As part of the Merce Cunningham Centennial, a global celebration of the legendary modern dance choreographer, New York City Ballet has revived his seminal Summerspace this season. Esteemed dance critic Deborah Jowitt, who attended the world premiere of Summerspace at the American Dance Festival in 1958 and began writing her four-decade-plus regular column at The Village Voice in 1967, the year after NYCB first performed the work, reveals Summerspace’s origins and traces Cunningham’s longtime connection to NYCB.
In 1947, Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder, with George Balanchine, of Ballet Society, invited Merce Cunningham to make a work for seven of its dancers plus the choreographer himself. While a member of Martha Graham’s company, Cunningham had taken classes at the School of American Ballet, and in choreographing The Seasons, he took advantage of the Balanchine dancers’ classical training. The work received five performances, a highlight being the duet that Cunningham created for himself and 17-year-old Tanaquil Le Clercq.
In 1966, Balanchine and Kirstein made a riskier choice. They asked Cunningham to teach his Summerspace to two men and four women of what was now the New York City Ballet. The six would not have been aware of the many complex chance procedures that had resulted in the work, created and performed during the summer of 1958 during the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College.
The original rehearsal space was a long empty dining room, and its many windows and doors influenced the work’s structure. Diagrams included in Cunningham’s book, Changes: Notes on Choreography, show the dancers’ possible paths. Some of these cross the stage horizontally or along diagonals; others curve out from one of the stage’s six wings and back into it, or loop from one wing to another on the same side of the space. The original dancers, of course, understood that Merce, before arriving at the ADF in New London, had used chance procedures to determine their paths; their speed; whether they spun rapidly, took to the air, skimmed across the floor, or dropped to it; when and for how long they paused; how many of them were onstage at the same time. Unpredictability fascinated him.
Anyone watching Summerspace from the audience might feel as if the dancers were bent on private errands. This may be due to the way the piece was rehearsed. Cunningham taught his dancers most of their patterns individually before bringing elements of these together in the space. Rehearsing to counts and clapping, those cast members didn’t hear much of Morton Feldman’s delicately glimmering, buzzing two-piano score, Ixion, nor did they experience its ten-instrument version until very close to the first performance. They also might not have predicted what painter Robert Rauschenberg would come up with in the way of costumes and set. He stippled the backdrop, as well as their leotards and tights, in primarily warm colors, making the dancers appear as shifting elements in a pointillistic world.
Cunningham rarely spoke of his intentions, but he wrote of Summerspace that “the principal momentum was a concern for steps that carry one through a space, and not only into it, like the passage of birds, stopping for moments on the ground and then going on…” Watching the finished dance, you can easily imagine a field in summer, ruffled by vagrant breezes and alive with birds, bees, and dragonflies. A field in which almost nothing can be perceived as causing something else, only of intersecting with it.
The New York City Ballet dancers of 1966 faced unfamiliar challenges. They needed to avoid gravitating to the usual “strong” places onstage (downstage left, upstage right, etc.). Walter Terry, reviewing the performance for the New York Herald Tribune, brought up another issue: when Cunningham’s own company performed Summerspace, a pause was “a matter of arrested motion—the pulse was still there.” The NYCB dancers, he felt, should avoid turning pauses into “inaction.”
The dancing was also strenuous in unusual ways. I remember in 1958 watching Cunningham dancer Remy Charlip cross the stage on one leg, his other leg stretched out behind him, his arms spread like wings. Hop. Pause. Hop. Pause. Hop. Pause. Former Cunningham dancer Carolyn Brown, who in 1966 coached the recently minted NYCB soloist Kay Mazzo in what had been her part, recalled in her book, Chance and Circumstance, how Anthony Blum, cast in Cunningham’s role, came offstage at one point, fell panting in front of the choreographer, who was sitting in the one of the wings, and gasped “How did you ever get through this?”
As Cunningham well knew, nothing remains exactly the same. In 1966, the NYCB women had worn pointe shoes, which altered how some of the movements registered. In the 1990 version, the dancers’ slippers were soft. In 2019, they’re bringing history alive again. Too bad you’re not around to see it, Merce.
Deborah Jowitt, a dance critic and historian, is the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.