Since learning of Merce Cunningham's approach to dance and his work with John Cage, I've had a heightened awareness of the degree of dependence that a dancer has on music. In my own experience, that dependence has been rather great and I feel at times handicapped my my reliance on music to dance to. Lately, I've made a conscious effort to dance without music, to focus on the movements alone, instead of the movements as a means to accentuate musical notes. I've also just finished choreographing a dance combination that was put together entirely without music. Let me just mention that the process was unbelievably frustrating, because choreographing with music is hard enough for me, but without music, you're starting from scratch, without any musical suggestions for movement. The process does, however, focus one's attention solely on the movement and, though I intend to dance this with music, I feel like this has helped in polishing the dance. You can concentrate on making the motions without music to distract.
Just like Cage's emphasis on sounds as ends in themselves, rather than a means to an end, Cunningham's focus was on the movement of the dancer. Conventional elements of dance structure were absent from his work: conflict and resolution, cause and effect, climax and anti-climax. Cunningham was not interested in telling stories or exploring psychological states, and yet this isn't to say that the theatrics were absent. Many claimed that the drama arose from the sheer intensity of the kinetics. Since he wasn't telling stories, Cunningham's dancers were never actors, never pretending to be anything other than themselves. He once said to his troupe that “you are not necessarily at your best, but at your most human.”
For me, that's scary. Uncomfortable, really. To get up and dance and not be anything other than me? To not become an actress or even a physical expression of the music takes away all feelings of security up on stage. I'd feel naked. And that's terrifying, and utterly wonderful, and yet still terrifying! What an experience for the dancer, let alone the audience. I think what Cunningham does with this is the same thing that Cage did with sounds. He puts the ordinary, everyday in a context that allows it to be viewed as art.
It's interesting how each man's medium can be so different and convergent all at once.