One of modern dance's most revered practitioners, Merce Cunningham, died last week at 90. His legacy, however, reaches around the world and into Richmond through the dancers who have made their careers here, including the godfather of local choreography, Chris Burnside.
“His dances were about dancing,” he says — “not emotions or a story.”
Cunningham often would leave elements of his work to chance, throwing dice or flipping coins to determine how many dancers would be on stage or which set of costumes they would wear — sometimes in front of the audience to start the show. Along with his collaborators, including composer John Cage and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, he shaped artistic modernism on a global scale.
One of Burnside's pieces, “The Edge of Thira,” commissioned by the Richmond Ballet in 1997, used Cunningham's principals of chance.
“I was sweating profusely, giving up control of my piece to the universe,” Burnside says, though Cunningham was not always so willing to let go. David Neal, a company member with the Richmond Ballet, was a senior at New York University in 2006 when the choreographer paid a visit to a rehearsal. The class was surprised to see Cunningham, then in his late 80s, enter the studio in a wheelchair. A friend of Neal's snapped a few shots with a digital camera, and after class was asked by a buff, bald-headed attendant to delete the shots that caught the chair.
Still, dancers attribute to Cunningham a creative aura that verged on spirituality.
“After the rehearsal, he didn't talk about the steps,” Neal says. “He talked about dance as art, but almost as religion.”
If ballet is the Catholic Church of dance, then the Protestant denominations of modern dance define themselves in opposition to the mother church. In Cunningham's sect that meant the sacrament of the holy feet carried over from ballet, but traditional leg and foot exercises were executed along many more degrees of motion, and a more flexible, modern spine was required.
As a young dancer, Burnside studied with Cunningham and recalls him speaking so softly in class it cast a spell forcing the dancers to focus — but he wasn't always quiet.
Once, Burnside says, a friend of his struggled with a particularly difficult step on stage during a Cunningham piece. After the show she locked herself in her dressing room, immediately adjacent to Cunningham's, inconsolable. A horrified board member came to dish with Cunningham.
“Did you see how terrible she looked, struggling with that step?” the board member hissed.
“Yes,” Cunningham said, loudly enough for the dancer to hear, “Wasn't it wonderful?” S
Laura Robertson contributed to this story.