Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Merce Cunningham's Creative Process

Embarrassing to admit, but I had no idea that Merce Cunningham had such an interesting creative process when choreographing:

“Where other choreographers looked to music and their own imagination for inspiration, Mr. Cunningham favored the creative strategies of a physicist, a Vegas high roller and a techno-whiz.

“He split the atomic unity of music and dance. No longer were the steps dependent on a beat; in Mr. Cunningham's works, the dancing and the music were utterly independent of each other, existing side by side "in space and time," that is, performed in the same spot for a set number of minutes, but coming together essentially as strangers. He also introduced "chance operations," rolling dice to determine the sequence of dance sections. To make this work, he had to refine and extend his dance technique, coming up with ways to link movements that wouldn't ordinarily be possible side by side. The unnaturalness that resulted was a hallmark of his style, and only the most highly trained and capable dancers could make it look serene and effortless. Cunningham dancers were esteemed as among the best in the world of professional dance.

“In some of Mr. Cunningham's works, even decisions about the ordering of sets, costumes and lighting were made by rolling dice or flipping a coin. This was the case in "Split Sides," a two-part production for which two sets of everything (lighting designs, costumes, etc.) were created, and determining which elements came first was done with great fanfare through dice-rolling in front of the audience just before the curtain went up.”

Of course you can imagine what I’m thinking: how might rolling dice work for a writer? Could one draft a new story making decisions based on chance? If I try it, I’ll report back. (Though, actually, what are these “decisions” I make as I write based on anyway? Hmmm….)

You can read the entire Washington Post appreciation of Merce Cunningham here. I also recommend this Post article, about how a specific modern dance pretty much disappears when a troupe dissolves; other dance groups don’t typically perform older choreography, preferring new stuff:

“The only museum dance has for displaying its creations is the stage. And the best curators are ballet companies, which essentially stockpile works by different choreographers -- performing "The Nutcracker" as well as ballets by, say, Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins -- and readily absorb older dances into their repertoires. But the much younger field of modern dance, barely a century old, has grown up around cult figures. These rebels and individualists -- Martha Graham, Cunningham, Paul Taylor, among others -- wanted little to do with one another. Like fashion houses, the choreographers launched their companies as vehicles for their own work. Christian Dior didn't display Ralph Lauren in his shop, nor did Graham want a Taylor piece taking up her time in the spotlight.”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.