In 1968, after touring with Alvin Ailey and Glen Tetley, I was asked by Jean Rigg to stage manage for Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Well, this was a whole new landscape and an experience I hadn’t had with dance before, even at Jacob’s Pillow. The first assignment was to go to Boston to watch a performance of the company. At that point in time, Merce was mostly touring in Europe. Some of the audience members left before the end of the show I attended. I wondered whether this was because of the new experience of electronic music (led by John Cage) or the blandness of the choreography. So when I started, I was on a fact finding expedition.
One of the discoveries I made before touring with the company was that Merce did not rehearse to music. Another one was that he didn’t run the pieces all the way through, but instead rehearsed different parts from different works. I regarded this with dismay and concern about how I was to learn the program.
I also discovered that, on tour, he often did not address the company as a whole. Since he would talk to one or two people only, this caused misunderstanding about who he favored in the company. Dancers were very bright but in a way unhappy with their father figure choreographer. Once, the company manager asked me to canvas the dancers about a decision that had to be made. I flatly refused and said I would ask Merce instead. Theater isn’t a democracy, was my thinking. At any rate, tracking down Merce, for one, wasn’t that easy either.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company Tour. Artistic Advisor: Jasper Johns. Scores: John Cage, David Tudor, Gordon Mumma. Company Manager: Lew Lloyd. Lighting Design: Beverly Emmons. Dancers: Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Barbara Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Valda Setterfield, Meg Harper, Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Jeff Slayton, Chase Robinson, Mel Wong. Repertory included “Suite for Five,” “Rainforest,” “Place,” “Scramble,” “Winterbranch,” “ How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” “Collage III,” “Field Dances,” “Night Wandering,” “Walkaround Time.”
Working for Merce was the first time I got a stop watch, which I use to this day, because he was interested in time. He would frequently come over to me, to see how much time had passed.
I remember two pieces to be very distinct. One was “How to Pass” (there was no music). Cage would tell stories while the company danced. Backstage, before he started, he would tell me the end story, at which point you were to call the curtain in. The problem was that he was slurring his words, as he enjoyed his drink, and it was challenging to hear the last story. The other piece was “Rain Forest”. I loved it dearly. The scenic element was Andy Warhol’s silver pillows filled with helium and held to the ground with fishing weights on a string. The pillows, waving in the air currents, were indeed like a rain forest with the dance creatures mimicking below and an electronic score being played live in the pit.
The first company tour I was part of a residency in Boulder, Colorado, as well as a South American tour (Mexico City Bellas Artes, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Caracas). Later dates included performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Merce at the Minskoff Theater on Broadway. Post Cunningham with the Cunningham Trust being set-up, Juilliard acquired many iconic works. At Juilliard I stage managed his works: 2010 Summers Space set by Banu Ogan, 2015 Biped set by Jennifer Goggins, in 2018 Sound Dance set by Jean Freeburg and Meg Harper,
In my experience Merce dealt with his choreography. However, music, costumes, scenic elements and lighting design were largely the domain of his collaborators. It certainly played to his working methods and philosophy of things coming together by chance. Now, in the 21st century, he is highly regarded as an icon of modern dance and is very much celebrated for his innovation and contribution to this art form.