Q&A With a Merce Cunningham Dancer: Dancing the Last Dance
The tights will soon be hung up and the dancers will take their last bows.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, founded in 1953 and based in New York City virtually since its inception, embarked on “The Legacy Tour” following their founder’s death in 2009. Featuring choreography spanning Cunningham’s career and stops in 40 cities across the globe, the two-year finale to a decades long modern dance mainstay gave the company the chance to say an elaborate, and extended, goodbye. The company’s final performances will be danced Dec. 29-31 at the Park Avenue Armory.
MetroFocus recently spoke with dancer Jamie Scott, a five-year veteran of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, while the tour was in Paris.
Q: What does it mean to be a Merce Cunningham dancer?
A: It means I’m very interested in being my own mentor and in exploring choreography without a lot of instruction or specific direction. Even when Merce was alive, you never got a lot of direct feedback. That was unique to him. You were responsible for continuing to work and grow, and to see where it took you. You’re given a lot of independence in this company and it can be disorienting. But once you become comfortable, it’s actually very liberating. A Merce dancer really grows and matures in a way they wouldn’t elsewhere. I think that same sort of independent mentality will follow as we move on in our careers.
Q: How are you all feeling about this emotionally? About the ending of the company?
A: I thought I’d be much more emotional. There’s some sadness but I don’t think it’s quite what we expected. When we had our last shows in London, it was very emotional after the last curtain call. We all thought, “Gosh this is London, New York’s going to be so hard.” But more and more I’ve come to feel this great elation. The pressure that I thought would be there because it’s the end and everyone’s watching, I really haven’t felt. Everybody’s dancing better than ever. I thought I would be so depressed and sad every time we took a bow, but I’m really proud of how each of us has been living this.
Q: What has been going through your head while you’re dancing these dances for the last time?
A: I’ve had moments on stage with certain people where I’ve been very aware that I’d really miss having this partner and connecting with this person. The relationships we’ve developed as dancers have been really strong and unique. It’s so strange to say but I’m just having such a great time on stage. I never thought that I would be able to turn off that inner critic we all have inside of us as dancers, always wanting to be better or perfect. I’m finding that in these last few weeks that voice is gone and all of a sudden I’m able to be fully present. It’s amazingly refreshing and it’s weird to say because of course I’m very sad that this is ending.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs “Duets.” Jamie Scott appears in this clip wearing the same costume as in the photo above. Video courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation.
Q: Cunningham is one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th Century. How does it feel to have been a part of something so important, especially now that it’s coming to an end?
A: It’s interesting because right now it feels less monumental. I feel less aware of the scope of it and more present in the dance. I’m in this place where I’m thinking about what the dances mean to me and why I’m doing it. Maybe this is because it’s coming to an end, but it feels like the experience is for me to enjoy.
Q: Is that a coping mechanism? To help make sense of something that’s coming to a close?
A: That could be it, but it could just be the timing, too. I’ve heard people say that when a dancer decides to leave the company it’s often in their last performances that they really blossom. All of the sudden you realize, “Oh, who am I doing this for? I’m doing this for me!” I think other members of the company are feeling the same way. Looking at everyone and how they’re dancing and how they’re in each moment, I’d say that’s probably true.
Q: When Cunningham passed away, and the company continued with the Legacy Tour, what was different?
A: Well, all of a sudden there was a void in the back corner of the studio where Merce would sit everyday. Everything was really centered around him and how he wanted to rehearse, which has changed. With Merce, it was, do it again, do it again, do it again, do it again. Don’t talk about it, just do it again. We definitely don’t do that quite the same way. With Merce, if there was a problem we’d just repeat the section and it would work itself out in the repetition.
Q: Does this feel like a final goodbye to Merce? Is there a feeling of loss within the company?
A: You can keep him alive in your daily experience, in how you take class and how you approach your work. His presence can still be there for you very palpably. You can feel him in the rigor of a daily class. Every day with Merce was relentless. Not having him there means that you can make the choice to not do it fully or to keep pushing forward, and I think that’s where he’s missed the most. If Merce was sitting in the room people were going to perform for him all day long. If you want to keep that alive you can. That’s kept me connected to him.
Ed. Note: While the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is closing, some of Cunningham’s pieces may eventually be performed by others.
Q: I often think of that line in Yeats when I’m talking about dance: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Cunningham once used similar words, saying, “You can’t describe a dance without talking about the dancer.” How do you take that?
A: That makes me think of the first time I saw the company, and how blown away I was by the number of personalities on stage. Everyone was so fully committed to this very specific choreography, but I could see a different personality in every single person. I think that’s integral to Merce’s work, which is presented to us as just the steps. That leaves space for each dancer to be themselves and to do the steps in the way they would do them. So I think you can’t see the dance and the dancer as separate things. They are so connected in his work.
MetroFocus Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.