Learning Merce with Robert Swinston

by Chris Vitiello on February 7, 2011

Robert Swinston

About 50 students scurried through a cold February drizzle to the Ark on Friday morning for a master class with Merce Cunningham Dance Company choreography director Robert Swinston. As he put them through 90 minutes of positions and steps, sweatpants and extra shirts piled up around the perimeter of the marley and condensation gathered on the insides of the windows. Indeterminacy is hot work, as it turns out.

Swinston instructed students in the same way that company dancers the evening before had described Cunningham as doing—matter-of-fact narration of what to do with what body part, in what order. When necessary, Swinston clarified with description. A properly flattened back could be achieved by imagining an arrow from one’s lower back to the back of one’s head. The students—all young women but for two—tried it again, and a small arsenal of outstretched index fingers targeted the small group of onlookers in the chairs by the door.

Swinston’s instruction was never more figurative than that. When dancers swiveled too much, he reminded them that their hips needed to remain stationary because a partner might be behind them, holding their hips. “Turn across your waistline, in the soft tissue,” he coached, and suddenly that Cunningham lightness was there in unison: A determined yet casual movement that just looks right.

For most of an hour, Swinston taught movements within a standing position, and their corresponding vocabulary. Words like curve, arch, tilt, stay—and the word flat used as a verb—became precision terms. As the forest of young women bent over, the occasional head would remain up in deer-like focus, watching a movement a second time before attempting it.

Merce Cunningham (photo: Mark Seliger)

Stringing a few positions together in sequence, Swinston described how the body’s weight should be transferred through the transitions. Some dancers half-darted, half-fell forward, so Swinston reminded them, “This is just a stylized version of walking.” And there was that easy smoothness again. “Dancing is about sensation. It’s important to get the sensation of being correct.”

Swinston’s instruction was altogether pleasant, specific but gentle. He gave no explicit attention to gestural detail, but drew it out of the students by focusing them on the shapes made by the course of their movements. Opening their arms was to make a circle, through the fingertips.

For the last part of class, Swinston ran the dancers in waves through combinations of steps across the floor toward the mirrors. At first, brows were furrowed in concentration and heads tilted down to check footwork. But Swinston would give a note and say “Okay, one more thing,” and continue.

The dancers were delighted, eyes wide, the wisdom of the movement sinking in through the sensation of doing it. They stopped and stood, self-evident. Merce’s sense had sunk in. Or as Swinston summarized it, “Sometimes it’s very difficult for dancers to be still, completely, and still be alive in their bodies.”

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: