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Merce Cunningham's Buffalo


Even though he was 90 and had lived a long life, I was sad to learn of the death of the great dancer Merce Cunningham on Sunday. He intrigued me. I had always kind of hoped I could meet him.

Cunningham -- seen above in a picture I like -- had an important relevance to Buffalo. More accurately, Buffalo had a relevance to him. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company had an important residency here in early 1968. I read about it the book "Chance and Circumstance," the colorful 2007 memoirs of Carolyn Brown, a longtime mainstay of the Cunningham company.

Brown writes how good the residency was for the company.

The company left New York City in early February of '68 and did not return until early April. Upstate New York touring -- to Ithaca, Hamilton, Rochester, Oneonta, Geneseo, Brockport, Fredonia -- is not fun, especially in winter. The weather is guaranteed to be terrible, travel hazardous and, with few exceptions in those years, the accommodations poor, the food worse, the theaters dismal, and audiences unreliable. Fortunately, the first four weeks of this tour were taken up with a residency sponsored by the State University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College, giving Merce the luxury of having his company available to him 24 hours a day, with concentrated time to choreograph two major works whose premieres would take place at our residency's end.

Cunningham's artistic and personal partner was the avant garde composer John Cage and along with their various artist friends, they became part of the avant garde scene that was putting Buffalo on the map at the time.

The two new works the Merce Cunningham Dance Company premiered in Buffalo were "Rainforest" and "Walkaround Time." "Walkaround Time" is a neat bit of nostalgia. As Brown explains, the title comes from old computer jargon. Back then, a programmer would have down time to walk around while the computer completed its tasks.

Both pieces reflected Cunningham's love for experimental staging, costuming, sets and choreography. I do not like to call it "revolutionary" because I get the impression that his intent was never to shock or to destroy the conventions that already existed. Often he would have an abstract concept in mind and he would want to express it in dance. Brown writes, for instance, that in "Walkaround Time," he was trying to convey the sense of "stopping and moving at the same time."

Brown's book has vivid descriptions of both the dances. "Rainforest" had shiny silver Mylar pillow floating above the dancers' heads and taking on lives of their own. "Walkaround Time" presented special challenges for her. "Out of this balanced stillness, I had to find the resources to immediately move fast and big, to take to the air, to cover space, and then return again to absolute stillness and repose."

I do not have a dance background myself, and I have to say Carolyn Brown has a great way of pulling you into a dancer's world. Her book is an excellent account of a dancer's life and I have read it several times.  It is what got me interested in Cunningham.

Here is one more thing unusual about Merce Cunningham: His company will not be continuing long after his death. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that he had made provisions that after he died, the company would go on a farewell tour, and then each dancer would be given a year's pay and the troupe would cease to exist.

What a history the Merce Cunningham company had.

Buffalo can be proud of being part of it.

--Mary Kunz Goldman



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