Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham

“(...) Cunningham’s work taught on how to practice a kind of selective inattention, necessitated by the competing and often irreconcilable claims being made on one’s sensorium. Often, it was impossible to “take it all in.” To make everything fit, to make it cohere: that way lay madness. Only a conspiracy theorist out of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 would even attempt it. Pynchon wrote about “the true paranoid, for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself.” And in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Pynchon would write about the other side of the perceptual coin, the state of “anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The alternative to both was solipsism: a crowding out, a turning inward, a refusal to confront complexity and simultaneity. The dandy, by contrast, is someone who pulls back without turning inward. To Moira Roth, the dandy’s “unshakable determination not to be moved” (or in her words, his “indifference”) is apolitical---or worse. But the jarring events of 1968 convinced me that the dandy’s detachment could become an essential ingredient of radical politics.

Cunningham’s performances provided a special place, a “manipulation-free zone” in which you could begin to reclaim control over your own sensorium. Consider the relationship between movement and sound in a Cunningham dance. In order for the movement to remain independent of the sound, it was necessary for Cunningham’s dancers to perform a remarkable feat of selective concentration. (…) If some of Cunningham’s works were exercises in sensory overload, others were studies in silence. The sound scores for a number of dances were set at the very lowest threshold of auditory perception. Cage, for example, claimed he could never hear any of Gordon Mumma’s contribution to “Landrover” (1972).

Sensory overload and silence; bone crushing energy and perceptual clarity: the two complimentary poles of Cunningham performance in the late 1960s and early 1970s...”

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