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Bay Area Memories

Hope Mohr, Bay Area Memories, Dance Film SF, Merce Cunningham

Hope Mohr, artistic dirctor of Hope Mohr Dance Company

I moved to New York to study at the Cunningham Company in 1997 and was granted a scholarship. I studied there intensively for a year and a half. Merce taught Monday mornings, so I took class with Merce for about a year. It was really the closest thing to church that I have ever experienced. It was really a practice, a focus; it was a lesson in dedication and discipline. A lesson in showing up and immersing yourself in an aesthetic. It was the most important physical training that I’ve done in my career. I went through SF Ballet School, and it was a very different kind of muscular training that was absolutely formative for me in becoming a professional modern dancer.

Being around all of those exceptional dancers was so inspiring. Merce definitely had an aura about him. When he taught, his sense of rhythm was so strong and compelling. Even though he wasn’t able at that point physically to execute the steps that clearly, you could still hear the embodiment of the rhythm in his voice. He would sing the exercises and you would hear how strongly it lived in his body through his voice.

Merce really deconstructed the body. As a result, within his universe, anything was possible. There were so many permutations of each step. It was very surprising. In ballet there’s a codified language; in Cunningham, it was all very unexpected. There was no canon or established way that the steps would be delivered. Because Merce relied on chance as a compositional logic, anything was possible at any minute. The dancers in his company had to build up an incredible strength and flexibility to be able to accommodate those combinations. Your upper body might be doing ten different things and your lower body would be doing something completely unrelated from an anatomical or organic perspective. 

Merce’s use of chance has inspired me to rely on outside source materials in coming up with spatial and time structures. I also continue to be inspired by his sense of the internal rhythm of a phrase. Each phrase has a strong internal song. Each phrase has its own music. Compositionally, he has influenced me as a maker to try and divorce myself from a sense of a fixed front.  

On a personal level, I was profoundly influenced by Merce’s intellectual curiosity and the rigor and intensity that he brought to what he did. Spending so much time, day after day, in his studio was a deep a source of passion and inspiration that has carried me, even when I feel isolated as a choreographer. I go back to the elation that I felt taking class every day. The practice of going to that studio and looking out the windows at New York every day, being surrounded by similarly-minded people. It was a meditation practice. A practice of showing up.  That dedication is truly a wonderful thing to experience.

His influence is so ambient at this point. He was one of the first people to propose dance as pure movement, dance that doesn’t tell a story, dance that is about form, space and time. At first when audiences saw that, it was very unpopular, but now, it’s become acceptable. Of course when people see modern dance, they still might say, “I don’t get it.”  But Cunningham was one of the first dancemakers to present audiences with that mystery.  The imaginative space you are given when confronted with abstraction. 

When I was taking company class with him, the days when I would receive a correction from Merce were thrilling. Because if he corrected you, you knew that he had been watching you. To receive his attention was thrilling. He had an eagle eye. It was like you were getting a correction from the god of dance.  I didn’t receive all that many, but each one stayed with me and encouraged me to work harder. It was an inspiration to be in his presence.

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Merce Cunningham Centennial Assemblage Screening
This program is part of the Merce Cunningham Centennial.
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