Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


A minimalist encounter before its time

Merce Cunningham died a few days ago, and if I hadn’t felt then as though I were dying myself, I would have noted the event here.

I just spent 20 minutes crawling all over the internet for information about the Cunningham show I saw in, I think, 2003, but I can’t find it, so I’m relying on memory. In any event, it was at UCLA Live, with Cunningham and assorted UCLA students performing against music by Eric Satie. I love Satie’s music, and was interested in Cunningham because I was just beginning to grasp the allure of dance, and there was a third great name associated with all this that I now can’t recall. (And can’t find.) Was it John Adams? William S. Burroughs? Robert Wilson? I can’t remember. In any event, I remember that the dance seemed to consist largely of standing or sitting, understandable for the then-84 Cunningham, but perhaps less so for the 20ish collaborators.

Cunningham was the house guest of someone I knew, so a small party of us went back to the house.  The hosts had spared no expense in putting on a suitable event for their honored guest. I remember at one point the host looked over and saw Cunningham sitting alone on the couch and gasped, “Why isn’t anyone talking to Merce?!?!?!” I had already been over talking to Merce, sitting alone beside him for 20 minutes during which I discovered two things: that I had nothing much to say, and neither apparently did he. Perhaps everyone else had had the same experience. Maybe it’s difficult to strike up a conversation with a minimalist.

I wish that I had met him a year or two later. Because in 2004, for a variety of reasons, I had what I’ve since called “The Year of Dance.” My background is theatre, and mostly the literary end. By that point in my life I was feeling a little burned out on theatre, but was saved by some students with an interest in dance. Over the course of that year, I worked with a dance choreographer on a play I was directing, wound up going to two hip-hop conventions, got involved with a dance-film festival, joined the advisory board of a fledgling dance company, attended the American Choreography Awards, fell in with a multi-Tony-winning dance legend, went to amazing launch events at places like the Music Box and the Key Club, and cheered up Toni Basil over drinks when she was feeling forgotten and unrecognized because I remembered both her music and all her choreography with Devo and Talking Heads and David Bowie, and so much more. The dance people and the dance shows and the dance parties were great, great fun. I came out of that year with a deep appreciation and gratitude for an artform I’d known little about. And a deep respect for dancers, who are a talented, disciplined, driven breed.

I wish it had been after that year that I’d had 20 minutes alone with Merce Cunningham. Because then I’m sure I would have had something to talk about.

One Response to “A minimalist encounter before its time”

  1. EM Says:

    Good story! I have been researching some of his pals lately — Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Interesting bunch of creative people knocking around together and doing cool stuff.

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