About Legacy Salon, October 26, 2009
by Zachary Whittenburg
Three passages this summer darkened careers in dance that were guiding lights for artists the world over. Palliating the loss and making sense of their absence, thankfully, is the sizable legion of collaborators, students and scholars each was surrounded by – at the Museum of Contemporary Art, representatives of this group offered insight and remembrance for those curious and concerned about life without Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch or Michael Jackson.
Bonnie Brooks, Chair of the Dance Center of Columbia College, opened the discussion with observations both sobering and inspiring. These three artists collectively had over a century and half between them, most of which was spent furiously generating work that will forever remain influential due to it also being unprecedentedly well-documented. “They combined talent and innovation to push back outdated norms and pull old ones into new territories,” said Brooks. “But,” she added, “their bodies of work are now complete – there will be no new dances from any of them.” It was a vital point: these were not people who had retreated into industries of complacency or whose creativity was tapped. Each left work unmade, yet study and appreciation of what does survive might ensure this potential is realized, albeit abstractly.
Combining a PowerPoint presentation with candid recollections, Paige Cunningham recounted her swift trip from studying Merce Cunningham in dance history classes at the Juilliard School to performing repertory and new works with his company. “At the studio, he was often at the edge of the room with dice and a stopwatch,” she remembered. “There wasn't a lot of personal interaction.” When he saw or heard something that piqued his curiosity, though, he was quick to satisfy his interest. “[Merce] called me over one day and said, 'I heard you do hip-hop.'” She showed him a few classics of the style and, while doing so, had a realization about what he needed from her as a collaborator. Although the dances he made were complex and intellectual, there was never a requirement that the artists performing them cede their personalities or individual touches to the rigor of the system. “He cared as much about seeing people as steps.”
One of the most telling – and funniest – quotes from the legendary experimentalist was included. Concerning the impact Martha Graham had on the young dancer at a time when his compositional ideas were being born, he told Jacqueline Lesschaeve in the mid-1980s, “Even when I was first [working with Graham], I thought the way she moved was very amazing, but I didn’t think the rest of it was interesting at all...I just tried to see what the movement was, not to expect it to be like she did it, not in the least. The same with ballet exercises: if I put my leg out there and it’s supposed to go out at a 180 degree angle and your back’s supposed to be straight, how do I do that?”
Paige told us that was a useful anecdote to remember when solving the physical puzzles of Cunningham's movement phrases, especially in late work often randomized by software. “The beauty of the process was in building an organic solution to these impossible instructions. You couldn't just rely on what came naturally.”
Of the posthumous life of Cunningham's ouevre, she noted, as many have, that the debacle of the war of succession over rights to Graham's repertoire was something MCDC learned a lot from. She also told us to expect to see Cunningham work surface in company and conservatory performances as funds are raised and necessary reorganizations settle into place. She and Bonnie Brooks will both travel to New York this week for the dancemaker's memorial service, being held tomorrow at the Park Avenue Armory.
A dance scholar and also Chair of the English Department at Northwestern University, Susan Manning researched Pina Bausch extensively for an essay in memoriam for the performance journal TDR: The Drama Review. Video of the restaging of Bausch's 1978 Kontakthof on mostly-untrained seniors twenty years later was an apt choice for the occasion: one section is a plain procession of elegantly-dressed sixty-somethings offering themselves up for inspection. Dispassionately showing their foreheads, teeth, posture, fingernails and ankles to the audience, one of many tones saturating Kontakthof mit Damen und Herren ab '65' is a nervousness about the body accumulating too much evidence of one life to stand in for any other. Manning offered a brief but cohesive and informative overview of Bausch's background and career, underlining important connections between her lifelong attachment to the industrial Ruhrgebiet, lineage to German Expressionism and sideways associations with the Judson Church and Living Theater (watching Lucinda Childs' Carnation for the first time in a documentary last weekend, I realized I wouldn't have doubted anyone who told me it was made by Bausch for the American minimalist).
Manning's comprehension of modern dance's aesthetic interconnectedness is stunning – it was thrilling to be on her wild ride from Solingen to Essen, Wuppertal, New York, Rome, Los Angeles, Istanbul and India as she explained how a German girl raised in her parents' café became a global citizen whose “sprawling, episodic works, accompanied by a collage of musical excerpts” defined a form revolutionary not only within dance but for the cultural landscape of the planet. “In my studies of Bausch,” Manning said, “I was absorbed by her creations specifically within a German context.” Reading innumerable tributes to the dancemaker on the internet in the days and weeks following her death, Manning realized “this was someone whose presence and impact was felt by artists all over the world.” Poetically, Kontakthof continued to play without sound during her presentation – watching two women chasing each other on tiptoe, hiking up their panties through black slips as Manning explained how three years of confirmed bookings will keep Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch on stages into the next decade softened the blow considerably.
A first-hand account of a cultural moment that paradoxically seems distant, even though it's become a template for pop success, came from dancer Michele Simmons, a 1967 graduate of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School (AKA the Fame school). Simmons, now wheelchair-bound, had a long and varied career as a performer on stage and television, crossing paths with Michael's family many times, backstage with the Jackson 5 on The Andy Williams Show and in the studio with John Landis and choreographer Michael Peters during the creation of “Thriller.” Simmons is a passionate cheerleader for the polarizing legacy of Jackson, “an incomparable artist who was wonderful and somehow sad at the same time.” She offered a ground-level history, relating never seeing him without bodyguards – even around his brothers – and focusing on his oft-dissected lost childhood and profound bond with Liz Taylor. Her enumeration of the silver screen stars Jackson fanatically emulated – Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Jr., “Sandman” Sims and others – raised an interesting observation about how Jackson used their mechanics as a scaffolding on which to build his intricate footwork. “Michael insisted on surrounding himself with the very best dancers in the industry” on every project, Simmons stated. “The dancers in his videos, as well as Peters, were trained in Graham, Cunningham, Balanchine technique – you name it. He didn't have that training himself but he was a genius at finding his own way of emulating the touches of these styles that made it into the choreography.”
Simmons also claims Prince was Jackson's dance idol. In the last months of his life, while working with Kenny Ortega on his comeback tour, Jackson would become charged with inspiration, sometimes in the middle of the night. “He'd wake up Kenny and demand a rehearsal to work out some new step he'd had the idea for,” Simmons said. “And Kenny would tell him, 'Michael, I'm sure it can wait for the morning.' Michael would respond, 'No, it can't! If I don't get this idea out right now it's gonna be given to Prince instead!'”
The embodiment of vocal and instrumental sounds Simmons says was a particularly special corner of Jackson's talent. “In 'Thriller,' all these sounds, you can see him translate into movement. It's as though he's making them with his body, and not the other way around.” Her concern that the world will never again have a Michael Jackson might have rung – to me anyway – a little hyperbolic, but there's certainly no arguing with the uncanny ease he found within choreography that created the bar and regularly raised it thereafter.
The About Legacy Salon's post-panel discussion was, as they tend to be, a spirited exchange that could've gone on for hours. Two dance critics visiting from New Delhi -- Dr. Sunil Kothari, formerly of The Times of India, and Mrs. Leela Venkataraman of The Hindu -- shared impressions of the impact Bausch's Bamboo Blues had on South Asian audiences; Kevin Iega Jeff and Paige Cunningham discussed their perception of a waning commitment to craft; and Ginger Farley offered that Jackson could be looked at as an artist whose “investigation of style was elevated to the level of technique.” I would've stayed until the MCA kicked us out, but I had a NOTEBOOK to write.
Check out the next CDF Salon at Silverspace on Monday, November 23, 2009 with Mexican Butoh artist Diego Piñón.