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Bay Area Memories

Joanna G. Harris, dancer, teacher, dance historian.

I went to Merce’s studio way back in 1957. A colleague of mine was teaching at Antioch College, and I was teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She said “Come up and bring students.” We got there and my friend had told us the wrong date. We stayed overnight with the company in the old Quonset huts. That was the start of my friendship with MCDC. We with all helped John Cage cook dinner, run errands and cheer for the performers.  Now, years later, Merce and John are gone, the company is disbanded and I am looking forward to the Merce centennial evennts in NY. The original group that I knew were all of six people. I took classes at the old 14th Street studio, above the Living Theater, with Remy [Charlip] and Carolyn [Brown],  Viola [Farber], Bruce [King], and one or two others.

It was a very small group, and there were very small audiences. Merce’s work was considered very weird and not very respectable. People laughed and made fun of what he was doing. I found it intriguing.  Merce’s facination  for me was not only that he was a very kind and intelligent human being, a great teacher and an innovative choreographer. But in the middle of that Fifites revolution in modern art, Merce manifest complete devotion, complete discipline. He spoke to what we think about when it is possible to create new visual and dynamic space. This is a man, as far as I could see, whose ego was thoroughly submerged in the work. In other words, very often an artist does a piece and then says, “Look at me, I did this piece.” And Merce always said, “Look at the work.”

That was a very important dimension. [It was about] how does the performance of dance work? What are the rhythms? What is the space design? What are the tensions? What is partnering as we’re used to it, coming from the ballet, and what is partnering as we might use it differently? He challenged us to see those dimensions in dance and thus there was a whole different kind of ensemble work, weight and balance, design, rhythms.

The space had multi-rhythms—no fixed points in space, as he often said. He moved the center focus from the center stage, whereas what was happening simultaneously in many parts of the stage was just as interesting. And there were no stars: Carolyn Brown was always listed above him. These sound like very ordinary things 60 years later, but they were not. People would come up to me and say, “How can you stand that stuff? It’s garbage.” And I felt very sad that they couldn’t give themselves the pleasure of letting go of what they assumed dancing was and begin to just look at what was there. I think it has taken more than fifty years. Do audiences really know how to see dance?

Do they see the dynamics and the design…or just the technique and the ‘message’? Do they care how the dancers relate to each other and the space? Is there an idea? A point ov view? Does the music/sound accompany, add, distract? Do they care? Do you?

I also enjoyed Merce as a human being. He was great fun to be with. I miss taking class, because over the years whenever I would go to New York, I would go straight to the studio. To this day, I begin my classes with his work. And I just miss his notes, the cards and the fireside chats.  We would sit and talk about what did he see and who did he see, and how did he think about, and what wine was he drinking.  He liked red wine. I still talk to him all the time.

He had naturally curly hair, as I do.  I named my second son. Jonathan Merce. Now in the year of his centenary, I am writing a memoir, Merce at My House. I hope it will bring good memories to all who knew him, loved his work and his person and the splendid delight he brought to the dance world through what he accomplished and how he went about it.

Joanna G. Harris is the author of Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dance History, 1905-1965.

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