Choreographer Michelle Kranicke on MCA’s “Merce Cunningham: Common Time Exhibit

Editor's Note - This is part of Picture this Post's series - CHOREOGRAPHERS' EYES - DANCERS EXPLAIN DANCE.  Find more here.

Choreographer Michelle Kranicke
Choreographer and founder of Zephyr Dance, Michelle Kranicke Photo: Bill Frederking

Michelle Kranicke is the founder of Zephyr Dance -- which describes itself as follows—

"Zephyr is an experimental dance company with a strong artistic presence in Chicago for over twenty years. Zephyr pushes to the edge of the discipline in order to question current trends in dance making and the reduction of the art form to its most quantifiable, easily recognized patterns. Zephyr works to critically investigate the over reliance on virtuosity, popular definitions and/or understandings of dance, and the tendency to lean on narrative to inform the abstract nature of movement without confronting the history/meaning of that movement, or the movement itself...."

With great thoughtfulness and intelligence, Michelle Kranicke answered questions posed by Picture this Post (PTP) about her experience of the MCA's Merce Cunningham exhibit as follows:

PTP:  How much did you know about Merce Cunningham before touring the MCA’s exhibit? Were there any surprises in what you saw/learned?

I knew a fair amount about Merce before touring the exhibit. I have been a longtime fan of his work and choreographic philosophies.

It was really fantastic to see the archival video recordings of Merce’s early work. There are not many opportunities to see these recordings and I think they reveal so much about the foundation of his choreographic practice. In addition, it’s always so interesting to watch movement performed by its choreographer, seeing the dancing directly from the source.

I was thrilled to also see the set pieces from Scramble, Walkaround Time and Summerspace. I have seen those works on videotape, so to have an understanding of the scale of the visual art pieces will add another dimension when I go to watch them again.

Finally, I love the Charles Atlas installation. The juxtaposition of all the different video recordings of Cunningham’s work is truly a feast for the eyes. I plan on spending a lot more time there before the exhibition closes.

PTP:  At any point in your artistic development, did Cunningham’s precedent work affect you? If so- how, when?

While I have a laundry list of things I love about Merce’s work, there are 2 things I admire and try and remember when I am creating new work.

First, the movement is what it is and has no underlying meaning other than what you see. That idea allows the viewer the freedom to bring in his/her/their lived experiences to the performance and create another layer of meaning. And, one person’s viewing experience will not be another’s and a subsequent conversation about ideas can follow.

Because dance is non-verbal it already allows for multiple interpretations. The meaning of a specific movement will differ from person to person. When audience members ask me the meaning or impetus behind a dance I always respond by asking what they saw and what they think. Because regardless of my intentions, if something resonates deeply with a viewer, to the point where a performance is remembered for its power because of that personal connection, that is more important to me than someone understanding the place I chose to begin a work and what that work means to me. It’s about a personal connection to something we all possess—a body and the capacity to move that body.

Then, the clarity of his technique and the precision of the work is what impresses. Watching Cunningham dances reminds me to be clear and precise in both my creative practice and performance. I believe strongly that even though I may be working with abstract ideas and movement, it is my job to be clear about purpose and intention. If I am clear, performers have freedom within that clarity and viewers are comfortable to find their own meaning within what they see.

Choreographer/Dancer Michelle Kranicke in another Zephyr work
Choreographer Michelle Kranicke Photo: Cheryl Mann

Editor's Note-- The pictures above are from Zephyr's recent work at Defibrillator Gallery.  Read the full review of this performance here.

PTP:  In your view, how has dance evolved since Cunningham’s time? (note: all dance genres)

I will speak specifically about modern/experimental dance since that is where I feel best suited to comment.

I think Cunningham greatly expanded options for choreographers. He made people suddenly aware of the myriad choices available if one just opened up the definition of dance. The experiments of the Judson dance artists were an extension of many of Cunningham’s ideas. They took some of his ideas down different roads and created a whole other group of possibilities. The work of those Judson artists also seems to be having a bit of a renaissance today with a variety of contemporary choreographers looking at that time period their own particular lens, i.e. race, gender or specific dance form. I think Cunningham opened up so many possibilities and ways to address those new ideas that contemporary choreographers continue to filter his innovations through their personal experiences.

PTP:  The subtitle of the exhibit “Common Time” refers to Cunningham’s unique collaborations with artists in other realms in which he unleashed them as equals, rather than direct their contribution to his works. What is your reaction to that? Do you do similar?

I think Cunningham’s way of working with other artists is unique and requires an incredible amount of trust and discipline between collaborators. In collaborating with other designers in my own work I try and give each artist autonomy, but I confess there has never been a time when for example, Zephyr has performed without first hearing the music. That also is because it was already done by Merce and to repeat the idea without a new direction seems derivative.

I think the closest I have come to a “Mercian” example of not having a clear picture of what a collaborator will create is when I am working with my husband, David Sundry, who is an architect. Architecture is big and heavy and expensive so there are no prototypes in rehearsal or throughout a creative process. When we work together David will describe his plans and we discuss the balance between the dance and the architecture but inevitably when he begins building an installation I am always surprised by the weight, the dust and the sheer size of architecture. It’s never like props or stage sets, it’s always so much more real because the constructed environment generally has to support not only the weight of dancers, but also of viewers that may be sitting or standing on the installation.

