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Bay Area Memories

Margy Jenkins, artistic director of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

I met Merce in 1963. I was a student at UCLA and he came to UCLA with his company to be in residence for 8 weeks. I was obviously very young, and it was a major turning point for me as a young student and as a young, growing artist. After that eight weeks I got on a Greyhound bus and followed him back to New York, but my family was a little concerned about my leaving school before graduating. So I went back for one more year but then left before ever graduating to dance with Gus Solomons, Jr. in New York.

In New York, I studied exclusively with Merce. Two very particular things happened when I was studying him—this was about 1964—that were profoundly influential to my life as a continuing young student and aspiring performer. Merce asked me to teach for him after taking a class from me one morning, so I became one of a few people who started his studio in New York to keep classes going when his company was out of town. Concurrent to teaching for him in New York, he would often ask me to take jobs that weren’t convenient for him to take—i.e. to teach every week in Rochester, for example. Of course, I would say yes, and soon after accepting those jobs I was able to drop all the other jobs I had and support myself completely by teaching for him.

Later, I would take a workshop from Merce learning Summerspace. Sitting in a corner, I notated the work in Laban and my own special symbols. Later he asked what I was doing. I said: “trying to find a way to notate this work.” “Show it to me when you are done,” he said. In 1967 he would ask me to go to Stockholm, Sweden to teach it to the Cullberg Ballet and that began a lovely and deeply satisfying tenure of teaching his work to a number of companies for over twelve years.

Prior to meeting Merce, I had been training solely as a modern dancer, first in SF and then I had gone to Juilliard for one year. I studied with Jose Limón and Martha Graham and Charles Weidman and Lucas Hoving and Louis Horst. When I transferred to UCLA in 1961, that had been my training. But there was something disquieting going in within me in terms of feeling as if I hadn’t quite found the right technique and compositional paradigm for the way in which I experienced the world. I didn’t know what that was…I just knew I was searching. But I kept at it because it was what I loved. And then Merce arrived at UCLA, and it was like this light bulb went off and my heart and my mind and my body found a place.

The technique embraced both a clarity and an abandon that felt absolutely right for my body. In those years—and you have to remember it’s 1963—the company was full of fascinating dancers all very different from one another in quality and character who didn’t fit into any one particular style. And I was yet another one although much less ready or trained, and I was welcomed into that club of both shape of body and quality of movement. So not only did I love the technique itself, because I loved the clarity that it demanded, but I also loved how free I felt in it.

I had come from a very traditional compositional background. Form and structure were based more on musical structure than anything else. When I started studying composition from Merce, he was insisting and/or suggesting that anything follow anything – that chance methods might open one up to new ideas about sequence or form- a way of pushing one’s mind past what it might ordinarily do, I once again felt very free to ask myself the questions about what was important to me in terms of what could follow what and why one thing should follow another thing.

For me, my experience was that Merce did not try to encourage anything—he only asked questions. I would be very hard-pressed to say that Merce asked the questions in order for you to get to a particular place. I think the gift that Merce had as a teacher was his lack of specific expectations. And he wasn’t interested in creating people who did what he did. And I think that’s why when you look at a list of people who are making work who feel that their origins were Merce, you will not find two people anywhere near alike. Meredith Monk and Tricia Brown and Lucinda Childs and Laura Dean and Remy Charlip—you can’t draw a line anywhere.

His aesthetic was very, very deeply informed by John Cage and by the artists that surrounded him who were also on that residency in 1963. It wasn’t just Merce who came; it was John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It was the early days, before everybody got famous, and they all hung out together. So there was this group of really interesting people posing interesting questions to each other, and everyone was answering them differently and no one was made to feel they were answering them incorrectly because there wasn’t an answer.

Not only was the practice itself very interesting to me, but the work that I saw that year blew me away. I was very taken with how the nature of the questions he was asking were being explored in the work itself. Like Rainforest and Field Dances and Aeon. The dancers were present in the moment. Merce was performing. Life with all its complexities and its unpredictable flavors spilled onto the stage, emotionally and aesthetically and structurally and one was left to forge and wonder and wander in it all,

The ripple effect of Merce Cunningham and John Cage—I can’t really separate their influence, because I think that they were in a very profound partnership as artists as people—the nature of the things that they embraced had a kind of optimism and humanity about it. You always felt, at the end of seeing either one of them, that anything was possible. You never, ever felt that anything was not possible. And along with that kind of extraordinary capacity to embrace what lay ahead was this wonderful openness about keeping on!

I love that Arlene Croce, dance critic, once called me a Mercist. I’d like to think that meant, that I have found my own way of making work – that I took Merce’s questions and found some of my own. And what a treat to be able to bring him to the Bay Area a number of times in the early 1970’s to teach at my studio and have him share his questions with so many.

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