writers on dancing


HOW TO....

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run” on the opening night program of C ity Center's Fall for Dance Festival (September 28th).

By Nancy Dalva
copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva
published September 27, 2004

In the past year, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company has performed “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run” in, among other cities, Chicago and Washington D. C., and it is the final work on the opening night program of the Fall for Dance Festival on September 28th at City Center in New York. Dance Theatre of Harlem, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, STREB, and David Neuman will precede the company on the mixed bill. As it happens, Mr. Jones is an admirer of Mr. Cunningham’s work, as is Elizabeth Streb. She was in turn admired early on in her career by John Cage and Mr. Cunningham—who recommended her work to me in the early 1980s—so the program makes a certain amount of sense as something other than a random sampler. Besides, “How To” is the only work in the Cunningham repertory in which the choreographer himself still takes a part, and it is nice to think of him being on stage again at City Center, where his company for so many years performed every spring.

Mr. Cunningham made “How To Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run” in 1965, with the premiere being given in Chicago on November 24th. In the cast (as noted by David Vaughan in “Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years,” published by Aperture ) were Carolyn Brown, Barbara Dilley Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Peter Saul, Valda Setterfield, and Gus Solomons, Jr. (The choreographer later added a part for a fifth woman, which has recently been dropped.) Mr. Cunningham appears today not in his original part, which is danced by Robert Swinston, but in the part of Mr. Cage, who devised the accompanying sound text. The current iteration—the meticulous reconstruction was undertaken by Mr. Swinston, who is the assistant to the choreographer—retains the antic charm of the original, augmented by a new poignancy, particularly in the opening and closing moments of the piece, which runs a little over twenty minutes.

At the opening of the work as it currently is presented, Mr. Cunningham is seated at a table to the far left of the stage, on the part called the “apron.” At his right is David Vaughan, in his own original role as one of the narrators of the score, which is a series of vignettes, of varying lengths, each read aloud so as to take up exactly a minute. (Thus some are spoken rapidly, some slowly, some somewhere in between. Sometimes the narrators overlap. The material was drawn by Mr. Cage from his “Stories from Silence,” published by Wesleyan University Press in 1961, and other Cage texts.) To Mr. Cunningham’s left, Mr. Swinston takes up a position, and, just before initiating the movement by emphatically torquing his body, he acknowledges the choreographer. This is not so much a visual exchange as an energy exchange; a current runs between them. It is a potent moment on its own—and was so all along, originally being between Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Cage, launching their separate parts of the work, which are synchronous but not interdependent adventures. If you know the back story, the moment is now more potent still. Continuity, change. The passage of time imposes its own narrative, singular, but universal. That Mr. Swinston is no longer in the first flush of youth—he is in fact somewhat older than Mr. Cunningham was when the work premiered—but is rather an authoritative and magisterial presence in his own right, adds resonance to the performance, and authenticity.

The choreographer was forty-six years old when he first danced in “How To,” and his role has some of the Prospero-like, master-of-the-revels quality with which he would imbue many of his roles in the following decade—in, for instance, “Signals” (1970) “Sounddance” (1975) and “Exchange” (1978). There is, however, none of the quality of detachment or tragic odd-man-out-ness which would creep in later, during the 80's, as in “Gallopade” (1981) and “Quartet” (1981).The overall color of the movement is effervescent. The original dancers wore practice clothes of their own choosing, and the stage was stripped of side and back curtains, so that the walls of the theater itself were the set, and whatever theatrical detritus the curtains had kept hidden was alluringly revealed to the public. The work is performed with the same seeming casualness today. While the dancers do not imitate football players, there is an effect of scrimmaging–that is, of engaging in some spirited, episodic, yet joint activity with a physical goal. While it might be said that football has an obvious narrative content–or at least a narrative thrust—the dance does not, but it is nonetheless clear that the dancers are up to something. That something is movement itself.

The fizzy, devil-may-care sensibility of the work derived, too, from the Cage narrative, which comprises a kind of Zen entertainment, both amusing and enlightening. For instance:

I went to hear Krishnamurti speak. He was
lecturing on how to hear a lecture. He said,
“You must pay full attention to what is being
said and you can’t do that if you take notes.”
The lady on my right was taking notes. The
man on her right nudged her and said, “Don’t
you hear what he’s saying? You’re not supposed
to take notes.” She then read what she had
written and said, “That’s right. I have it written
down right here in my notes.”

When the work was performed in New York at Hunter College, on their modern dance series of the mid-60's, Mr. Cage wore a dark suit and tie with a white shirt. He smoked a cigarette. He drank champagne. So, too, did David Vaughan, who wore a dark suit and a bow tie, and was covered in wit, besides. Today Mr. Vaughan ( a performer as well as being the biographer of Sir Frederick Ashton and Mr. Cunningham, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company archivist, and a critic) still declaims the same text. Now, as then, the words and the dance have nothing to do with each other, other than overall duration, and a unity of impression having to do with simultaneity, and also tone. But even here, with the written word, which after all does not change, there is a layering imposed by time passing, and roles changing. Mr. Vaughan now dresses as an English country gentleman, appearing very “Wind-in-the-Willows”-ish in a patterned sweater vest under a sports jacket. Mr. Cunningham has never appeared like a country anything, but wears quite festive attire. He is clearly not Mr. Cage, and is not imitating Mr. Cage—his voice is low and melodious—but he does read the stories exactly as they are written. Thus it transpires that in telling amusing tales about his own mother (who pops up here like a character out of James Thurber) he refers to her, as did Cage in the texts, as “Mrs. Cunningham.” There is an even mindedness in this distancing, but the choreographer’s tone is altogether affectionate and touching.

As with all of Mr. Cunningham’s dances, “How To Pass, Fall, Kick and Run” has a beginning, a middle, and an end, though not in the way that is usually meant. There is no plot. But there is, in each work, an arc, a shape, that constitutes inevitability. Here, after the energy has been gathered in and dispersed, he has the last word, when—Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Vaughan having spoken over, around, and through each other—the narrative falls to the choreographer. “On Yap Island,” Merce Cunningham says very slowly into the darkened theater, “Phosphorescent fungi are used as hair ornaments for moonlight dances.” And with that luminous pass into the end zone, he steals his own show.

First:  How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run - 1965; Daniel Roberts and Jeannie Steele. Photo: Tony Dougherty
Second:  Robert Swinston. Photo: Tony Dougherty

Originally published:
Volume 2, No. 36
September 20, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Nancy Dalva


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