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Merce Cunningham Choreographic Stlye

By Natty6 Apr 24, 2013 2058 Words
Analyse the choreographic style of Merce Cunningham. You should provide examples from Beach Birds for Camera and from other works by Cunningham to support your analysis. The very distinctive choreographic style that Cunningham has come to develop will have been shaped and influenced by the training he has received over the course of his career. He attended the Cornish School for formal dance and theatre training , it was here that he was introduced to a wide variety of ‘arts’ he had originally gone to study drama, but the women who ran the school, Miss Nellie Cornish said if you wanted to be in the arts you should know something about all of them. So Cunningham was trained in Drama, Dance, Music, Visual, Drawing and Diction. One obvious choreographic style of Merce Cunningham was the idea that every dancer is a soloist, they form no relationship with each other, because there is never a narrative and a story to be told, for Cunningham a dance work shouldn’t be concerned with telling a story, he didn’t believe there was anything to represent, it is purely about movement, for movement’s sake and the exploration of something beautiful. The dancers are dressed in very neutral clothing, both males and females wear virtually the same thing, he would do this to create a dance work that is asexual, meaning there is even less of a relationship created between a male and a female dancer, because they look the same, so it becomes harder for the audience to attach a relationship between them. This effectively creates a dance that is genderless, meaning that every dancer is equal in the space as well as a soloist, equality between the dancers being another key choreographic style of Cunningham’s. In the dance work Beach Birds for Camera (1992) it becomes evident that the dancers have no relationship to one another, they are purely dancers, soloists, that are gathered together sharing the same time and space, nothing more, dancers do not even share movement material, and if it so happens that the same phrase is performed by two dancers at the same time, this is completely down to chance. Throughout Part 1 of Beach Birds for Camera you can see that there aren’t specific relationships formed, even when there is a formation of a duet or a trio, which is often the case as there are two trio formations down stage right and upstage left for the majority of part one these dancers are sharing the same general space and because of how closely situated to one another they are the audience may assume that they have a relationship, however the movement material they perform is different emphasising the fact that all the dancers are soloists. Cunningham’s dance work Torse (1978) is another example of how Cunningham doesn’t create relationships between dancers, supporting this idea that dancers are soloists. Towards the end of the piece two female dancers are standing in a stationary held position, then a male dancer does movement weaving around them, as he travels towards them he lifts the first female dancer that he encounters and moves her to a different place on the stage and then places her back and she gets into her original stationary position he then continues moving and when he encounters the second female, by encounter, they start to become closer together in space rather than in general space, its more like they are starting to enter each other’s personal space, he then lifts her, and moves her in the same way. The key thing to note when he makes contact with both females there is no eye contact and when lifting the dancers he doesn’t hold them close, there doesn’t appear to be a close relationship formed, it is just movement, he lifts them as if they are in his way, like they are blocking the pathway that his movement travels along, so it is more of a necessity to move them than a want. Also throughout Part 1 of Beach birds for Camera it is clear that all the dancers are equal and this is because there is never a clear soloist, there are brief moments where it seems that a dancer may be a soloist for example one female dancer appears to be placed right in the cameras view, upstage right in the space, and she is the only dance moving, every other dancer is stationary or very still in a held position, she then starts rapidly turning on the stop, another dancer almost simultaneously does the same movement, who was previously stationary. Showing that there isn’t one dancer that is a soloist and also illustrates the point that the dancers movement material may overlap but this again just shows another characteristic of Cunningham and how when he choreographs a piece he makes and manipulates the same phrase creating a dance work that is based on one phrase and numerous developments of this. Leading nicely on from every dancer being a soloist or having equal status within the space, another choreographic style of Cunningham is that he never identifies what or where the front is situated. This effectively means that at any given point within his works such as Beach Birds for Camera, no dancer is at the ‘front’ because essentially there is not one, Cunningham takes this idea from Eisenstein’s theory of space ‘we here have a spherical space of a finite size, it has no surface and there is no point, which can be said to be a centre, because all points are equal.’ Basically the idea that all points in space are equal and this is reflected in his choreographic style by having no obvious front. However this is not that case for all of Cunningham’s work, for example Torse (1978) was one of Cunningham’s few works that was performed on a proscenium set, effectively meaning the space was fixed, there was a clear front because there was an audience to perform to, and a set space to perform the movement on. ‘In the theatre, the spectator and the stage are fixed. Most stage work, particularly classical dancing, is based on perspective, a centre point to and from which everything radiates’ (an interview with Jacqueline Lesschaeve) However Cunningham still made the space to this work more interesting by filming the dancers when performing the movement in the space, when filming he moved around the area that the audience would watch from, viewing the piece from numerous different angels and then projecting two different perspectives side by side. So even though in this work the space was fixed and there was an obvious front Cunningham still stuck to his style of not having a front by filming the material from different viewpoints.

