The Thinking Body, The Moving Mind: What I Learned From Merce Cunningham About Psychology

Psychological reflections on the end of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Published on January 1, 2012 by The Psychoanalysis 3.0 Writing, Group in Psychoanalysis 3.0

A part of Merce Cunningham is always with me in my work as a psychoanalyst, even though, or maybe especially because, this groundbreaking choreographer and dance teacher died on July 26, 2009. Both I and my patients are profoundly in his debt.

With the dance phrases he created, or “combinations” as he called them, I learned to be comfortable with chaos and to trust that patterns would eventually emerge with their own shape and rhythm. Losing then regaining balance; moving from disorientation to order; having the strange become familiar; perceiving patterns emerging from chaos—my body learned these things during the 20 years I took classes at the Cunningham Studio.

Now they, and he, are a part of my mind as well.

In June 2009, a month before his death, he announced his “Legacy Plan.” His dance company would tour internationally for 2 years and then disband. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed for the last time on December 31, 2011. Although Cunningham documented each of his dances on video the December 31st performance was the last live performance of his choreography by the company he trained himself.

I asked Patricia Lent, a long-time member of the company and now Director of Repertory Licensing, why Merce wanted it this way. She gave 3 reasons: First, he felt the dancers in his company should all be trained by him and could not envision it otherwise; Second, each year he choreographed about 3 new dances and created each dance with a particular member of the company in mind so that the dancers would continually be performing new work, after his death there would be no new choreography for the current dancers; Finally, he believed it would be difficult for the company to sustain itself financially after his death.

Robert Swinston, also a long-time member of the company and now Director of Choreography, told me that although the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has disbanded, several ballet companies plan to perform his dances. Swinston’s job is to teach the dances to these companies. Although dancers can learn the steps, if they are not steeped in the Cunningham technique, Swinston notes, the choreography will look and feel quite different. It is impossible to know how the Cunningham technique and choreography will evolve over time in the hands of other companies.

Regardless of what future performances by other companies are like, this is personal for me. I am mourning not only the loss of Merce Cunningham and his incredible dance company, but also a younger version of myself, physically and mentally capable of executing the complicated combinations he taught in his class. In the process of mourning, one brings up all available memories and savors the experiences evoked by these memories.

“You have to REST during the rest beats.” Standing with my right leg bent, back parallel to the floor, left leg extended straight behind and upper torso and head curved toward my left leg, this was an uncomfortable position to hold, but Merce said to rest so I rested. It is an unusual kind of rest, with muscles extended and mind alert. The body rests when it can, so that the dancer can attack the next movement with vigor and freshness. Merce reminds the class that if you do anything often enough it becomes natural. So it became natural to rest in an uncomfortable position.

Merce frequently made such observations when teaching his technique class—observations that applied not only to dance but to many things in life. I think about things he said as I go through my day as a psychoanalyst. Listening to patients while monitoring my reactions often feels like holding an uncomfortable position. As in Merce’s technique class, I try to rest with my mind alert and extended, so that I will be able to respond with full energy and attention.

I took technique classes at Merce’s school in Westbeth, a subsidized artists’ housing project in Manhattan’s West Village, for over 20 years. I was particularly fortunate to take classes with Cunningham himself. During the month of August he taught the Intermediate class everyday—this was something the students looked forward to all year. Taking his class everyday during my 9th month of pregnancy in August 1981 was an unusual experience for me, and for Merce. The combinations frequently required the dancer to lose and then regain balance. Since my center of gravity shifted from day to day, this was a particularly challenging endeavor. Occasionally, I noticed Merce eyeing me with curiosity, perhaps alarm.

A class taught by Merce required one to think with the body. He often gave combinations that included atypical beats to a phrase. A typical dance phrase might be in ¾ time or “waltz time” —ONE two three, ONE two three. In contrast, Merce gave a phrase of, say, 3-5-2. Initially, it felt chaotic—difficult to find the downbeat and no discernable pattern or rhythm. But as one practiced the phrase, it took shape and rhythm. ONE two three, one two three four FIVE, one TWO, ONE two three, one two three four FIVE, one TWO—try tapping it out over and over. Eventually, I became comfortable with the chaos and trusted that by repeating the phrase, the pattern and rhythms would emerge.

In a Cunningham dance the dancers are not supported by the external surroundings, such as the music and the set. There is no story to a Cunningham dance. The music and sets are introduced either at the dress rehearsal or sometimes at the performance itself. Sometimes the order in which the dance sequences appear is determined by a toss of the dice right before the performance. All these factors create an atmosphere of disorientation. The dancer has to find a sense of order in him/herself. Similarly, in his technique class, Merce gave a combination and just as it became familiar, he told the class to shift direction. This caused temporary disoriented. The excitement and fun of the class was to realize that we had the ability to regain orientation.

His dance, “Split Sides” is an example of how complicated—and pleasurably disorienting—his choreography could be. It is divided into 2 parts, each with one of 2 options for set design, choreography, costumes, lighting and music. The order in which each element appears is determined by a toss of the dice before the performance and there are 32 possible versions of the piece. This dance raises questions in the observer: Is it same dance no matter which order, costume or music? Does the dancer feel completely different each time the elements are changed? Sometimes psychotherapy sessions feel this way, although it is the mind and heart of the patient rather than dice choosing from an infinite number of possible versions of the session.

Merce was captivated by how movement could be experienced in the mind. He related an incident that occurred when he was a young dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company: Helen Keller was brought into the studio accompanied by her aid. She was introduced to the class and then she asked if she could touch a dancer in motion. She was brought over to Merce and her hands were placed on his waist. Cunningham made some small jumps to which Keller replied, through Sign Language, “So light, like the mind!” Keller got it right. He became one of the first choreographers to create dances on a computer. He would show the choreography to company members and ask, “Is this possible?

I find it hard to believe that there is no more Merce Cunningham Dance Company, no more Merce. Soon the Cunningham Dance Studio, on the top floor of Westbeth, will be gone. A piece of my life, one of the good pieces, is gone. This is indeed a disorienting experience. But as I learned from Merce, pattern and rhythm can emerge from disorientation and chaos—perhaps something wonderful will emerge from his work after his death that none of us could possibly have foreseen.

I hope so.