Exclusive: Remembering Merce Cunningham with Dance Critic Deborah Jowitt

As the dance world reflects on the passing of one of its legends, we caught up with Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt to get her thoughts on Merce Cunningham’s vast contributions to the art form, both as a choreographer and a dancer. “He had a tremendous air of animal alertness, a kind of inner fire,” Jowitt told us. “He didn’t mug, he didn’t emote. He had this blazing quality.”

From configuring choreography based on a roll of the dice to insisting that music and dance exist independently of one another, Cunningham revolutionized traditional ideas about what dance is and how it should look. Here, Jowitt talks about some of the defining characteristics of his work and recalls the first time she saw the company.

Flavorpill: For all the people who loved Merce Cunningham’s work, there were plenty who just couldn’t get into it, to the point where they would walk out of his performances. What was it about his dances that rubbed people the wrong way?

Deborah Jowitt: I think it could have been any number of reasons. It could have been the fact that the dancing and music don’t go together the way people think they should. Also the fact that the music is often abrasive and difficult to listen to – ear-splitting sometimes. For others, his organization of space isn’t what they’re used to seeing; that is, a more hierarchical arrangement of dancers onstage, as in a ballet company. He treats space as an open field, and dancers come and go. There appear to be no climaxes. There appear to be no permanent relationships among dancers. It’s like a little society of people going about their business, such as you might see on a city street. I think people look for climaxes and look for meaning, and it can be frustrating … whereas if you just sit back and let it go, you can see in it anything you want.

FP: Did you have any trouble getting into the work when you first saw the company?

DJ: No. It may have been in the late 1950s at the American Dance Festival, when it was still at Connecticut College. I saw his Summerspace. It was not that many dancers: Merce, Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Remy Charlip, and maybe two others. It had been made there that summer, and I thought the dancers were extraordinary. They looked like dragonflies to me.

Carolyn Adams in Summerspace (1958), with design by Robert Rauschenberg. Photo credit: Richard Rutledge/New York Times
Carolyn Brown in Summerspace (1958), with design by Robert Rauschenberg. Credit: Richard Rutledge/New York Times

FP: How do you think Merce influenced the direction modern dance took in the decades after he started making work?

DJ: I think his influence was on the people of Judson Dance Theater. He influenced them to go further, to take risks. [He showed them] that the conventional ways in which dance and music and scenery were tied together could be violated in any number of fascinating and constructive ways, that chance operations could configure in making a dance, which was John Cage’s influence on him.

Those dancers went further in that Cunningham liked his dancers to look everyday but he didn’t want everyday people to be dancers. He wanted dancers to be beautiful, special-looking people. The people who wanted to explore further were part of the 1960s zeitgeist and wanted to utilize all he had opened up for them in terms of interesting procedures … but they didn’t want to use virtuosic dancers. So they didn’t copy his movement style but rather some of his ideas about structure and what was possible in dance.

For more Cunningham coverage, see Alastair Macaulay’s obituary in The New York Times and Robert Greskovic’s remembrance in The Wall Street Journal.