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When Giants Walked

How strange, and apt, to be among a community of dancers the day Merce Cunningham passed from the earth. His death at 90 was softened with the lifework he was able to complete, the honors that were bestowed, the fact that he continued to experiment until the end of his days (scores on Ipod Shuffle! Music by Radiohead and Sonic Youth!) and not at all least, the great good fortune to die in his own home, surrounded by the people who loved him, and told him so. This loss retains a faint, tender smile on its face.

There is no front, no back, no side to our universe: we are all points in space, he famously taught. I honored that challenge in a modest way. In addition to having the students in my class write about and discuss Tania Isaac’s “Stuporwoman” I made time for an ad hoc showing of selected Youtube clips of Merce’s “Channels and Inlets.” There’s a lot of Merce on the web: he was deeply documented, in part because of his long association with gifted filmmakers and due to his own abiding curiosity about how film and video could be another perceptual experiment. On Youtube you can see a bit of Carolyn Brown, serene and poised, or Karole Armitage linear as a yardstick. There are images of Merce dancing under Google Images, some famous for their photographic virtues and others of historical interest such as the photos that show Merce and John Cage together, young and vibrant and always avant-garde, comrades in arms as well as life companions.

Before Bebe Miller’s video showing last night, a small group gathered to think about Merce. Bebe shared how Merce’s example, and things he said, gave her permission to consider how going with your dance impulses might not be the best route – why not try taking that impulse and putting it somewhere else, surprising yourself (and of course, others?) Bebe’s own work, with its gracious embrace of technology, owes something to Merce’s pioneering. One student described how, by chance (ah!) she bought a ticket to what turned out to be Merce’s recent 90th birthday celebration in New York, an occasion that evidenced another premiere. She sat in the balcony and saw the guest of honor in his wheelchair, taking it in, and everybody in theatre standing, and applauding, as if they never wanted it to stop.

Most of the students at Bates today have never seen the Cunningham company, and almost none are old enough to have seen Merce dance. Nonetheless, we are all his children, and grandchildren, and great-grands. The company, his private, beautiful laboratory, will fold after its valedictory lap. The legacy of his works will exist in authorized stagings and an archive that will unquestionably represent one of the most important in any American artist’s life.

Few of us get to reach the pinnacle of such an artists’ experience. But below that mountain, we walk in Merce Cunningham’s shadow, and that will remain a blessing.

Debra Cash