ORIGIN + DEVELOPMENT
In 1971 Merce Cunningham created Loops as a dance solo to perform himself. He continued to dance it in varying forms until very recently, when arthritis retired him from the stage. The piece is one of very few that Merce has never set on another performer. He originally designated it a “solo event,” which meant that its form was to continually adapt to the requirements of occasion and venue.
Merce first performed Loops at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where he danced in front of Jasper Johns’s painting Map (after Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Air Ocean World) – a telling choice, given Merce’s long artistic association with Johns. The Johns painting is now in the permanent collection of a German museum and cannot be reproduced here; however, its subject can, and the interested reader will find an astute Wikipedia account of Fuller’s method, which bears striking resemblances to Merce’s. This is no surprise: Fuller was, like Johns, a long-time friend; all three originally met at Black Mountain College.
In addition to the Johns painting as backdrop, Merce’s performance was accompanied by Charles Atlas’s slides and Gordon Mumma’s electronic music. The playbill for this event illuminates an era decidedly less slick than ours.
This account, including quotations, comes from a conversation with Merce in June 2007.
Loops got its name from the circular movements Merce could do with his wrists. However, originally, the piece was not restricted to the hands, but instead took different body parts through their variations one at a time – feet, head, trunk, leg, shoulder, in any order. The idea was to explore the maximum number of movement possibilities within the given anatomical restrictions imposed by joint rotations and so on. Sometimes Merce set the order of the Loops sections by chance operations, but not always – only “if i had time enough to learn it. Because when you use chance, as you probably know, it dislocates your memory, so you have to start all over again!”
Merce danced the piece as Loops and Additions two years later at the Whitney Museum. Soon, however, he began to incorporate Loops into his company’s Events, which stitched together sections of multiple dances into a single evening performance. A spellbinding example of Merce performing Loops in this context was recorded by Japanese television when the company performed Event #164 in April 1976 at NHK Hall in Tokyo, an excerpt from which may be seen here.
As Merce’s mobility decreased with age, he took to performing Loops entirely with his hands in a kind of cameo role in his company’s Events.
It was in this form that he performed Loops in the motion capture studio in August 2000. Having practiced the piece extensively on the road beforehand, he gave what he now considers to be the “definitive version” of the dance. A good thing, for this is what was recorded for posterity and is now available under a Creative Commons license here.
While Loops occupies a central place in Merce’s dance work, it seems to have received comparatively little study – possibly because it is so complex and fleeting. We were able to find only two reviews of it, both brief. In 1974, Arlene Croce wrote this eloquent appraisal in the New Yorker (later reproduced in her Afterimages book):
Cunningham’s hands are like chords of music; full articulation flows straight to the electric extremities. He really does seem to have in his little finger more than most dancers have in their whole bodies.
And the previous year, Dale Harris wrote in Dance magazine that Merce’s “hands, seemingly of their own volition, fluttered wildly around his body like enormously powerful butterflies.”
When we first talked to Merce about motion-capturing Loops, he referred to it as “my little secret.”
It is certainly true that Loops is a markedly different kind of choreography than what he sets on his company dancers. For one thing its rhythm seems far more intricate. Later on, when we asked Merce to explain this difference, he began by remarking that Loops is “not teachable.” This, he said, has to do with the particularity of any dancer – “everyone’s rhythm is different.” In Loops, where ten movements are happening at once, you cannot perform them by thinking them through on a given beat. Instead, he said, you have to skip all that somehow and simply do them in the interval you’ve given yourself.
By contrast, when setting choreography on his dancers, Merce found long ago that he has to teach to a beat, which “becomes a language to talk about time.” So even though in performance the electronic scores dispense with meter, in his classes a pianist plays old-fashioned show tunes to keep the beat. This regularizes time so that his dancers can coordinate with each other and memorize their movements.
The quicksilver intricacy of Merce’s own movements cannot quite be imparted this way. Which is why with Loops Merce stands alone.