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Posted at: Apr 12, 2015, 12:22 AM; last updated: Apr 11, 2015, 10:41 PM (IST)ART & SOUL

When a great dancer paints

Merce Cunningham's works created an alliance of visual arts, music, dance and theatre

B. N. Goswamy

The animals I sketch are from photographs, drawings, a quick glimpse of a live one. They become figments of my imagination not to represent but a way to look for the movement in any form, still or active. I make a small drawing each morning, a red-headed bird, a green frog, a baby hippo, a chicken. In the act of looking I grow more aware of the placement and balance of a bird’s leg in proportion to the body size and weight. The condor supporting those wings. Drawing has become like measuring a bow and arrow, just to find out, no art in mind. The pleasure is in the doing….

— Merce Cunningham

I saw Merce Cunningham dance twice: once here at Chandigarh when he came, decades ago, on a tour of India in the company of two other iconic figures — John Cage, the composer, and the painter, Robert Rauschenberg — and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the US. Each time it was a revelation. Here, in the flesh, was a man whose work had profoundly changed modern dance, someone who had ‘propelled dance through a series of dazzlingly new orbits that…left conventional notions of the art far behind”, as someone wrote. You could see him reaching out not only to his stunned, sometimes puzzled, audiences but also to something within himself: unpredictable, fluid as a gently rising wisp of smoke from an unseen candle, quivering like a drop of mercury that you are trying to keep steady on your palm.

But, to be candid — abstract modern dance not being something that I have lived my life by — the great Merce had moved out of my ken over the years. Till, of course, he re-entered it recently, through a young researcher from America — Abigail Sebaly — who has been travelling in our land, retracing and reconstructing what she called “the 1964 tour”: of Merce Cunningham with John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Working as she has been for the Cunningham Dance Foundation, and based at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, she had somehow — I do not know how — chanced upon a piece that I had written on Merce many years ago, and therefore reached me, hoping to get some information, or insight, into the great dancer’s last visit to these parts. The theatre that he had performed in — the Tagore Theatre in our town — she was particularly interested in seeing. So she did come to Chandigarh some three weeks ago; she looked around the town; we talked about whatever I remembered about the ‘Tour’, and other things; she visited and photographed the Theatre even though it has changed considerably from what it was then. And then she left, but not before leaving behind, as a token of gratitude, a slim little volume of Merce’s paintings for me. It bore a typical dancer’s title: Exercises.

In this manner, I was somehow back with Merce. I knew that he used to draw — one had read about the painters he worked with or admired: Robert Rauschenberg, of course; Jasper Johns; Willem de Kooning; Josef Albers, all of them avant-garde — but these were all in his own style, and these I had not seen before. Simple studies done with coloured pencils but done from the heart: birds of various hues and shapes, little frogs about to leap, tortoises moving at their own pace, and the like, all sharply observed. Sometimes there would be just a long, hungry beak; at others an alert look in the eye; but almost always caught in a moment of quiet balance, between stillness and movement, between gaze and stance. Merce was not a great painter of birds: he was no Audubon, or Mansur. But, as he said himself, he was drawn as much to the appearance of these exquisite creatures as, the dancer that he was, to the manner — nature’s manner — of “the placement and balance of a bird’s leg in proportion to the body size and weight”. Sketching early in the morning had turned into a habit for Merce, like bodily exercises. “It’s like dancing”, he wrote once. “What a marvellous absorbing task these drawings are! Nothing to do with gain or loss, only an experience absorbing all your (meagre) observing faculties; even for a few (15?) moments, the world sinks into a single thing not in time nor space.”

Merce Cunningham passed away in 2009, his last years excruciatingly painful on account of the arthritis that caught up with him. But he was always there, in spirit if not necessarily in body, on the stage. One thing never left him till the end: his interest in seeing the arts come together. This little volume of which I have spoken — Exercises — served as a catalogue of an exhibition of his paintings and drawings at Minneapolis in the University of Minnesota in 2005. And introducing it, a Professor in the Department of Art at the University spoke of “the creation of an alliance among the visual arts, music, dance and theatre”, and this exhibition serving as “a celebration of that spirit”.

One has spoken of ‘seeing the arts come together’, but one needs to qualify this, or at least add an explanation, in the context of Merce Cunningham’s dancing and choreography. Surprising as it might sound to our ears, in his work there was both dance and music, but the two arts worked independently of each other for the most part. John Cage might compose the music, but the dancers on the stage would dance to their own inner, silent score, not to Cage’s musical one. The two arts — and both Merce and Cage were involved in that decision — simply co-existed in the same time-frame and were not related. It was always a case of a pure look “at artists doing their work in the company of other artists in a public space”, their ‘collaboration’ consisting simply of the fact that it was all done within a clearly defined, specific time interval. Odd as it might strike one, most often the dancers heard the music for the first time as they got on to the stage to perform.

But, it worked. For Merce and his dancers their movements were “not dependent upon the music but equal to it”. “You could be free and precise at the same time”, as the great dancer wrote.

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