Merce Cunningham and Meaning: The Zen Connection
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T'ao Ch'ien (326-397)1 Merce Cunningham has a body of work which consists of over one hundred pieces of choreography and he continues to create new works for stage and video. His tremendous contribution to contemporary art involves not only his ongoing influence in the world of dance, but in the other arts as well - as innovator and collaborator. The innovative nature of Cunningham's work, however, confounds the efforts of dance historians and theoreticians who try to classify and define such things as genre, style, interpretation of meaning, and philosophic import. Described variously as modernist, post-modernist, and neo-classicist, Cunningham has employed divergent styles that range from the virtuosity of ballet technique to the minimalism of pedestrian movement. By continually experimenting with artistic possibilities, which free his dances from predictability, he eliminates many of the familiar references used to decipher meaning and intention in choreographic art. Consequently, some viewers wrongly assume the dances have no meaning
beyond fleeting impressions derived from the collage-like effect of visual and aural stimuli. Some feel he is a clever manipulator, trying to confuse his audience. Some see him as a consummate purist, interested only in movement for its own sake. However, others have found a way of interpreting the works of Cunningham which suggests there is meaning both rich in its complexity and profound in its implications - an interpretive approach closely related to the attitude towards meaning found in the Zen arts. This paper discusses the nature of meaning as it applies to Cunningham's work, then analyzes the way the Zen aesthetic gives insight into the meaning of Cunningham's work.