Legendary Choreographer Merce Cunningham on Life, Learning, and the Creative Experience
“A good teacher keeps out of the way.”
By Maria Popova
Despite what today’s plethora of books on creativity might indicate, it wasn’t until the second half the twentieth century — with the notable exception of Graham Wallace’s famous 1926 model for the four stages of ideation — that psychology turned to creativity as a formal area of study, bringing to millennia of mystical ideas about genius the rational probing mechanisms of science. In 1970, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to bridge these two approaches and to debunk the false divide between intuition and intellect. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 cultural icons working in the arts and sciences and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library).
Among the luminaries interviewed was choreographer and modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919–July 26, 2009), recipient of the National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur “genius” — a legend in his own right, as well as half of one of history’s greatest creative power couples, alongside the love of his life, the visionary composer John Cage.
While Cunningham’s creative medium is dance, it quickly becomes clear that he sees movement as a metaphor — for life, for the creative process, for the human condition:
In my choreographic work, the basis for the dances is movement, that is the human body moving in time-space… It is essentially a process of watching and working with people who use movement as a force of life, not as something to be explained by reference, or used as illustration, but as something, if not necessarily grave, certainly constant in life. What is fascinating and interesting in movement, is, though we are all two-legged creatures, we all move differently, in accordance with our physical proportions as well as our temperaments. It is this that interests me. Not the sameness of one person to another but the difference…
Furthering this notion of movement as a separate, singular language, Cunningham makes a counterintuitive assertion yet one that bespeaks the very sensibility that rendered him one of the greatest creative innovators of the twentieth century:
The dance is not performed to the music. For the dances that we present, the music is composed and performed as a separate identity in itself. It happens to take place at the same time as the dance. The two co-exist, as sight and sound do, in our daily lives. And with that, the dance is not dependent on the music.
To push this a little further, the dancers on several occasions have not actually heard the music until the first performance; that is, until the audience hears it.
He illustrates this idea with a rather comical yet surprisingly profound exercise:
One of the better things to do on plane trips across the country is to watch [legendary American football quarterback] Joe Namath on the professional football reruns, and plug the sound into the music channel. It makes an absorbing dance.
Noting that he thinks of choreography as Cage thinks of music — as “structure in time” — Cunningham extracts from movement a beautiful metaphor for the secret of human excellence:
I think in movement terms. Human beings move on two legs across the floor, across the earth. We don’t do very much on the ground. We don’t have that kind of power in us. And we can’t go as fast as most four-footed animals do. Our action is here on our two legs. That’s what our life is about. When one thinks about falling, dying, or a loss of consciousness, this is a condition that is out of the normal range of human momentum. With jumping, although we all try to do it, we are again caught, because we can’t stay up there very long. So it becomes virtuoso. You know, when someone jumps high and stays long enough for it to register, it becomes a virtuoso feat.
In a rather Buddhist-like aside — and his other half, as we know, was a wholehearted practitioner of Zen — Cunningham adds:
Falling is one of the ways of moving.
The human body moves in limited ways, very few actually. There are certain physical things it can’t do that another animal might be able to do. But within the body’s limitations, I wanted to be able to accept all the possibilities.
In reflecting on his work as a teacher, Cunningham champions the idea that we find ourselves by getting productively lost:
My hope is that in working the way I do, I can place the dancer (and this is involved in my student work too), in a situation where he is dependent upon himself. He has to be what he is. He has as few guides or rules as need be given. He finds his way. It’s concerned with his discovery. I think a good teacher keeps out of the way. That’s why, in the classwork, although there are certain exercises which are repeated every day, they are not exact repetitions. They are varied slightly and radically. Each time the dancer has to look again. The resourcefulness and resiliency of a person are brought into play. Not just of a body, but of a whole person.
Later in the interview, Cunningham recounts his own upbringing and one can’t help but trace the origin of this philosophy to his own formative years — to the idea that, like a good teacher, a good parent “gets out of the way” and that sometimes, even when active encouragement isn’t present, the mere absence of discouragement is enough to let genius take its course:
My family was never against my wanting to be in the theater. My father was a lawyer, and my mother enjoyed traveling. But they had no particular awareness of the arts. They didn’t stop me from tap-dancing when I was an adolescent. My father said, “If you want to do it, fine. All you have to do is work at it.” There was no personal objection. It is curious perhaps, since my two brothers followed him, one being a lawyer, the other, a judge.
But perhaps his most poignant point goes to the heart of creativity — the notion that we are the combinatorial product of everything we ever read, saw, heard, and otherwise experienced, which William Faulkner elegantly articulated and which accounts for the perilous psychology of “cryptomnesia.” Beyond the influence of Cage and “his ideas about the possibilities of sound and time,” which Cunningham readily acknowledges, he speaks to the impossibility of tracing, or even registering, the myriad external ideas that leave an impression on us and shape our own:
Influences are difficult to pinpoint since there are probably many of them. There are many things in one’s life that serve to influence one’s ideas and one’s actions to them.
The Creative Experience is an excellent read its entirety. Sample it further with composer Aaron Copland on emotion vs. intelligence and the trap of public opinion, then revisit this soul-stretching take on John Cage and the inner life of artists.
Published October 3, 2014