Former Merce Cunningham Dance Company members Jennifer Goggans and Daniel Madoff, along with musician and composer, Arthur Solari, spent three weeks teaching in China at the acclaimed Beijing Dance Academy during late May and June 2014.
Jennifer and Daniel taught Cunningham Technique® classes to dancers from the Freshman, Sophomore and Junior classes of the Modern Dance Department, nearly sixty students in total. Arthur accompanied these classes with music ranging from live percussion and piano to a wide variety of electronic sounds. This was the first time in the school’s history that Cunningham Technique had been taught to its students and the first time that the Modern Dance Department’s classes were accompanied by live music.
In addition to the technique classes, Jennifer, Daniel and Arthur also taught a series of composition classes to the Freshman during which they introduced the students to a variety of ways to use chance operations for their creative work. Each student was asked to create a 30 second phrase and computerized dice were “thrown” to determine elements such as changes of direction, spacial placement, speed, number and length of stillnesses, etc. This was a new way of working for the students and culminated in fascinating results. The classes gave the students an in-depth understanding of how chance procedures can be used to expand their choreographic creativity.
The Freshman class also participated in daily repertory classes during which Jennifer and Daniel taught a variety of solos, duets and group work from Scramble, Changing Steps, Pond Way, Canfield, Suite for Five and Un jour ou deux. The sections were assembled into a 20 minute MinEvent that was shown during the final presentation in a black box theater to a large audience of students, faculty and family. Arthur Solari composed and played a live electronic score for the occasion, which the students, keeping to tradition, heard for the first time during the showing.
The final showing also included a demonstration of class work by each class level. The Freshmen showed the opening back exercises, the Sophomores executed the leg work, and the Juniors danced the more complicated phrase work, including several jump combinations. For the final traveling leap phrase, all sixty students paraded across the floor while Arthur played an energizing percussion beat. The audience broke out into applause at the finish. The students from all three levels then came onto the floor for the final stretch and balance that traditionally finishes each class.
Each week, there was also an evening music lecture given by Arthur Solari during which he discussed the work and philosophies of John Cage, his collaborators and his influence on modern art and music. Arthur also demonstrated the dramatic sound effects possible by preparing a piano and playing a piece of music both with and without the preparations. This sparked a great deal a curiosity and excitement amongst the students and faculty, most notably with our translator, Professor Ping Ou Jian, a long-time professor and published writer of modern dance history in China.
These lectures also presented the opportunity to both discuss and show films of Merce Cunningham’s choreography. The early film of Suite for Two with Carolyn Brown and Merce Cunningham dancing and both John Cage and David Tudor playing the prepared piano was a perfect segue into discussing the relationship between John and Merce’s work. In later discussions, the students watched RainForest in its entirety and finally, a variety of short clips spanning Merce’s career and artist development including Antic Meet, Channels/Inserts, Pond Way, BIPED, and the Park Avenue Armory Event with Jennifer and Daniel dancing a duet from Exchange.
This trip to Beijing was a success for everyone involved. The Chinese sense of hospitality and graciousness was evident at every turn. The students absorbed the new information with a sense a curiosity and commitment that is not often seen. The Beijing Dance Academy is excited and interested in continuing a relationship with the Merce Cunningham Trust in order to have Cunningham Technique remain a presence in their school.
Many thanks to all of those that helped to make this trip possible: Carol Walker who brought these two organizations together, Director Zhang Shou He for wanting Cunningham’s work to be a part of his program, Ling Yan Li and Chi Chi for their endless negotiating work, Professor Ou for his enthusiasm and translating skills, Patricia Lent and Lynn Wichern for their support of the project, and Kevin Carr and Carrie Wood for their last minute video and lighting requests.
Photos: Courtesy of the Beijing Dance Academy.