One autumn day in 1969, before the start of the advanced class at the Merce Cunningham dance studio, Merce came over to me and said that there were two opportunities for teaching modern dance that he thought might interest me. One was in Caracas, with a group of dancers who were only just forming their own company, and the other was in Havana, where there was a government-funded school dedicated to modern dance.
My life in dance had been routine and predictable until then, if not exactly normal. In Mexico, my native country, I joined a modern dance company at the age of twelve. At sixteen I left my father's home and traveled to New York to live with my mother, who had moved here following her separation from my father. I kept on dancing. At first I took classes at the Martha Graham studio. In the world of modern dance the brilliant, temperamental Martha was the most revered choreographer. Starting in the 1930s, she had revolutionized not only dance but theater as well; her use of sets and costumes turned on its head every standard notion of what can be done and communicated on a stage. Her quest for a body language that reflected the deepest inner conflicts, and the way she used gestures and movements to stage great myths, centering them on the internal universe of a single woman--Medea, Joan of Arc, Eve, all of them ultimately Martha herself in any case--brought her admirers and disciples from all the arts. She was, moreover, the first creator of modern dance to devise a truly universal dance technique out of the movements she developed in her choreography. I had studied Graham technique in Mexico, and one of my reasons for moving to New York had been to train directly at the source, at Martha's studio on East Sixty-third Street.
By that time, in the mid-1960s, Martha was very old and more or less pickled in alcohol. She put in rare appearances at her own studio, interrupting even a class that one of her best dancers was teaching to hurl philosophical exhortations and wounding comments at us, mocking our lack of passion and our flabby muscles. One of my most terrifying memories is of a mute hiatus during a class when all of us stood frozen in some pose Martha had demanded while she moved through the room, pinching this dancer in a rage, giving that one a tongue-lashing. Pain was necessary for dance, she always said, and I think at that stage in her life she wanted to contribute to our training by guaranteeing that we would suffer. After a couple of years of this I felt the need for a less orthodox and oppressive atmosphere and switched to the Cunningham studio, partly because I admired Merce's work with all my heart and partly because, after Martha's, Merce's studio was the best known.
Elegant, alert, and unfailingly courteous, Merce Cunningham was an established artist at the forefront of the Manhattan avant-garde. Modern dance has always been an art of the few, and there are not many choreographers who, like Merce, can afford the luxury of a standing company, and fewer still who have a studio where they and their company can earn money and create a pool of future dancers by offering daily classes. Even so, the studio and the classes barely enabled Merce and his company members to get by. His audience was devoted but small, and during performances one sometimes heard boos and hisses from baffled spectators who hadn't imagined, when they purchased their tickets, that the dancers would not go en pointe and that the accompaniment would be not tuneful music but a series of sounds generally produced at random, either on traditional instruments like John Cage's delightful "prepared piano" or, more often, by means of electronic gadgets. That was the case in Winterbranch, a rather long dance with no stage light that was performed throughout to a very loud metallic screech--hard even for the dancers to take.
Friend, collaborator, and source of inspiration to artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, lifelong companion and creative partner of the composer John Cage, Merce, always an innovator, always evolving, was respected even by his detractors for the clean harmony of his work, for the simple, lucid logic of the technique taught at his studio, and for the modest, unassuming way he had one day taken his leave of Martha's company, where he had been a principal dancer. Without any rhetorical fuss he left behind the obsession with passion and narrative that was characteristic of Martha and her disciples; the use of dramaturgy as the connecting thread of choreography; and rhythmic music that guided the dancers' movements like a tambourine leading a trained bear in a circus. Instead, he chose to pursue the meandering paths of abstraction, chance, and Zen philosophy.Yet his avant-garde experiments never interfered with the technical perfection and extraordinary refinement of his choreography. In his own way he was a classicist.
Those of us who left Martha's studio for Merce's were attracted by that Apollonian temperament, which demanded concentration and intensity but rejected drama. It was mainly women who came to his little studio on Third Avenue at Thirty-third Street to take beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes, and quite a few of us were in flight from Martha. Merce's courteous distance came as cool salve on a burn, though it too had its price. Merce sometimes taught a beginners' class that started at six p.m. He didn't say much but would correct the students very patiently, and several of the more advanced dancers, including some who were already members of the company, would take the six o'clock class in the hope that Merce would at least cast a glance at them. All of us saw him as a flame flickering in a dark chapel. We spoke his name as if it were written entirely in capital letters, and we laid siege to him with our eyes. In return, he almost never said a word to any of us.
