit of it all very much and that began a closer relationship with her.

Well, Black Mountain finally collapsed and MC moved to help form a community at Haverstraw outside New York. They built a kiln there, and she began to be a potter, too. I have several very beautiful pots and cups she's made.

She and David Tudor were living in a small house on the land, while everybody worked out what sort of houses they wanted to build for themselves. I remember it took a while. John built a stone wall between his house and the next one with stones he had found. It was a beautiful wall, and I'm told it is still there. He and MC used to argue, particularly about cooking. She said to him once, 'Do you always want to shock people?' And he replied, 'No, I would like to bring poetry to their lives.' That silenced her. I think she liked the reply.

I couldn't live there myself though. I couldn't have dancers there. It was very beautiful and I went up every weekend, but my work was here in New York.

MC often talked about people who needed help, and was always ready to give it. Now she's living in a self-sustaining community, where there are a number of mentally handicapped people. It's important to her to be involved with how life changes, not only people but also nature. Her book Centering is about that - the need to centre all parts of your life.

She's remained true to her work (though she has tried to enlarge it), she has remained true to her friends. She has maintained a constant interest in how people live together. This woman has had troubles, but she goes on using her energies to find ways of living that are not based on greed. Life has brought infirmities to all of us. I know I get irritated with myself when I realise this is the way I have to operate physically now. MC maintains her energy though. She has sustained her friends just by being around.

MC RICHARDS: I was teaching English, as they call it - really reading and writing - at Black Mountain College in 1947 when Merce and John Cage came to arrange for a performance in our dining hall. It was early on in their collaboration - Merce was doing solo performances and John was accompanying him. John was affable and friendly. Merce was shyer. He has a capacity for friendship, and the devotion now of his company, but there's a kind of reserve. I loved the dancing, and he gave some classes which I took. So I would find myself dancing arm in arm with him on a diagonal across the floor. In 1948, John wanted to do a play by Satie, Le Piege de Meduse, which he asked me to translate. It was performed in the dining hall. Merce was Jonas the mechanical monkey, Willem de Kooning did the decor, and Buckie Fuller was in the lead - he was there because, I think, it was his 50th birthday and he was celebrating by building the first geodesic dome which, as I remember, fell down.

I think it was in 1952 that Merce came back, and he and John did what was called the first happening. I liked that very much. We were all somewhat contaminated in those days by our studies of Zen. Unpredictability, indeterminacy and paradox - all those sorts of experiences were very congenial to me.

Merce is not a great talker, though he does like to tell stories and has an anecdotal flair. But that didn't seem to inhibit our sense of one another at all.

Then John and David Tudor and I and others from Black Mountain moved to the country north of New York, to a place called the Gatehill Community. The dance company used to come out often on Sunday and I'd cook a meal for them; they'd relax and walk around in the woods.

I lived with David for 10 years, and when the company toured I travelled with them at times: I pulled curtains for them and would sometimes cook. Those days were hard, we were very poor - really scratching for economic survival. But it was happy and creative. I was busy making pottery and David was premiering the works of Boulez. Merce was always clear that his priority was his work. He used to say, 'If you work every day, when you leap you know where you'll land. If you miss a day, you know pretty well where you'll land.'

Merce's devotion to dance has been really life-filling. The only time he faltered was in the Fifties when we were in New York and all so poor. Merce used to threaten from time to time to leave it all and become a shoe salesman. And John Cage would be livid because he didn't think it was funny. I thought it was kind of funny though.

One of the most interesting features of our friendship is that my life has in a way been the opposite of his. Where Merce was Johnny One Note (dance was all he was interested in), I had a number of interests and my concern was to integrate them. Wholeness became the theme of my work.

I never had the slightest suspicion that I would be a painter or would develop this particular kind of philosophy. And I would never have imagined that this shy, introverted dancer would be head of a big dance foundation and celebrated all over the planet.

Our friendship has persisted as we get older, especially now Merce is much more at ease and mellow. That ease has grown slowly over the years, but I think it's also a special flowering. As his work has become more recognised, Merce has not had to hustle for every dollar. And after John's death his own charisma is more in evidence. He is, in some ways, rather like a cat. He used to have that strong sense of privacy a cat has. Now he seems to be purring more.

I was watching him at a party after his performance recently. He sat there with his plate of rice and beans - while we were eating our festive food - and his glass of red wine. He sat for a long time, eating one bean after another, eating and chewing it - very comfortable with himself and very unforced. There's something so grounded about him. Everybody else is flying about and Merce is sitting there, not to be deterred. That sort of sensible approach, you don't find it so often.-

(Photograph omitted)

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