Interview: Patricia Lent on Merce Cunningham

by Adam Sobsey on February 4, 2011

Patricia Lent (photo: Michelle Smith Lewis)

From 1984 until 2003, Patricia Lent was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which performs “Sounddance,” “Duets,” and “BIPED” at DPAC tonight and tomorrow. From 1998 until 2007, Lent taught grade school at P.S. 234 in lower Manhattan. Her essay in “Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11″ describes a class trip to an MCDC rehearsal that inspired the development of the Educational Outreach Program of the Merce Cunningham Studio, where Lent teaches technique classes and stages work from the repertory. Now a Trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust, Lent gave a phone interview to The Thread in December. Well into our conversation, the devoted birdwatcher interjected, “an eagle!” as one flew by the window of the lakeside house in upstate New York where she lives. It was hard to resist the sentimental notion of the spirit of Merce Cunningham buzzing the tower in salutation.

The Thread: What brought you to Merce Cunningham Dance Company?

Patricia Lent: I went to the University of Virginia, where there was no dance program at all. At the very end of my time there, there was a woman who started teaching movement for actors. And that summer I went to the American Dance Festival and I thought, “Maybe I’m not done with this dancing thing.” I went to Boston for a couple of years, and nothing much was happening for me. A friend of mine said, “Don’t quit dancing in Boston, move to New York and quit dancing there.”

I went and saw a few dance performances, and the big-ticket thing that I went to see was the Cunningham company, and I had never seen them. And I was completely mesmerized. It was exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for. They didn’t seem to be acting. They were just doing what they were doing with this utter commitment, and bigger. They just seemed to be sweeping across the stage, doing this really frank, strong movement.

Jean Freebury in Merce Cunningham's "BIPED" (photo: Stephanie Berger)

I don’t think I had in my head the notion  that I was going to dance for the company; it was more that I wanted to learn what they were doing. I decided I would give myself a year in New York. I took ballet in the morning and Cunningham [technique] in the afternoon. By the end of the year, my ambitions had changed. Merce was still teaching quite a bit then, and I got invited to a couple of the small workshops with Merce. And then out of the blue I got invited to be an understudy. That was the summer of 1983. In January of 1984 they were supposed to go to Asia, and one of the dancers had knee surgery and couldn’t go, and I was asked with literally a week’s notice to join them.

Cunningham’s choreography is well-known for its sheer physical difficulty. Did you find that to be the case?

You would be absolutely and utterly facing one direction doing one thing on one leg, and then you would have to be facing another direction on another leg doing another thing. The transitions from one movement to the next were not what a contemporary dancer would call organic. They didn’t flow on their own. You had to figure out a way to get from one movement to the other. Part of that had to with using chance; part of that had to do with Merce’s own interests in movement. There also weren’t in-between steps like there were in classical ballet: The in-between steps got as much value as the big moves; everything absorbed energy.

Patricia Lent (photo: Michelle Smith Lewis)

There were very fast things followed by very slow things. There were jumps that came out of nowhere; there were turns that just ended—on one leg. There was sort of an arbitrariness about what came next. There was a great deal of memorization, and just doing things over and over again until you really, really had them. There were certain parts of the movement that you never learned in that way of it just being something you could toss off. The rhythm of the movement for me was the friendliest part. If I could feel the rhythm and the timing of the phrasing, I could deal with the shape or the technical challenge.

You’ll see [Merce’s] dancers out there and you’ll see this level of focus, and it’s like, “What are they doing?” Well, what they’re doing is they’re thinking[laughs] He would give us something that just seemed undoable. And then somebody would figure out a way to do it, and then another person would figure out a way to do it, and then everybody would have to figure out a way to do it. There was a very healthy competitive spirit going on. And you could tell when Merce was happy with how it was going.

I would imagine that the choreography got more complex and demanding once Merce began working around with DanceForms, the choreographic software.

CRWDSPCR (1993) was for me the dance that was the introduction to this computer work. It had this new layer of complication, which was the arm movement. My theory about this was that, because Merce was sitting in front of a computer, his arms were free; and that that’s why the arms got so complicated. He was no longer standing in the studio holding onto a bar. The computer figure wouldn’t do anything with its arms unless he told it to. With us, if he didn’t give us any arms to do, there were natural classical positions that would get added on. I remember it being equal portions of challenging and interesting and frustrating and irritating. For the current company, I don’t think CRWDSPCR is considered any kind of a complicated dance; that complexity of the arms is now so much a part of their vocabulary that they are surprised when it’s not there. And there are ways of getting from one arm position to another—that for those of us who were new at it were awkward—that they now do very naturally. Also Merce didn’t have his vocabulary together yet about how to talk about the arms, and then he developed one. Low, middle, high; curved, straight. Now that I’ve seen some of Merce’s notes I see that he was already developing that vocabulary, but he hadn’t articulated it or we hadn’t heard it enough that we could talk about it with each other.

You mentioned chance. Cunningham was famous for choreographing with aleatory procedures: throwing the I Ching, for instance. Did you have a sense of that as a member of the company?