PTP:  Several of the sets we see in this exhibit were meant to travel. How do the logistics of moving your work to different venues similarly impact your choreography/productions?

The architectural installations that have been part of Zephyr’s work over the past 6 years do not travel. They are not pre-fab and once they are taken down they are not reconstructed in exactly the same way. However, about 10 years ago David did create an architectural sculpture for a work and when we toured we had to rent an entire cargo van just for the set.

PTP:  What is your favorite part of this exhibit?

My favorite part of the exhibit is the Charles Atlas installation. I think it is as close as you can get to a live Cunningham performance in a static museum show.

PTP:  How do you think being a choreographer affects how you experience this Merce exhibit compared to the non-dancing lay public?

I remember movement and details of movement in ways that are different from non-dancers. For example, I saw one of the mini-events on opening weekend, and, while watching the dancers, I remembered seeing several bits of the movement they performed in a few of the videos on display. That was really exciting. I could see the collage of different time periods in Merce’s oeuvre because I had just watched them. I also have a deep kinaesthetic understanding of how movement feels in the body. So when the dancers are standing on one leg for a long time, I can almost feel the challenge that goes along with that.

PTP:  Do you sense that today's dancers are more technically competent after seeing this exhibit?

Video is such a sub-optimal way to view dance. Dance is supposed to be seen live so the energy of the movement and the personality of the performers are palpable. Video erases all of that. In addition, video has a way of collapsing dance into a kind of drill team sport. What the naked eye sees as uniform, and in unison, video will often reveal as slightly off because the timing errors we may miss in live performance or the slight differences in body placement are captured forever on video. So, while I am sure dancers’ technical levels have grown during the past 30 to 40 years, I am not sure that means those older videos lack artistry or dancers were not technically adept. I think there always needs to be a balance between technical capacity and a looseness or freedom of interpretation, even in the narrowest of performance circumstances. And video documentation of dance just does not allow for that balance.

PTP:  Some of the costumes the dancers wore were quite uncomfortable. Have you created similar for your dancers?

I think all costumes are generally uncomfortable. We come to rehearsal in our most comfortable clothing that allows for the fullest range of movement. Having to then perform that same movement in a garment that does not conform to one’s own particular idea of comfort is, in my experience, always a little challenging. Plus, if a costume designer has a really interesting idea that serves the piece but is cumbersome to dance in—as long as the garment doesn’t actually prohibit the movement, I will always choose the interesting idea.

PTP:  Do you see a common denominator in your work and that of Merce Cunningham?

I would say the common denominator is the clarity of shape and form. While my movement and dances are very different aesthetically, clarity and precision are very important. So no matter how unconventional or strange-looking a movement might be, we (in Zephyr) spend A LOT of time in rehearsal making sure the execution of a movement has the same energy even if the end shape is slightly different from one dancer to another. Many times the sound composition either is not ready or comes after the development of the piece, so we spend many hours on timing and developing a rapport, so when we are dancing together, the timing is consistent through a variety of circumstances. This is really important since much of my work takes place in gallery settings with the audience woven in and through the piece. We as performers need to have an innate knowledge of where we are and how long a movement takes because often we never know where our audience may be standing or sitting.

My dancemaking process has shifted during the past few years. For a long time I worked in a traditional way with a group of dancers either using improvisation to generate movement ideas or bringing in a movement phrase to manipulate and develop. However, about six to seven years ago I felt like I had come to an end with that process, and I was interested in exploring something different. I gave up a traditional ensemble of dancers and began working alone in the studio for long periods of time. In my personal studio investigation, movement personas arise from an intuitive place of visceral, textural and primordial physicality. The personas develop their own way of moving, cultivating idiosyncrasies and pushing through a codified movement vocabulary in the hopes of discovering something new. Then I destabilize those personas and their intuitive movement tendencies further through the introduction of an object and/or task. That destabilization forces the body to navigate new terrain and unbalances the movement inclinations of each persona. During the past three years, I have been working with only one or two other dancers because I need a unique type of artist—one who has the technical ability that comes from years of training as a dancer, but also has the confidence and adventure to be able to investigate movement ideas and patterns that completely upend and challenge all they have trained for.

Finally, during the past four years, I have consciously included, and expanded, the role of architecture in my work to give repose and resistance to the movement of both performer and viewer. Interrupting space with either dance or architecture or both sets up specific parameters for performer and viewer, creating physical dialog, allowing a close read of the body in motion and introducing unexplored movement territories.

There are so many things about Merce’s work that I admire, and there is a lot in my process that parallels Merce’s process. However those parallels are filtered through my own questions and aesthetic, informing my work while allowing me to maintain my own individuality as an artist.

Editor's Note - This is part of Picture this Post's series - CHOREOGRAPHERS' EYES - DANCERS EXPLAIN DANCE. Find more here.

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