100 Years of Merce Cunningham, Celebrated in San Francisco

Merce Cunningham Dance Company, 'Assemblage,' 1968. (Photo courtesy Dance Film SF)

The oft-revered yet enigmatic choreographer Merce Cunningham would have turned 100 in April, and an explosion of tributes by dance institutions large and small include events as imaginative and quixotic as his own. Cunningham was a disruptor and a pioneer, whose (non)collaborations with composer John Cage and artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns unmoored dance from music, narrative, and scenic design, sometimes mystifying and even infuriating audiences.

Perhaps more than any other 20th century choreographer, Cunningham inspired those who danced with him to experiment and take risks in the creation of their own work, which usually looked nothing like his. As the Bay Area choreographer Charles Moulton, who danced with Cunningham from 1973 to 1976, told me, “The root of his work was his love of dance, of the form. His own work was his own – uncompromising, beautiful, crystalline – but he loved other choreography as well. He had this extremely refined, elegant, and in many ways difficult aesthetic and yet he was a huge fan of dance of all kinds. There was a great openness which influenced me.”

Julie Roess-Smith, Karen Attix, Robert Kovich, and Merce Cunningham in 'TV Rerun,' 1972. Score by Gordon Mumma, costumes by Jasper Johns. (Photo by Jack Mitchell)

Though Cunningham’s company was based in New York, a 1955 West Coast tour sparked a long love affair with California. In recent years, though, you might not know it: the Bay Area hasn't seen a revival of a Cunningham work since the (now-defunct) Ballet San Jose gave a crisp account of his Duets in 2013.

In a nod to Cunningham’s innovations with technology and film, Dance Film SF—presenters of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival—will screen Assemblage, his very first extended work created expressly for film, alongside If the Dancer Dances, a new documentary that illuminates the challenges of restaging one of his iconic works.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 'Assemblage,' 1968. (Photo courtesy Dance Film SF)

'Assemblage': “Everyone could have an idea”

In 1968, Cunningham’s company was coming off a disaster-ridden South American tour. Though they had broken out of obscurity after a triumphant London season in 1964, and had recently been appointed a resident company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, company finances remained dire. The filming of a three-week caper on the sunny streets of San Francisco in October reinvigorated the company, wrote dancer Carolyn Brown in her memoir.

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That film was Assemblage, produced by KQED-TV and directed by Richard O. Moore, who, with Cunningham, masterminded a cinematic collision of dance and architecture set in and around the newly redeveloped Ghirardelli Square. The concept behind that redevelopment, with its echoes of an industrial past, would soon be mimicked in urban restoration projects across America. But in 1968, it was a pioneer, not unlike the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Carolyn Brown at Ghirardelli Square, filming Merce Cunningham's 'Assemblage,' 1968. (Photo: Bill Young)

When the dancers showed up for filming, sculptor Ruth Asawa’s bronze mermaids had just splashed down in a courtyard fountain. Asawa's image of bare-breasted mermaids nursing mer-babies provoked some controversy, but the radical feminist statement made a striking backdrop to the dancers’ escapades—as did the frequent glimpses of Alcatraz, of modernist architectural elements juxtaposed against rosy brick façades, and the American flag buffeted by a brisk wind.

I spoke with Valda Setterfield, the celebrated dancer-actor and an early company stalwart, who recalled, “It was the first film that I’d worked in, and what I was immediately struck with was the work of the technicians on the film—and the gear that they had to lug around, which they did with great grace.” Three cameramen moved in and around the dancers, at distances both intimate and remote, with no fixed blueprint. “There was a kind of ease about it,” Setterfield noted, “an ease borne out of an unknown-ness, for me at any rate.” Although the company had rehearsed a few sequences, Cunningham or one of the dancers would frequently get an idea on the spot, and the company and crew would just go with it. Amid the playful improvisations, she stressed, “We were very attentive to where the crew were and what they needed.”

“I loved those kind of moments that could happen with Merce,” she went on, “particularly in a situation like this which wasn’t fully structured.” Setterfield remarked on how unusual it was for the dancers to be performing in the daytime, and for the crew to be shooting in natural light, frequently capturing passers-by in the frame. She embraced the experience: “I love the sea, and it smelled of the sea. There was a kind of freedom and pleasure about what we did.”

Much of the film reflects that spirit—very much a '60s vibe, especially when the women shed their ‘uniforms’ of tights and leotards for geometric-patterned mini-dresses and silver go-go boots. There are also meditative moments and images of poignant, otherworldly beauty, as the dancers, each so distinctive, negotiate the rigor of Cunningham’s prescribed movements. Most striking are those scenes in which structures like stair railings are stripped of their material presence, becoming screens onto which outbursts of dance are projected—and conversely, when dancers’ bodies become screens for projected images of rolling clouds and the splashing fountain. Then there was Cunningham, racing wildly around the complex like a fugitive, dropping and rolling as if shots had been fired.

Meg Harper and Jeff Slayton at Ghirardelli Square filming of Merce Cunningham's 'Assemblage,' 1968. (Photo: Bill Young)

I also caught up with Bill Yahraus, who operated one of the three cameras for Assemblage. He was a newbie on the KQED team but, in that egalitarian unit, while they were shooting, “everyone could have an idea,” he said. He ended up in sole charge of post-production, though, which took months, he said, to achieve the special effects—the intricate fragmenting and superimposing of imagery that make the film so startling and immediate.

