Ayako Kato’s Reflections on Merce Cunningham—How Merce Made His Mark

Ayako Kato’s Reflections on Merce Cunningham
Ayako Kato shows her prized Merce Cunningham autograph that she got from Merce when she took a class with his troupe decades ago Photo courtesy of Ayako Kato

Editor’s Note:

Picture this Post has recently reviewed Ayako Kato's work blue fish, performed for Earth Day in Millennium Park.  Look for a report soon of her upcoming performance as part of the Pivot Arts Festival written by fellow choregrapher Sara Maslanka of Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble.

Shortly after both the MCA’s recent exhibit and the one still underway at the Walker Art Center In Minneapolis on Merce Cunningham, Picture this Post asked award-winning dancer and choreographer Ayako Kato to talk about Merce Cunningham and how his work shaped hers. The following is a transcript of her comments.

Ayako Kato’s Reflections on Merce Cunningham
Photo by Ralph Kuehne

“In May of 1998 I decided to stop by New York before returning to Japan, to take a Cunningham technique class in the Cunningham studio.  That’s when I saw Merce himself for the first time.  I asked him for his autograph while he was waiting for a taxi at the corner of the studio building and I still have it!"

My first exposure to Merce Cunningham was through Catherine Kerr, a former member of the Cunningham Dance Company, who was guest teaching at the University of Michigan where I was studying for my MFA and rehearsing Merce's piece called Changing Steps.  Hearing from Catherine and music professor, Dr. Stephen Rush, in Michigan about how Merce and Cage worked together really raised a lot of questions and initiated a lot of experimental spirit concerning the relationship between music and dance.  Around that time, I also started to collaborate with a musician—double bass player—, who also ended up being my life partner. Cage and Cunningham’s relationship  in forming a new approach between music and dance inspired us and made us very aware of what we were doing as artists."

“It strikes me, as a dancer, that when I look at the films of Merce dancing that his movements are actually totally different from those of the dancers in his company.  And, the company had a first generation of dancers from when they formed- the core people from Black Mountain.  Then there were second and third generation dancers and each of these generations moves differently and even their body types are different."

“From my perspective this is what happens. The first stages are, like it or not, eventually clarified and codified for the later productions.  Transferring an original perspective and idea of movement to somebody else's mind and body has never been easy.  In post-modern and contemporary dance there has been a lot of discussion about this.  Some question whether this attempt to transfer is the right thing to do.  Many are looking at different approaches to this problem. In Merce's case, in order to create his ensemble work along his choreographic ideas, he needed  to be technically clear so that others could learn and execute. It is like language."

“Actually I first saw Walkaround Time (1968) and Rainforest (1968) in 1998 when I stopped by the New York Public Library to see films of Merce dancing.  Even then I was struck by his movements and how company members were dancing Merce movements with more organic feeling."

“When you see the films of him dancing, you see that he has much more his own complicated feelings and more his own complicated things going on in his body.  This complexity cannot be transferred to others.  This is actually a very complicated issue in dance, but so intriguing to see the difference between his movements vs. the first generation dancers in his company, and then the younger generations that followed.  We see different qualities in each representing his choreography.  This actually had been very obvious to me when I first saw the Merce Cunningham Company perform in Japan.  The first generation had a different way of showing the essence of his choreography.  This is just as true for Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey—all. The first generation of dancers are often closer in spirit to the choreographer and you can see it."


“After my encounter with Merce, it changed my notion of collaboration with music.  For my thesis dance concert, I did some experimentation for different sections: I choreographed to music; created the music and dance separately, then matched like Cunningham and Cage; created dance first and asked a composer to create music; created a section synchronically by discussing the images with the composer; music only with stillness, and movement only using no sound.  We carefully communicated back and forth to explore various proximities between dance and music.  Since then I started to take different approaches to music/sound, sometimes creating dance movement first.  It depends on the work.  Movement can come first. Then the sound or the music can be composed, set to, or played with the dance.  The work itself defines the process.  The work tells us which way is best--- music first, movement first, or all in between in endless intricate manners as human relationships."

Photo by William Frederking
Photo: Ralph Kuehne

“This notion really means a lot more freedom. For example, I created a work with Bach’s Goldberg Variations recorded by Glenn Gould in 1981.  You notice that his first recording of this work in 1955 and his last recording of it in 1981 sound totally different. When I started a collaboration with a Japanese pianist, I was practicing by myself in Chicago with Gould's 1981 version. Yet, my collaborator played the Goldberg Variations  differently again. One day  back in Chicago, I noticed that I was dancing to Glenn Gould's interpretation of and the way of playing the work.  Then I wondered, what was Bach's interpretation, and outrageously speaking, what is my interpretation of the work? After listening to and moving to/with/against various recordings of the same work by renowned musicians, I actually ended up dancing to both recordings by Glen Gould on piano, the one recorded in 1981, and also a recording by Gustav Leonhardt on harpsichord —each with my interpretations of them."

The first iteration of blue fish, my recent work that premiered in the Pritzker Pavilion, was performed to ocean sound. Then I kept trying different music/sounds— even a Japanese folk song of protest. Now, I use a very minimal percussion sound by Swiss musician and composer Christian Wolfarth, Legeti as well as ocean sound to evoke images for the viewers.  I even change the treatment of Geiger counter sounds.  I am being very careful.

“It is Cunningham who very much influenced me to have a sense of being so careful in how to use and associate music and sound as a dancer and choreographer. He allowed me to open up new perspective. Thanks to the ripple effect, I cannot stop working on this choreographic experiment even 20 years later. "

Photos courtesy of Ayako Kato.

Find Ayako Kato's reviews of recent dance performances in Chicago and comments by her fellow choreographers on Merce Cunningham in Picture this Post's ongoing series, "Choreographers' Eyes:  Dancers Explain Dance".

And find a review of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis' companion exhibit to the recent one Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art- "Merce Cunningham: Common Time".

Learn more about dance by seeing dance through dancers eyes in the Picture This Post series, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”.  Watch this video preview of the story here— 

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