Fifty years on and still going crazy ... that's quite some feet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 2004, 12:00am

For a man who has spent most of his life using elements of surprise to move and shock his audiences, Merce Cunningham seems to be a master of self-control. The 85-year-old is up every day at 7.30am and in bed by 11pm, with teaching, rehearsals, drawing and yoga filling his day - even though arthritis and old age have taken their toll, and he's barely able to dance any more.


'Yoga and drawing are other ways to stay away from yourself,' he says. 'You need to get rid of yourself as much as possible, otherwise you'll become all ego.' Described as 'the world's greatest living choreographer' by the Wall Street Journal, Cunningham is up there with Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan as among the most influential shapers of western contemporary dance.


Cunningham, whose dance company will perform in Hong Kong this week - the first time in more than two decades - has a style that's at odds with his strict personal regime. He's always allowed for freedom and improvisation in the 200 works he's produced. Although his pieces have an intellectual edge, they're known for their spontaneity. He has used everything from computer-generated images to silent dance rehearsals and last-minute changes to keep his dancers - and his audiences - on their toes.


Such spontaneity has not always gone down well. When Cunningham, then 20, joined the Martha Graham Company in 1939, he was often thought more than a little 'crazy' by critics. When his own company toured Europe in the 1960s, his abstraction triggered tomato throwing from the audience in Paris.


'In the 50 years of the company, there were bad times and there were good times,' he says. 'Life is full of these things. You've got to accept them. But at the same time, walk along your own way.'


In the 1950s, Cunningham began rehearsing his dancers without telling them what the music or set design would be. He introduced his signature 'chance operation'. For example, in his 1958 work Summerspace, he worked on the choreography in London, while Morton Feldman wrote the music in New York and Robert Rauschenberg worked on the decor in South Carolina. The three elements weren't brought together until the premiere. Cunningham says such a 'silent rehearsal' stretches the dancers.


He also created a programme that combines fragments of dance created with music that his dancers heard in their daily lives. 'We are living in a world where we listen to sounds and look at things with our eyes,' Cunningham says. 'A dancer cannot be bound by anything other than his imagination and his legs.'


Cunningham lets chance decide the order of programmes. Split Sides, a work that marked the climax of the year-long celebration of his company's 50th anniversary, uses a roll of the dice to decide which part of the programme goes with which costumes, which decor, which lighting and which music (composed by rock bands Radiohead and Sigur Ros). 'There were so many possibilities,' he says. 'Nobody knew what to expect. It was quite exciting.'


The late composer John Cage once said Cunningham, his long-time collaborator, was the dance world's equivalent of an abstract painter. Cunningham has always been open to new influences. In the past decade, he discovered computer technology, and has been working with software called 'Life Forms', which allows him to make up movements and put them into phrases.


The 1999 BIPED, which will be part of the Hong Kong show, is an example of his enthusiasm for technology. By attaching censors to the joints of two dancers, decor designers Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar captured the movements on screen, allowing Cunningham to create a backdrop based on them, which is projected around the dancers on stage. The New York Times called BIPED 'one of the visionary masterpieces of our time'. Time magazine called it 'digital wizardry at its best'. But Cunningham, who isn't sure if he'll attend the Hong Kong performances, says he doesn't 'bother thinking' about his critical acclaim. 'I concentrate on my work,' he says.


He's already working on a new project. 'There is always something different in life,' he says. 'I keep looking for it.'