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Bay Area Memories

Sonya Delwaide, Bay Area Memories, Merce Cunningham

Sonya Delwaide, choreographer and Mills College professor

We had a guest artist who came to York University, Douglas Dunn, who worked with Merce. It was my first taste of the Cunningham approach, which at that time I was a bit shocked when I saw Douglas Dunn perform, like, “Wow, this is so different.” My expectations were blown away. It was in the Eighties, like 1980.

Douglas created a piece with one of his dancers, and three of the York University students; I was one of them. This experience was so satisfying that I decided to deepen my understanding of the Cunningham technique. So right after graduation, with the help of a Canada Council Grant, I went to study at the Cunningham studio; in those days, the school offered student visas so the place attracted students from all over the world. It was definitely exciting to be there, and it was one of the most beautiful studios in New York.

I felt in love with the technique right away because I was attracted to its clarity and its use of space. When you walked in the studio, you felt part of something bigger than yourself. There was such a sense of respect for Merce and his contribution to dance. Each class demanded focus and you would be challenged physically and intellectually.

At first, you had to take the elementary level class to learn the basic exercises, since no one really explained anything in details. Then one would work its way to the advanced class, with was mostly taught by Merce. When Merce would walk into the room, there was total silence and you knew that you were going to experience something intense… 

 In those days, I still didn’t understand English very well so I was very nervous taking class with Merce. He was only mumbling instructions and barely marking the movement. His dancers seemed to fully understand his language so I kept watching them and following what they would do. Hopefully I didn’t lose too much in the translation?!?! No matter what, I felt privileged to be there, to watch a teacher who was still so passionate about dance and to be with such wonderful dancers in the most beautiful studio in New York city!!

Beside the actual technique, another aspect of Merce’s philosophy was attractive to me: it was the androgynous quality of the movement. Watching any work by Cunningham became about the power of movement. You are a body moving through time and space. When I teach, I still use the Cunningham exercises and tell my students that this is a place for you to be “neutral”. Try to get rid of all your habits or personal use of hands etc…We all have these mannerisms that we develop or idiosyncrasies that we have, and I find the Cunningham technique makes you go to the source of the movement. The technique layers the use of the torso and legs with precision. It makes you realize that each part of your body has limitless possibilities and it challenges your assumptions.

My work is very theatrical, so it’s interesting that Cunningham is so close to me. His influence might not be obvious for someone looking at my work but what I prioritize is the integrity of the movement. I believe that if I can develop a character through the movement, the character will exist in its true entity. That’s where I find the connection with Cunningham: it’s always through the movement first and foremost.

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