MERCE CUNNINGHAM AND THE STOP BUTTON
I once found myself in a lift with Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Four of us, (I was with Alexander Roy at the time) were rising sedately in a small metal box from the stage door level of Théatre des Champs Elysées to the upper floors. I was tempted to secretly push the ‘STOP’ button and compel them to settle down for an extended discussion into ‘what’s it all about’. However, I was really too fascinated observing these two ‘monstres sacrés’ of the international world of music and dance at such close quarters to take any such action. I didn’t recognise them at first – two slim, demurely dressed, ordinary looking men talking very quietly in soft American accents. But as I had been present at the performance of the evening before in the same theatre, it soon became obvious to me that here we were in the presence of the creators, the acclaimed revolutionaries and major inventors of music and dance of our time.
The performance had been exciting. It was during the 1970’s and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company had been enticed across the River Seine from the Left-Bank theatre where they usually played to a relaxed, mainly student, audience. Now they faced exposure in the hallowed gloom of the Théatre des Champs Elysees, situated as it is, in one of the most elite streets in Paris, the Avenue Montaigne, home to the Hotel George V and the houses of Dior, Balmain, etc. The climax of the programme was a ballet everyone must remember, music by John Cage and design by Rauschenberg, or was it Jasper Johns ? Anyway, the large stage was empty apart from a row of oversize electric fans and I seem to remember silver balloons, filled with helium, bouncing and floating through the wind created by the fans. The ‘music’ was ‘played’ by Cage and an assistant, the orchestra pit having been emptied to accommodate their electrical equipment, desks and tables, banks of knobs and yards of cable snaking around them; a huge grand piano had been bared to expose its strings which were plucked and banged, all at ear-shattering sound levels. The dancers did what they usually do in a Cunningham ballet; the arrangements of the entrances and exits as well as the casting all being decided upon by pulling pieces of paper containing their instructions from a box shortly before the start. The dancers themselves were a deliberately motley bunch, from the gawky
Valda Setterfield ( later to become another New York icon ) to the beautiful and impressive Carolyn Brown, who, to my mind, saved every performance with her finely trained body and her professionalism.
Cunningham was, of course, omni-present: skipping and hopping on and offstage, twitching his legs and his arms in a manner resembling nothing less than a demented, middle-aged pixie. At one point, the stage otherwise empty, he started running on the spot. The audience could no longer restrain themselves: ‘Allez, Merce’, ‘Allez, allez, plus vite’, the shouts came, soon followed by whistles and catcalls. This was countered by ‘shushes’ and ‘bravos’ from another side of the auditorium. The noise from the orchestra pit joined in the battle with squeaks and squawks, pings and plonks. I found it truly exciting. No real Cunningham fan, I had to admit this was a real achievement to rouse a blasé and sophisticated audience to this level of excitement. History was remaking itself in this very same theatre which had witnessed the premiere of Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps and a very similar Parisian reception in 1913. Parisian audiences have loved this sort of event ever since Diaghilev commanded Jean Cocteau ‘Etonnes-moi’ -challenging him to astound him with his newest outrageous ideas for revolutionary theatre. Paris has always wanted to be astonished and astounded, shocked and delighted-preferably all at the same time- by the newest ideas.
Thinking of all this in the lift, I became aware of the two men’s conversation. How excited they must be, I thought, to have achieved this summit of a Parisian reception, to have new audiences question the very nature of their dance and music: some to welcome their innovation so enthusiastically and others to challenge their audacity. But no, the two quiet Americans were depressed, were disappointed, they were left dismayed by the reaction. I longed to interrupt their intense conversation. Had they been so surprised by last night’s audience? Were they shocked that a major European capital city would be so divided in its’ reaction? Did they find this challenging? Disrespectful ? Irreverent ? But surely….? And then they arrived at their destination and quietly disappeared out of the lift – and I missed my chance with the STOP button.
© copyright Christina Gallea Roy – August 2006 )