Sunday, August 02, 2009

The House That Merce Built

Twenty years ago, I was awarded a scholarship to study in the Professional Training Program of the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York City. I had been in New York for about nine months, and a friend at the restaurant where I worked suggested that I check out the studio. Since I had primarily trained in ballet prior to that, and because my friend knew someone in the company, he thought it might be a good fit for me--Cunningham's technique is, in part, based in ballet. Not long after I started taking classes there, I decided to try for a scholarship.

The audition was, well, like an audition. Which is to say it was like taking a dance class, only we had paper numbers on our backs. Merce was there, but he wasn't obviously paying attention. In fact, he did something that looked like balancing his checkbook at a small table in the back of the studio, while we were trying to impress him. Somehow, though, he must have found out what he needed to know--I have a vivid memory of taking the elevator up to the 11th floor of the Westbeth building to look at the list later that afternoon. My name was on it! Thus began two rich years where dance was the center of my universe, in the dance center of the planet Earth.

Here is the part where I would love to tell you about the beers I shared with Merce, how he became a mentor, how we stayed in touch until his death last week. All of that would be a big lie. Merce and I were at various functions at the same time--performances, fundraisers, we'd even ride in the elevator together on occasion. And he definitely knew who I was, and once sponsored me in a dance-a-thon I did for a local AIDS charity. And at the tail end of my time there, I even got to take his class. But Merce was busy being a world famous choreographer, and I was one of what must be thousands of students to come through his studio over the years.

But what I did get was the house that Merce built. I received a scholarship, a Pell Grant, and a work/study position in his film/video archive, three very welcome things that made it possible for me to both pursue my passion and live indoors. I was expected to take class six times a week--and I could not be late!--in the gorgeous studio in the West Village, lined on each side with windows. Until I die, I will remember the sensations of my bare feet on that fine, smooth wood floor, the click-click of the teacher/human beat box' rhythms as he/she demonstrated a combination, and the sweaty thrill of dancing to live drummers and musicians. I could go into a long list of the folks I trained with and from--some of the finest dancers and teachers anywhere. I soaked up Cunningham's choreography in day-long repertory workshops each quarter. And I watched tons of videos of his work in my 9-hr a week job on the 2nd floor, when I was supposed to be just duplicating VHS tapes.

My time at the Cunningham Studio provided me a dance home in New York and entree to a world that deeply affected my heart and sensibilities. Not only did I get to see Cunningham's amazing dancers, I was also swept into performances, in the Cunningham Studio and off the beaten track around town--spaces that might be living lofts by day and impromptu concert halls by night, spaces where ordinary dancers like me, from around the world, combined movement, words, music and/or film in delightful ways I had never imagined.

I never did get into Cunningham's company like I had hoped, but I had a great time trying. The Studio was a place of work, of discipline, of trying things, of seeing what happens, and of letting go of what happens. During my time there, I got to push through being an intermediate level dancer and reach an exciting command of my physicality. I got to see how professional dancers approach a phrase--it turns out that they just start somewhere and dive in! I grew half an inch while I was there (literally!), and I learned, during the spine bending warmup exercises that are repeated in each and every Cunningham class, to pop my sternum, a feat that still confounds. Best of all, I got to see Merce come to the studio, every day--even as arthritis slowed his pace--to make dances. I have carried that image, and I believe, a little bit of his spirit, into every endeavor I have undertaken since. I am extremely grateful for that amazing gift.

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