Merce was extremely clear about what he wanted. You knew exactly what you were supposed to be doing; he gave very, very clear directions. Not what it meant or why he was doing it or what it should feel like while you’re doing it. There was definitely a priority on large and deep—pushing the movement to the edge of where it would go. There was also great emphasis on rhythmic clarity. He would say, “Is it possible?” and then give you something to try. “Let me give it a whirl,” you’d say.  “Oh yes, that’s all right.” Or, “Could you push this more?”

Holley Farmer & Lisa Boudreau in "BIPED" (photo: Stephanie Berger)

There was this idea of the dances being very carefully crafted but also this idea of the dances having a life outside of him. He did so much planning and invention long before he ever worked with us on a dance. And then he’d get into rehearsal and it was almost as if he was watching the dance unfold. He’d make a bunch of different phrases for a piece, and then he would say, “Can you make it travel over there?” And in that way the phrase was manipulated, and he didn’t say exactly how to make that happen, and in that moment you were sort of driving the phrase, and that would change the phrase. He both invented the material and he allowed the material to be used in rehearsal. He left his dancers alone with the movement to a great degree. He trusted you to figure out what would happen next. It was a great compliment. He didn’t hand out compliments very much, but one day I tried out an idea and I was practicing it alone. And Merce walked by and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep going.”

Sometimes he would talk about the material as though he hadn’t invented it. He’d say, “Oh, isn’t that interesting when they come in and you see two things happening at the same time.” And you’d think, “Well, you made it up!” [laughs] He had the capacity to see as both the inventor and the observer.

I didn’t know him well when I worked for the company, but I do recall that he always seemed to be slightly detached, as though he was observing everything that was going on around him.

The surest way to get him to look away was to look at him. [laughs.]

He had a remarkably gentle air about him, especially for an auteur. It was hard to picture him in a bad temper. Was he ever?

He could be dissatisfied, but he didn’t yell or make snide comments. He just looked away, looked somewhere else. I would describe him as consistently respectful, often distant, and always uncompromisingly demanding. He didn’t like a lot of talking in rehearsal, a lot of verbal problem-solving. He would say, “Just do it.” He insisted upon hard work, discipline and rigor. And he was intrigued by and attracted to change. He seemed to lose interest in situations and dancers who “stayed the same.” It wasn’t enough to do a good job every day—we had to grow and change to keep him interested. I don’t think Merce was especially interested in the interpersonal relations of the company, but they were there in the studio along with the different ways we walked and moved and danced. We brought ourselves–all of ourselves, unedited–to every rehearsal. It’s like what Merce said about his work being abstract: that humans dancing could not possibly be abstract, because they were human beings.

That reminds me to ask you to talk more about the “competitive spirit” you mentioned earlier.

Patricia Lent (photo: David Bradford)

Merce enhanced the competitive spirit of his work by how he used his dancers. It was the urge that we all had to be prominent in the work. You wanted to be able to do it really well, and you wanted to be out there as much as you possibly could. You wanted to be dancing and dancing and dancing. We were always pushing ourselves, pushing each other. I still try to jump as high as the person next to me. [laughs.]

You’re now the Director of Licensing and Repertory for the company. How did that come about?

The job was invented so that I could get inside the business, a way of sort of pulling me in. I had to learn a lot of things I didn’t know. I’m responsible for all negotiations and communications with companies or universities who are interested in having the dances. I draft contracts, talk to production people. I’m also one of the people who teaches the dances. I teach about 12 weeks a year. I also reconstruct dances with the Cunningham company. The whole point of this is to prepare for the future and the future of the future. At some point in the next five years I’m going to start actively training somebody to take over for me. In the same way that the Cunningham Dance Foundation has helped in this transition to the Trust, Robert [Swinston, Director of Choreography] and I are keeping things moving along with an eye to training the next group of people. Robert’s role in this can’t be overemphasized. Little by little, he kept adjusting along with Merce. Merce was involved until the very end, and Robert just did whatever Merce couldn’t do. By the end, there’s Merce, 90 years old, making a 90-minute dance. He was freed from worrying about everything else.

Do you have any thoughts about “Sounddance,” which is part of the Duke Performances program and a particular favorite of mine?

"Sounddance" (photo: Tony Dougherty)

One of the things about it is that it started with Merce entering the space and ended with Merce leaving the space—you know, he was out there onstage for the entire duration of the dance, and I think that his energy is particular. And so his own dancing informs that whole dance. He comes on[stage], everybody else joins him, everybody else leaves. I think also David Tudor’s score sets it driving. There are a lot of phrases in that dance that have a very strong, pulsing rhythm. In the audience, you can feel that.

What are your feelings about Merce now that he’s gone?

Merce Cunningham

Merce is the most remarkable person I ever knew, aside from my immediate family. Sometimes you meet a really remarkable person but you meet them at dinner, or you go to the movies with them, or you see them at a reception. I spent time with Merce in a dance studio, working on what he most liked to work on. He would make up these steps, these phrases, and they became your language for five or six years while the dances were in the repertory. He wasn’t just the director, he was the writer. And he was a very decent man, he was extremely gracious. It became easier for him to express his gratitude as he got older.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final NC performances ever begin tonight! Consult the show’s Duke Performances page for more information.

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