The first thing that struck me about Merce Cunningham, when we met in the early 1960s, was the strength of his quiet presence. He moved with the soft grace of a panther. At first, a bit intimidating, he soon became warm and affectionate.
It was music that led me to the world of dance. I was representing John Cage through “The Composer Speaks” – the lecture bureau I had established for composers who were breaking through onto the world stage.
Merce took a keen interest in our work. The trust that he and John gave to the timid young woman I then was, was no different than the trust they lavished upon so many young artists and performers in all fields.
One morning, as our first musical season was wrapping up, John came over to my office with a totally unexpected offer. Did I want to manage Merce Cunningham’s dance company? At first, I demurred: “John, I know a thing or two about music… But dance?” It did not take him long to convince me.
And thus began the greatest of adventures, that would take us to the four corners of the Earth, where there was a stunning thirst for the American avant-garde.
Merce had a charismatic and mysterious presence. Yes, he was introverted and shy. But he could also be terribly funny. One of his favorite things was to sneak out and meet me at MoMA to catch a Fred and Ginger movie.
Onstage, Merce was pure magic, breaking barriers with every step. The image of him sitting in a grand plié in “Summerspace” is forever etched in my mind.
The creative process was totally unique: First he would choreograph the piece; then he would commission or select the music (which, as we know, did not need to be in synch with steps); and then would come the sets and costumes. Thus came together some of the greatest creative minds of the post-War era: John Cage and other composers like David Tudor, Morton Feldman or Toshi Ichiyanagi; visual artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Andy Warhol, Bill Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw. Together, these artistic pioneers, many of whom had met at Black Mountain College, revolutionized the world of dance.
Several years after accepting that job, I moved to Paris with my husband, Samuel Pisar, and ran the American Center on boulevard Raspail, where I invited Merce and John to perform. When I told them that the audience would include some famous French intellectuals and personalities, John chuckled: “Then Merce and I are going to be particularly naughty!”
They of course had a triumph. In those days they were perhaps more beloved, and better understood, in Western Europe than in the United States. They returned often, under the guidance of the marvelous Benedicte Pesle — one of the greatest champions of American contemporary art in Europe.
It is difficult to believe that Merce would be 100 this year. He seemed at once immortal and eternally youthful. The magic he communicated from the stage to his audience is, to this day, unlike anything I have ever seen. And I feel humbled and proud to have helped to bring to the world some of America’s true greatness.
Judith Pisar, UNESCO Special Envoy for Cultural Diplomacy, was the Executive Director of Merce Cunningham’s company from 1965-68, in tandem with Lew Lloyd. During this time, she established a life-long friendship with Cunningham and Cage. Today, she continues to be an unwavering supporter of their work.