Thursday, Jun. 13 – Saturday, Jun. 15

Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham

On Thursday, the ADF season opens with a retrospective program called “ICONS” in which three companies perform historical works by three modern-dance legends: Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham. Cunningham’s 1970 piece Tread will be performed by Stephen Petronio Company, led by an internationally known choreographer who, in his “Bloodlines” series, has been presenting dance by various choreographers who influenced his work, including Cunningham.

Cunningham was an American choreographer famed for straddling the line between modern and postmodern dance. He canonized new ideas about the use of chance in the choreographic process, presented radical thinking about spatial design, and developed interdisciplinary practices with media and technology.

Last week, the INDY spoke with Petronio about his learning curve with and attraction to Cunningham’s work, his interest in inhabiting and preserving the works of the choreographers that influenced him, the process of bringing their works to life on contemporary dancers, and the impact that a series like “Bloodlines” can have on the conversations about lineage and history in dance today.

INDY: Who is Merce Cunningham to you?

STEPHEN PETRONIO: Well, he’s the person who changed the game in American modern dance. He broke very basic rules about how the stage is looked at, how and where content is delivered to the audience, and what the audience’s role might be, in terms of a performance. He’s part of a project that I’m doing called Bloodlines. It’s a look at postmodern works from mid-century forward that have totally influenced how I can be in the world as an artist. Some people don’t think of Merce Cunningham as a postmodernist, but I believe that he’s the beginning of it all. 

What are some of the ideas at the core of Merce’s work that resonate with you, which you still find relevant for contemporary dancers? 

Although there are a lot of similarities in influence between my language and Merce’s language, they’re really quite different. His musculature is much more held than mine. He understands stillness, and I understand perpetual motion. But you know, he really broke apart the stage. He centralized the stage in a very amazing way. Up until Merce, there was a human being representing a certain character, a certain representation of humanness, on or in some relationship to center stage. And Merce just smashed all of those models and created a kind of grid where wherever you are facing becomes the central point. That kind of decentralization is radical and is still going on today.

We’re all benefiting from it. 

Oh absolutely. And thank god that we don’t all have to be princes! I’m very happy that the ballet is bringing back, you know, remaking The Firebird, but Merce gave us the possibility of looking at the body as a very different kind of fabric, not just in service of narrative. 

Just the word “possibility” sends me into Cunningham land, because he used that phrase over and over.

One he disrupted the centralized, systematic role of the stage, it became open to anything. As somebody who’s been choreographing for over thirty-five years, that freedom resonates, and the ability to continue to break down limitations is very exciting. Merce also dislocated music and dance from each other in the way that they had been perceived, where the music is kind of the leader and the choreographer builds the rest. That simultaneous sharing of space between the dancers and each other, the dancers and the music, and the dancers and the décor on stage is very radical. 

He sort of cleared the field so that new ideas could come along, and not just his ideas. I find that very remarkable in comparison to other choreographers from that era. 

Other choreographers tend to want to control things more, I’d say. What is choreography but controlling the perception of how the space is used? And that’s not Merce. [In “Bloodlines,”] I’m getting the opportunity to look at Merce dancing a lot. I never studied Cunningham technique, so it’s not in my body. But I’ve been watching his works since the day I came to New York, and I became a fan of his mind. My particular physicality is much more flung and released, so I went to Merce originally with some kind of physical disdain. But I’m a good student, so I kept going back. As I began to understand what he was doing, conceptually, and how he was shattering paradigms, I fell in love with the work. Watching him dance on the videos that I’ve been studying is a revelation. You could not pin that man down for a second. I find it very interesting to watch the re-stagers from the [Merce Cunningham Dance] Trust deal with that. Because Merce you know, he was a crazy mover! There’s nothing like him, he was so good. And to watch them try to distill that insanity down to something learnable is very exciting.

I teach the technique but am not well versed in the choreographic works. It’s more the ideas and less the content that I’m drawn to. A lot of the research I’ve done recently has been excavating the ideas behind the action. Everyone is so enamored by the action, but all this thinking at the foundation is completely genius as well.

In a certain way, maybe it was a blessing that I never became versed in the physical technique because I didn’t have to look through that lens. But I will say that watching a work being built during a restaging period, my respect for it has just mushroomed. It’s like having a conversation with Merce every day. I get to really live with the choices he made and watch how his constructions take the guise of chance. Everything seems accidental in some way but it works like a clock on the most complicated, sophisticated scale. 

What are you hoping that the dancers in your company can get by learning Merce’s work but no one else’s?

Interesting. I don’t want to compare them in that way, but they’re masters of my language, so watching them master another language, some of them from scratch, has been very interesting. I make historical references all the time, to Merce and Trisha [Brown] and Steve Paxton, to all the people in the “Bloodlines” group. For the dancers to actually see where those references come from, from an internal place and not just an intellectual place, I think it’s been very enlightening.

You’re bringing Tread to ADF. What drew you to license it? 

The first work I had was RainForest. I was determined to start there, for a lot of reasons. And the next work was Signals. Then I was after something very different, something formal and austere, and Trish Lent from the Trust suggested Tread. I looked at it and I was blown over. It’s super playful, and it’s from that early-seventies period where gaming and community were really important, and Merce was right in the middle of that. For my company, which really understands complex, communal relationships, it was a perfect fit. 

What else should be said about Merce Cunningham?

It’s not always easy to give your company up to another vision. That was my doing, but to watch it happen has just been so moving. When the curtain goes up on a Merce Cunningham work, I’m so proud to have my dancers on that stage, giving themselves to it in a full-bodied way. I really believe that Merce’s work belongs in the hands of modern dancers as well as ballet dancers, but often, it’s the ballet companies that can afford it. That’s why I’ve been committed to bringing as many of his works back as I can afford to. And to go back to the discussion we were having about the approach to the work, the creation of the work, the way that he was dealing with space but also his philosophical ideas, I think it’s really useful for modern and contemporary dancers to have all that coming back around, because many dancers have not had the opportunity to dance a Cunningham work or read his writing about dancing. 

Yeah, keeping it in the contemporary conversation instead of relegating it to the archives seems incredibly important. Not only to reference what has been and what space it created for more radical shifts, but also just to sit it in our bodies.

Yep, that’s the whole point of Bloodlines. Physicalizing history instead of reading about it in a book is, for me, the only way to keep it alive, really. It’s part of why I rushed into the studio shortly after Merce’s death. It seemed like it was almost too soon, but I felt like it was important to absorb some of the information while there were still people that had been dancing it. Twenty years from now, it will be a different story.  


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