Magazine article The New Yorker

Bird Song

Magazine article The New Yorker

Bird Song

Article excerpt

Bird Song

Paul Taylor makes room for an old Merce Cunningham work.

Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber, of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, perform "Summerspace," in 1958.

As Merce Cunningham was trying, in the nineteen-fifties, to cleanse his dances of story and symbol--that is, more or less, to throw off the influence of Martha Graham, the most celebrated choreographer of the period--one of the main things beckoning him forward, apart from just mid-century modernism, was nature. He grew up in the small town of Centralia, Washington. He knew trees and birds and dirt roads, and he knew that however lovely nature is it is not sweet, and it won't tell us what it means. Furthermore, it's huge. A bird that you can hear, maybe even see, in a hedge one minute is gone the next, and someone else is hearing it somewhere else.

A key piece that Cunningham made at this time was "Summerspace" (1958), in which six dancers fly through the air, not having much to do with one another. Their arms, with which they might have touched, or even just signalled to one another, are held close to their sides. It's as if Cunningham were saying that if he couldn't have wings he wasn't going to have arms. Robert Rauschenberg, his art director at that time, gave him a Pointillist backdrop--all dots, applied by Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns with cans of Day-Glo spray paint and a stencil. The costumes bore the same design, with the dots sprayed on after the dancers got into their fleshings.

When "Summerspace" was first performed, at the American Dance Festival, in Connecticut, the audience didn't react much. …

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