“Positions, ready, go!” With only this verbal command, dancers on either side of the rehearsal hall snap into position. One at a time they stride into the center of the floor, first running in concentric circles and then moving through a grid of interlocking steps that change direction and tempo in strict relation to the underlying pulse. They gradually slow to march in their own time. The audience, replete with dance critic and members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) seated in the front row, watch intently as the open rehearsal unfolds with a cacophony of simultaneous ensemble movement.
The seventeen dancers, all Stanford students, are taking part in a MCDC workshop, five days of rehearsal and technique classes that culminate with an open rehearsal performance. Students learn excerpts selected from Cunningham’s concert repertory works in the “MinEvent,” a shorter version of Cunningham’s evening length “event” format. Their performance consists of selections from works that span decades of repertory; they are arranged in a sequence and danced as a seamless whole, often with a sound score completely unrelated to any of the original works.
The technique classes and workshops offered presented a rare opportunity for students to experience Cunningham choreography. The residency was organized by Diane Frank, the Acting Director of the Dance Division in Stanford's Drama Department and taught by Carol Teitlebaum, a former MCDC company dancer who currently teaches at the Cunningham studio, sets repertory, and leads “MinEvent” workshops.
Since its inception in 1953, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company embodies in its dancing the philosophy and vision of Merce Cunningham’s innovative approach to choreography.
Each portion of the Stanford MinEvent was an individual expression of pure movement, no matter what unison was present (or missing for that matter) through the template of Cunningham choreography. Dancers presented two different experiences of the same choreography. First, the performers danced for twenty minutes in complete silence, the sounds of their footfalls punctuating the rhythms of the movement material. Immediately afterwards, they repeated the last half of this movement material in the same order. However, this time they danced to a sound score which both the audience and the dancers heard for the first time.
The task of determining the dance rhythm while a concurrent sound score unfolds is often a part of the Cunningham dance aesthetic experience. Music and dance each assert their own rhythms independently, with neither illustrative of nor subordinate to one another.
Organized by Stanford Lively Arts and the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company came to Stanford for an exclusive week-long artists residency. A performance of Nearly 90 X2 (2009), a restaged version of Cunningham’s final work, capped their visit on November 1, 2011. A full year in the making, “Nearly Ninety” was completed and first performed on the choreographer’s 90th birthday. Cunningham later revised some of the staging to accommodate touring, and it was this version that was performed at Stanford, as both the final performance of the work and the company’s final appearance in the Bay Area.
With infrequent engagements outside of New York City where MCDC is based, Diane Frank described the workshop opportunity for students as a “singular chance to learn and dance the work of a dance genius.”
Understanding the rehearsal process is intrinsic to understanding Cunningham’s choreography. It is during the rehearsal process that Cunningham’s investigations of movement and formal dance structures, informed by chance and inter-determinacy, is central to dancing the work.
During the five days of workshops students were encouraged to explore Cunningham’s choreographic ideas in a repertory context. During rehearsal students learned movement material that was then submitted to procedures of chance. Students learned to make decisions while dancing, which altered the sequences of steps within a fixed framework.
Frank explained that through the Cunningham technique students “learn to inhabit the movement fully by engaging in physical rehearsal.” One purpose of the dance workshop with former MCDC dancer Carol Teitelbaum was for the students learn to perform fully all the dimensions of the phrase material, (the changes in rhythm, direction, and sequenced relationship of torso to limbs), and to assert these elements independently.” Teitelbaum’s primary objective was to teach the students how to allow the dance to speak for itself in the steps and movements, without depending upon musical accompaniment or counts.
In the words of one of the student dancers, this repertory experience transformed their view of Cunningham, “there was much more thinking and concentrating with relating the simultaneous movement to each other.”
The concept of unpredictable dance was also exciting for the dancers to inhabit in a repertory context for the first time. As Ms. Teitlebaum explained, Cunningham’s choreography leaves room for “decision-making on the spot.” She went on to elaborate that his use of chance in choreography was “to get (the dancer) out of habitual patterns. Decision is made to step outside habits.”
The student dancers echoed the effect this “in the moment decision-making” had on performance. One participant commented that the unique way it allowed the students to “see physical movement evolve was a new experience, and one you couldn’t predict and that was exciting.”
In conversation with Carol Teitelbaum, Alastair Macauley, the Chief Dance Critic of the New York Times, offered his thoughts on the open rehearsal.
Macauley, at Stanford for a weeklong Dance Critic’s residency at the Humanities Center, is currently the Chief Dance Critic of the New York Times. His previous positions include the chief dance critic at The Times Literary Supplement and chief theater critic of The Financial Times.
In addition to his commentary on the open rehearsal, Macaulay worked with a group of 12 undergraduate student writers. Under his guidance, they attended and wrote critical observations of the MCDC performance on November 1.
Surrounded by students after the informal Open Rehearsal performance, Macauley and Teitlebaum noted that the MinEvent was composed of 5 distinct portions of Cunningham pieces that were created between 1960 and 1990. Macauley commented that the opening sequence of the students running in concentric circles and individually walking down the front of the stage on separate and distinct rhythms and highly varied directions was “very characteristic of Cunningham.”
Macauley also took care to point out the portions of the choreography reminded him of Cunningham’s interest in cultural dance and nature as source material for his own movement investigations. In particular, he discussed the section of the dance in which two students partnered and did a type of Irish Jig step. With hands interlocked and feet kicking up in syncopated rhythms, the two dancers created a synchronized relationship that reminded Macaulay of many of the other Cunningham pieces he had seen. He even referenced a conversation he had with Cunningham in which Cunningham admitted that he studied books on the Irish Jig dance as preparatory work for “Roaritorio”.
Macaulay further remarked that Cunningham’s treatment of the dance ensemble as a whole recalled to memory a bridge to another art form, theater. The presence of simultaneous yet differentiated ensemble movement was reminiscent of Chechov’s classic “The Three Sisters.”
Reflecting on the value of the Cunningham repertory experience for Stanford students, dance lecturer Diane Frank said the most vivid way to understand the work of any choreographer is to grapple with doing the actual work. “Merce Cunningham’s investigations and ideas changed the direction of dance in this century, and this immersion experience transformed both their [the students] thinking and their doing while providing a great platform for their own explorations and innovations.”