Marianne Mitchell on Merce Cunningham

Moving is a mysterious thing. Most of what we do with our bodies and what our bodies do to us is invisible, at least to the person doing the moving. Sometimes we can identify what emotions cause us to move in a particular way, the more obvious the better — running with fear away from some impending harm, running towards someone with love. And then there are all the particular forms our bodies learn as they perform tasks — mundane tasks as we take care of our lives, ecstatic forms as we enjoy ourselves. We can be sure, though, that the mind is initiating the movement, this kinetic energy.

This might be an arcane subject to many, but for some it is the sole object of their lives, as it was for Merce Cunningham. Using your body to make space visible, you would have to be a dancer, a mathematician, an explorer, a mapmaker, and then you'd stand a chance at being successful if you were incessant in your practice. As Merce said, ”dance is not for unsteady souls.“

Setting apart dance from music, from costume, from backdrop sets, Merce relied on movement only to trigger more movement and more movement. Other arts that would enter later could almost be a separate story. One thing they were not was a support for initiating movement. By keeping the elements in the dance separate, he had a better chance of immersing himself in only the movement.

In a science story I once read, the author asked a mathematician if he could define space. His answer was to experience a Merce Cunningham dance. As someone who studied with Merce, that was my experience as well. In the particular way Merce had of creating dances, he made space visible, not just the lines of the body making the movement. Now that's mysterious.

Merce died July 26, 2009. You can see excerpts from his dance pieces on

bowing to merce, marianne mitchell

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You can see Merce teaching at Westbeth, rehearsing his company, and in conversation by watching Mondays with Merce(tm) , a free webseries available at The episodes all stay on line as they are made--there will me 13 more "Legacy" epidoes. Thank you for this wonderful post. Merce said that rhythm is "time cut up." That's math for you! And, about making space visible--he was not concerned only with line, but with volume. Not just algebra, but geometry and geography...Best wishes to you all, Nancy Dalva (producer/writer, Mondays with Merce (tm) .