“Every effect was a surprise,” Yahraus explained, “because each involved multiple passes, either with an overhead camera or through a printer, before the film was processed. So I never knew exactly what they would look like until they came back from the lab. There was a large element of randomness to all of it.” That spirit spilled into the soundtrack, developed independently from the dance by John Cage, Gordon Mumma, and David Tudor, who ran around the Square and farther afield, taping the drone of traffic, the clackety-clack of trains, desultory sidewalk conversations, birdsong, the groaning of the Golden Gate Bridge and the static of urban life.

Davalois Fearon and Nicholas Sciscione in 'If the Dancer Dances.' (Photo courtesy Monument Releasing)

'If the Dancer Dances': “How does ephemeral work live on?”

Among the nine dancers in Assemblage was a young Meg Harper, who had joined the company barely a year before. She appears again, nearly 50 years later, as a luminous presence in If the Dancer Dances, which will screen in San Francisco on the same day as Assemblage.

The new documentary follows the 2015 restaging of Cunningham’s darkly mysterious RainForest on the Stephen Petronio Company. Unusually, three stagers were involved: Harper, Rashaun Mitchell, and Andrea Weber, who each belonged to different generations of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. A fourth Cunningham alumna, Melissa Toogood, joined the cast as a guest dancer, bringing a bullets-whizzing-by energy to this revival.

I sat down in New York with filmmakers Lise Friedman and Maia Wechsler, who talked about the hard labor and inherent frustrations in transmitting dance down to new generations. It’s a task that requires the “transferring of movement, body-to-body,” as Friedman put it. She herself danced with Cunningham from 1977 to 1984. After his death in 2009 and the disbanding of his company, on his instructions, two years later, she teamed up with Wechsler to tackle the question, “How does ephemeral work live on?”

Meg Harper and Stephen Petronio Company dancer Davalois Fearon in 'If the Dancer Dances.' (Photo courtesy Monument Releasing)

In the film, Mitchell, who danced in the company from 2004 until it disbanded, reflects: “It was always really clear to us that he [Cunningham] did not want us to be the people who came before. He did not want us to emulate something that had already happened. He wanted us to find our own self within this movement.”

Echoing a sentiment expressed by Harper in the film, Friedman noted, “Staging doesn’t usually settle in the bodies of the dancers until after [the stagers] are gone, until after they’ve done it for a while. When you can sense the sense of ownership, that these dancers feel they have the right to dance these roles.”

Jermaine Maurice Spivey in 'Night of 100 Solos' at CAP UCLA. (Photo: Reed Hutchinson)

'Night of 100 Solos': “A dancer has to find a way to begin again each day”

On what would have been Cunningham’s 100th birthday, on April 16, much of the dance world was riveted by back-to-back performances livestreamed from London, New York and Los Angeles, each an absorbing jumble of solos from six decades of his career. Like the one-off ‘events’ for which Cunningham would repurpose bits and pieces of rep, the Night of 100 Solos scaled the concept up and took it global.

The 100 solos were performed by 75 dancers from diverse backgrounds, none of whom had ever danced with the Cunningham company but who were coached for this occasion by former Cunningham dancers. They ranged widely in age, physique, and training, from classical ballet to modern and street dance, and included many more dancers of color than have danced Cunningham’s work in the past.

Merce Cunningham Centennial 'Night of 100 Solos' at CAP UCLA. (Photo: Reed Hutchinson)

Sometimes a soloist would be truly alone on stage. More often, dancers would cross paths companionably, and ensembles of three or four would tackle their assignments in close proximity, though they would rarely interact. Movement passages that have no common thread but happened to take place at the same time suddenly seemed to invite conversation, intimacy, or battle. (The entire Night of 100 Solos can be viewed here until July 19, 2019.)

When I asked her about 100 Solos, Lise Friedman commented, “Merce’s work can withstand this mutability. There are so many ways in which his work can be seen.”

A few of the solos were repeated in all three cities, in a charming round-the-world handoff. These included the high-octane solo from Travelogue in which the dancer jumps around with clanking tin cans strapped to his legs (courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg), and John Cage’s infamous 4’33”—in which the musician is instructed not to play anything for four minutes and 33 seconds—which was reinterpreted for dance in all three cities, with all 25 dancers on stage each time, to hypnotic effect.

Lorrin Brubaker in 'Night of 100 Solos' at CAP UCLA. (Photo: Reed Hutchinson)

As 100 Solos rolled on with no climax or resolution, an extraordinary serenity settled in, with wave after wave of performers signaling to us and to each other, “I got this.” Some, like New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns, wrestled more visibly with the knotty technique; others, like the Royal Ballet’s Joseph Sissens and Francesca Hayward, former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company member Shayla-Vie Jenkins, and José Limón dancer Savannah Spratt, conquered and stretched it.

Friedman told me: “Merce loved to see the struggle, loved to see awkwardness in a dancer. He appreciated the risk-taking.” It reminded me of something Cunningham once said in an interview.

“A dancer,” he said, “has to find a way to begin again each day.”

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Dance Film SF airs 'Assemblage' and 'If the Dancer Dances' on Saturday, May 4, at the Delancey Street Screening Room. Tickets and information here.

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