My late life partner, Margaret Ardussi, was a genius artist in water-based paints and loved opera, ballet and modern dance. In the fall of 1984, shortly after I flew her from Seattle, where she was visiting her parents, to Silver Spring to be my life partner, the love of my life, the most beautiful woman in the world to me, she spied that Merce Cunningham was bringing his dance troupe to the Kennedy Center in D.C. and said that we had to go.
I loved that Margaret was so cultured and broadening my horizons. While we shared a loved of art and opera — in our first real conversation when I found out she loved opera, I thought, “Good, now I’ll have someone to go with to the opera” despite the fact that she lived in Iowa and I lived in Maryland– but I don’t really get modern dance and my view of ballet is jaundiced by how little the bassoon has to do in ballet music, which mostly involves counting 100+ measures and then out of the blue having to play a really exposed solo. (New readers: I play the bassoon.)
So we went to see Merce Cunningham and his dance troupe at the Kennedy Center. He was 65 years old that year and not able to dance in the light and limber fashion of his troupe. Yet, he is the only one whose movements I remember. What I learned from watching Merce’s stately and deliberate motions was that what he was doing was dance because he intended it to be dance — and it WAS dance. He wore a white leotard and tights and was quite muscular but also had knobby feet, which suggested arthritis, and I did have the impression that it hurt him to move and age had made his body heavy and unable to defy gravity as he could when young.
But, still, it was Merce’s movements that gave me joy, Merce’s presence on the stage that taught and delighted me. What I learned was how much dance is in everyone when the choreographer has the intention and skill. If I had ever before judged dance and dancers by their perfection of body and execution, those criteria were replaced that night. Yet I hardly know how to describe the new criteria — perhaps a shift of my attention to the intention of the dancer and the dance and how all the parts fit together. That’s not much to go on, I know.
I am bringing this up because I just learned that Merce Cunningham died at the age of 90 on Sunday, July 26, at his home in Manhattan. He was preceded in death by his life partner, avant garde artist and composer, John Cage, who died in 1992. You can see “Septet” with Merce Cunningham from 1964 here.