When choreographing movement the common choreographic style of Cunningham would be to use quick intricate foot work and to have quite a balletic style, this would include upright carriage of the torso, extension through the limbs, sharp movement and quick changes of direction. These are all stylistic qualities that are present in Beach Birds for Camera, specifically upright carriage of the torso can be recognised, throughout part 1 and 2, in part 1 a movement using upright carriage of the torso is also developed in numerous ways throughout part 1, the original movement being the supporting leg is bent in a lunge type position, the ‘lifted’ leg is held in arabesque in attitude, the upper body remains held in an upright manor however is tilted forward, into a forward stretch position, the right arm is then held straight out in front, following the line of the back and the left arm is held out in second in this straight position, this movement is then held. The development of the movement varies, it may be that a dancer has done a leap or a jump and they have landed in this position. A specific moment when two males appear to have a relationship because by chance they are performing the same movement and are also in close proximity, both male dancers are in the held position, both dancers then simultaneously proceed to do small shunts or jumps around the space circling one another. Sharp movements are also used throughout Beach Birds for Camera, sharp oscillating movements are key choreographic features of Cunningham’s style that are seen throughout part 1 and 2, for example throughout part 1 a reoccurring movement is for the dancers to hold the right leg out in front of them in attitude arabesque and the arms held in a curved open second, and then very quickly and sharply oscillate the lifted leg, it appears to be pulsing and twitching very quickly. This is repeated on numerous occasions throughout part one and also developed whereby one male performs the oscillating leg to the back rather than lifting it to the front, there is also a key moment where all dancers perform the same original movement at the same time creating a flock like image because it is one of the one and only moments where the dancers briefly appear to be linked in some way. In the dance work Torse (1978) extension through the limbs is a choreographic style that is also used frequently, on a number of occasions throughout the work the legs are extended through space with kicks to second or in derriere, the arms also appear to be extending through space, a common arm movement that was used when doing linear extended kicks in second was having the opposite arm to leg held in a low curved first position with the other arm held up in a diagonal line stretching to its full potential, the straight arm and leg seem to mirror and complement one another because of their extension. Another key feature of Cunningham’s choreographic style is his use of the spine, Cunningham views the spine as a very important and significant factor to movement, so much so he views it as the 5th limb, saying it is an integral part of his technique, and should be included in movement material and regarded and used in the same way as we regard our arms and legs. In all of Cunningham’s work this is a choreographic style of his that will always be present in a very obvious way. For example in the dance work Torse (1978) the whole exploration and stimulus of the piece was based around Cunningham’s technique specifically drawing focus to the spine, torso and to the 5 positions of the feet. This work appeared to be much less dynamic or experimental compared to works such as Beach Birds for Camera and this is due to the fact that the idea behind the piece was purely to highlight and emphasise Cunningham’s technique so movements that the dancers were performing throughout appeared very similar if not material directly taken from the exercises that Cunningham would teach in a technique class. Throughout the work movements became quite repetitive and reoccurring such as tilts and leans in which upright carriage of the torso remained held, the back remained in a straight line, the body just leaned away from the centre of gravity momentarily and then moved back in line. The use of the leg in an arabesque, attitude position was held, this held position was frequently reoccurring and also developed, being used shunting around the space, this shunting was also a reoccurring movement. The amount of repetition that was in the piece is something Cunningham is not keen on, the main reason behind him using chance as an approach to choreography is so movement material can never be fully remembered and therefore it can’t be repeated, Cunningham has always looked to create new material, or at least try and get everything that he can out of existing material by manipulating it, changing the pace or timing, or the dynamics for example. As this piece was based around the exploration of the spine the torso and the 5 positions of the feet, there is only so many ways that you can portray this movement. Overall it’s clear that the choreographic style of Merce Cunningham has gradually been developed over time and is something that has been influenced by his many years of experience and training, his style is something very unique, but can be clearly recognised throughout numerous works.

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