Editor’s Note: This is part of Picture this Post's series - CHOREOGRAPHERS' EYES - DANCERS EXPLAIN DANCE. Find more here.
Award-winning Chicago choreographer Winifred Haun was one of the choreographers on the tour of the MCA’s recent exhibit, “Merce Cunningham: Common Time.”
In a recent performance her troupe re-mounted her earlier work, Bento, which in part pays homage to Merce Cunningham. (Read the full review Winifred Haun & Dancers and Emma Serjeant Performance Present TRASHED – Movement with Meaning and Gee Whiz! Here.) Winifred Haun (WH) shares here thoughts about the exhibit and how Merce Cunningham has affected her career with Picture this Post (PTP) below.
PTP: How much did you know about Merce Cunningham before touring the MCA’s exhibit? Were there any surprises in what you saw/learned?
WH: “ I knew a lot about Merce Cunningham before the MCA tour (probably any modern or contemporary dancemaker that’s my age knows a lot about Merce...), so I was really eager to see the exhibit and to explore what the MCA felt was important about Merce’s work and his contributions to the art world.
There weren’t any real surprises for me, but I was really excited to see the video hall and to view the costumes and sets/backdrops up close. It was also great to experience the exhibit with my colleagues from the Chicago dance community.”
PTP: At any point in your artistic development, did Cunningham’s precedent work affect you?
WH: “I first saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform live in 1984 in Chicago at the Goodman Theater. I had just graduated from college where I had learned about Merce and his company and his dance making ideas, which, as a budding choreographer, seemed really inspiring and useful.
At the time, I was auditioning everywhere, trying to find a job dancing in a modern dance company and I was trying to see as much dance as possible. I’ll admit that I only mildly enjoyed the performance. To the uninitiated, Merce’s work can seem dry and to the 20-something me, the concert seemed long. I thought the dancers were amazing though, and it was a real education to see Merce himself perform.
My next experience of Merce and his work was in the 1990’s through a composer I was working with, Gene Coleman. By then, I was 30 something and I had started my own dance company and I was choreographing a lot.
Gene was really influenced by the work of Merce’s life long collaborator, composer John Cage. Gene and I created about four works together and he introduced me to the films of Merce and John, made by Elliot Caplan. (This was before the internet, so to get to watch those films required a lot of time and effort!)
Caplan’s films were a revelation to me because they revealed that these icons of modern dance were real people. In one of the films, (I think it was Cage Cunningham) the famous couple were just sitting in their kitchen in New York, laughing and joking. (Like real people!)
Caplan also interviewed several of Merce’s collaborators, who were very honest about what working with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was like. Their descriptions of shows and events were very real, and honest, and human. Things for Merce’s Company and its artists could be difficult and challenging. Sometimes, no one knew if they’d be able to pull off the show. Knowing that Merce and John had those struggles when creating and premiering new works was encouraging.
After the birth of my first daughter, I began to read a lot of essays about and by Merce (it’s hard to get out of the house and see dance or film when you have an infant.) Like many dancemakers before me, I began incorporating some of ideas into creating new work. I also began to realize how brave and forthright Merce was.
He had ideas for how dances could look and be made and he followed those ideas. My own work looks nothing like his, but being courageous when making new work is really important.
My next direct encounter with Merce was in 2003, when the Dance Center of Columbia College sponsored a week-long conference about Merce, the history of the Company, and his work. The whole week was a major source of inspiration. Then, in 2011, I created a work “Bento,” that uses dance phrases borrowed or inspired by other dancemakers, who’s work I love. There’s a whole section that’s inspired by Merce Cunningham. So, in a way, it’s my homage to Merce and its a kind of a thank you to him.”
PTP: How do you think being a choreographer affects how you experience this Merce exhibit compared to the non-dancing lay public?
WH: “Despite all the history I mention above, what inspires me most about Merce is the actual work he creates. For me, his vision is very full and complete and when I watch his dances, I am filled with ideas for new dances that I can make. Admittedly, I did not always feel this way, but as a 50 something, Merce’s work still speaks to me. Crowdspacer is my favorite work of his (at the moment). It linear construction and the entire visual experience of the work is inspiring. It’s a work that, for me, really demonstrates Merce’s ability to follow his own voice and to continually make the difficult choices in realizing his vision for his work.”
PTP: Some who toured the exhibit and watched videos felt this that dancers today, and even in the later years that the videos captured, are so much more technically adept. Do you agree?
WH: “ I think ballet dancers have the same experience when they view the work of ballet dancers from decades ago. And indeed, there have been some great technical achievements made in dance over the past 6 decades. For me, Merce’s choreographic achievements are still evident in the older works, with less technical dancers (and technique is not everything.) Also, Merce was a revolutionary. And he has influenced generations of choreographers, who have used his ideas for dance in their work. This is not a bad thing, but his ideas have been reproduced and seen in so many works that the revolutionary aspect of Merce's work has probably, for some, worn off a bit. When you’re as old as I am, it’s easy to take this longer view of the issue!”