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Mindy Aloff
Dance History
Special Focus

A Triptych for Merce Cunningham - Part I: Reflections on Merce Cunningham's Early Work by Yuriko, an original Martha Graham dancer and Merce colleague

by Mindy Aloff
August 8, 2009
A Triptych for Merce Cunningham -
Part I: Reflections on Merce Cunningham's Early Work by Yuriko, an original Martha Graham dancer and Merce colleague
Part II: Chosen Without Comment
Part III: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Rockefeller Park - The power and beauty of nature on stage and off
When Merce Cunningham died on July 26th, at the age of 90—apparently with unrealized new dances continuing to pour through his brain—one of the colleagues he left behind was the dancer and award-winning choreographer Yuriko Kikuchi, for some 50 years a mainstay of the Martha Graham Dance Company. During a conversation on the phone the other day, Yuriko (who went only by her first name for much of her career) spoke of the Merce she knew during the 1940s, when both were part of Graham's company and when they sometimes shared programs in New York as up-and-coming choreographers. "He was only a few months older than I am," she began, "and now I'm the last living original cast member of Appalachian Spring." I grabbed paper and a pen and began to transcribe. Below is a compilation of her remarks, absent my questions and published with her permission:

"He was [Yuriko took a deep breath here] incredible. Ours wasn't a deep friendship: I knew him as a co-dancer. Martha's Deaths and Entrances was the first work I saw him in, December 1943. He was the lover of Martha [i.e., of the character she danced]. I had just met Martha in October and was sewing her costumes for her. I took the last stitches to the theater and watched. I still remember Merce's cruel lover and the [choreographed] fight between Erick [Hawkins] and Merce.

"I started taking classes with Martha in February of 1944, and I joined the company in March. I was in Primitive Mysteries and American Document, and that summer Merce and I were in Appalachian Spring. [Cunningham danced the Preacher; Yuriko was one of his four bonneted acolytes.] I'm sure that he choreographed his own part; Martha couldn't have choreographed that. He was riveting, electric. I've never seen anyone to rival him as the Preacher. I haven't seen anyone dance like Merce did in any of his roles. Ever. I remember so physically dancing next to him. He was steel. He was a gong vibrating. And cool. And passionate. And screaming and preaching [wordlessly, entirely through his dancing]. You felt the emotion not as emoting but as intensity. It came from an instinct for what Martha wanted from him.

"And Merce had a great jump. You didn't see him take off. He was just in the air—that light. You didn't see a plié, any preparation, as with birds.

"In Letter to the World, he kept a straight face: no expression. Except that his body, his timing was so funny. He was an actor, and he was an instinctual dancer, really a born dancer. And he understood Martha's work. When he left the company, I think he had a different idea of what he wanted to do about dance; and John [Cage] was there. It's not that Merce was against Martha: he just wanted to take a different road. If he had really been against Martha's work, he couldn't have danced for her the way he did.

"As a choreographer with my own company, I shared programs with Merce. I remember his [1944 solo] Root of an Unfocus (also see Part II of this article for more on Root of an Unfocus). It was so deep. You feel the emotion in his work, though you see the happenings, and the changes, and taking a chance, which is life. A mysterious happening of life. It's not as in the Christian religion—that God creates everything. It happens, like everyone walking on the streets in a different direction. We don't know each other, but, at that moment, we are related.

"Merce definitely had the mystery of creativity. He was very serious, but he didn't express life in a serious way. I don't think he would have expressed himself the way I'm expressing it."

Part II: Chosen Without Comment
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