Bay Area Memories
Dana Lawton, artistic director of Dana Lawton Dances
I admired him tremendously, love his work, and think he was a brilliant, brilliant choreographer. I think about how he’s impacted me the most is through my own dance lineage as I consider Janice Garrett one of my most influential teachers. She danced with Dan Wagner, who danced with Merce Cunningham.
Choreographically I think that there can be a sense of freedom in following a formula. When I read about him or watch interviews it gives me permission to attempt his process. Working with my dance company, Dana Lawton Dances, I overlay mapping patterns, incorporating gesture work, or create phrasing and then using chance methods. This approach forces me to move outside of my usual choreographic comfort zone, and I discover new possibilities to create a piece that is fresh and exciting.
Another aspect I’ve appreciated about Merce is the participation requirement as an audience member. If I think about Ocean or Rune or Birds, these works demand the viewer to bring there an open mind and perceptive skills to catch the dance in the moment. I don’t think he ever cared if people “got it” or didn’t “get it”. I always felt like his dances were a big Rorschach test. That’s why I always love his work, whether they looked like big washes of modern art passing through and I got to have my eyes fog over and just kind of space out, or I really focused on technology or whatever he wanted me to look at, I felt like he had a great, great sense of what we were all—we were all just supposed to be ourselves when we were in the space with him and his art, and that was very rich for me as well. As a viewer is was aware of my own headspace. Because his work had so many levels, layers, and wasn’t linear, it allowed you really to just sit in the audience and let it happen to you. It may evoke images/stories/emotions/sleep/drooling or leaving in the middle; whatever happened as a viewer was acceptable. As a technique teacher, I have a foot in Cunningham technique through Janice. Each class includes ‘opening curves’ to held stabilize the lower half of the body while the upper torso bobs and stretches. While Merce’s choreographic process was structured randomly, his dance classes were not. I still adhere to the belief system that ballet technique, coupled with modern aesthetic, builds strong dancers, and that plies, tendues, petite allegro allow the choreographer and the dancer movement opportunities in both the dance studio and stage.