I recently had the distinct pleasure and honor of performing a new piece of music with composer Christian Wolff and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the final performances of its Legacy Tour. This groundbreaking dance company served as a vital space for cross-fertilization between dance, music and visual art for what became a legendary generation of New York artists. According to the final wishes of the choreographer, the company is now officially disbanded as a performing unit after archiving the entire body of work. The company’s final round of performances around the world concluded with six performances in New York’s cavernous Park Avenue Armory.
The experience was breathtaking, and I’ll attempt to describe it here, as I hope to answer a question posed to me by an audience member as I was standing up with the rest of the musicians at the end of the performance while the audience applauded us and the dancers. He looked up at me on the stage and he said in a loud, earnest voice “What will we do without the avant-garde?” He was very concerned, and I, at a loss for words, just gave him an awkward smile. This kind of response is pretty typical for me. I have rows of dimples in my cheeks from smiling when I’m uncomfortable. But I thought the experience, if not the question, was so interesting that he deserves a response.
When I was hired to play trumpet on this piece, all I knew was that it would be a new work by Christian Wolff. (The piece turned out to be Song (for 6), a fragile but vivid and democratic music where individuals have an important role in the creation of an ensemble voice.) This was already a dream gig, and I eagerly said yes. I later found out that the performance was with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a dream gig became the realization of two dreams. I took the opportunity to read several interviews and books about the company’s history– about Cunningham, Wolff, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and all the other famous artists who have been associated with the company throughout its history. Learning about the humble beginnings of the MCDC put this man’s question into an interesting context.
I don’t want to attempt to define the avant-garde of today, if we can even use that term, or to tell this man where to look for it, if in fact he is actually interested in being exposed to it. I would rather look at how the company became what it was this year as it formally closed up shop, and then to draw lessons for how we might see the development of an arts institution approaching the significance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the future.
After sixty years, the company was a well-funded and fully-staffed organization, an institution. Given the challenging artistic choices that Cunningham and company made over and over, even through its last performances, it is a remarkable achievement that the company thrived in this way. In contrast to the MCDC’s final performances, where six shows in three nights were filled with 1,500 eager audience members, the first performances of the company were actively disliked by critics and audiences. It wasn’t until ten years into the company’s history that it achieved financial stability and a degree of favorable status with critics and audiences. Merce Cunningham and his partner and music director John Cage, saw a bright and productive future for this company, and over many years they realized this goal, with results probably beyond their wildest dreams.
One of Cunningham and Cage’s most important innovations was the separation of the dance and the music. In traditional dance, the music supports the dance in terms of its rhythmic structure, and also in an echoing of the narrative or sensibility of the dance. The MCDC began disconnecting these elements by creating pieces where the dancers didn’t hear the music, and the musicians and costume designers didn’t see the dance until the dress rehearsal. Though a traditionalist might see this as a killing of all the meaning of dance, I see it as a great-hearted embrace of human potential. When I think of an ensemble learning a dance with complicated steps that move in and out of coordination with nothing to depend on but each other, I am moved by how they can work together to execute such a difficult task with such grace and precision. When I watched the dance, music and everything else each pursuing its own separate yet complimentary logic, I was struck by the vibrancy and the multiplicity of this created environment.
The potential of human beings as creators, working in collaboration among people with different talents, is greatly expanded by the company’s repertoire. More artists have been and will continue to pursue this goal, and fortunately, this is true among those who are following Cunningham and company’s line of inquiry, and those who have found their own. The exact mode of the work is not important, only the pursuit of broadening human potential. The “avant-garde” hasn’t disappeared; one just needs to know where to look.
So, to ask what we will do without the avant-garde is to miss what’s truly important. For anyone who is interested in new artwork, the only way to proceed is by looking forward. The most important part of my answer to this question is that there are plenty of artists out there in all media, working to find a new way to answer the same questions, and I hope there always will be. I hope this man will look for them and support them. For me, the most important lesson I learned from my experience was to continue working on the art that is important to me, and that if I work diligently enough, perhaps I can build something that will be as dear to me as the company was to Cunningham.