The fleeting heyday of American dance was just beginning, and most of us who were to be found in the modern dance studios then, with who knows what tangle of secret dreams inside us, had to work as secretaries or waitresses (I was the latter) in order to pay for classes and our own spartan expenses. This meant that we came to class already tired. Merce's studio was a bare cave that stank of sweat and often lacked heat on the coldest winter days. Our motley layers of sweaters and sweatpants couldn't protect us from the cold. The concrete floor was covered with shabby black linoleum, and before class we would wrap tape around our feet in an effort to close up the alarming cracks that appeared on our bare soles as we spun across that adhesive surface. After class we rinsed off the sweat as best we could at the sink in the studio's tiny bathroom, then went home on the subway, sprawled in the seats to give our rebellious muscles some relief. All of this took its toll on our bodies, but we had no money for massages or therapies. As it was, David Vaughan, the brisk but softhearted Englishman who took our money at the front desk--and who is to this day the company's resident historian--more often than not gave us a stern look and a class ticket on credit. We went on ridiculous diets: a friend asked me privately one afternoon, with a blush, whether I thought constipation could have a significant effect on your weight; she'd been feeding on lettuce and broccoli for a week, had been constipated for five days, and had weighed herself on five scales but hadn't lost a pound on any of them. Generally, by about age thirty-five, dancers no longer have healthy feet or knees or much elasticity left in their tendons, ligaments, and joints. We were eighteen, twenty, twenty-five years old, and we were the oldest young people in the world: our time was already running out.
Men were so scarce in this world that choreographers fought over them even if their feet were as flat as pancakes and their shoulders looked as if they'd been left dangling from a hook at birth. They strolled into class with a self-sufficient air, while we women were fervent and eternal supplicants, forever hoping against hope, suicidal gamblers who--despite the mirror's daily confirmation that our insteps were too low, our hips too wide, our legs too short, our arms too long, and our backs too stiff--would nevertheless go off to class in search of the miracle that would fulfill all our desires. Look at me, say I'm beautiful, say I'm for you. Choose me. Let me dance in your company.
When Merce didn't teach the beginners' class himself, he was replaced by one of the younger members of his company. The intermediate class was passed around among more established members of the company, and when they were on tour, it was taught by other dancers, most of whom had performed with Merce at some point. Though the intermediate class seemed to hold little interest for him and he rarely taught it, on his way up to his small apartment over the dance studio he used to pause in the doorway for a few moments, one shoulder lightly resting against the frame, his long arms folded neatly against his torso, his long legs together, and his curly head--heavy and canine--tilted attentively to one side, watching us. I would watch him too out of the corner of my eye, and I liked to think that he was sending me some correction with his gaze, which I caught in midflight and obeyed. I liked even more to think that he was aware that I did.
It was after one of those classes that he approached me for the first time. Merce, then fifty years old, employed certain well-worn theatrical tricks that nevertheless worked their full effect on us. One consisted of deploying his immense courtesy to convey the impression that you were doing him a favor by listening to him; another was to speak so softly that you were forced to concentrate completely on his words. That afternoon he leaned toward me to murmur that if I agreed and it was convenient, I might want to start taking the advanced class (which he almost invariably taught himself). That encounter, which can't have lasted more than thirty seconds, was one of the heart-stopping moments of my life.
It would never have occurred to me that there might be anything better in life than dance. I suffered because it was my destiny to suffer: I was plagued, among other things, by crippling shyness, by a sense that I was superfluous in the world, by a feeling that my face and body were unacceptable, by insomnia, loneliness, and severe anxiety attacks that often kept me even from going to class. But I had no complaints at all about my life, which, seen from this distance, truly was marvelous.
My comrades in enchantment and I stood in line for three whole nights, one after the other, to buy cheap tickets for the standing-room section of the Metropolitan Opera House. (Someone always brought coffee and cookies for everyone in the line, and the spirit of solidarity was absolute.) For three nights running we watched Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn perform Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. We watched all three performances standing up but at the back of the orchestra section, at much closer range than we could otherwise have afforded. The memory of Nureyev falling to his knees in ecstasy to cover Fonteyn's skirt with kisses still takes my breath away. The Martha Graham company was at the height of its glory. In 1965, during a three-week season at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, we took in the entire repertory of that monstrous genius (again, standing behind the last row in the orchestra section). During those three weeks our state of exaltation was so great that we managed only with difficulty to eat or speak.
My romance with Merce began the following year. Several of us went to a performance in a small auditorium at Hunter College, and the sight of such pure, limpid dance, so free of sentimental baggage that it seemed to be performed by a flock of subtle, iridescent birds, convinced me immediately that I was in the presence of a true revolutionary. It wasn't long before I left Martha's studio.
New York City offered us much more than dance. We watched Japanese and Italian movies at the Thalia and alternative films at midnight at the Waverly or the Bleecker Street Cinema. We learned that if we arrived at the New York State Theater after the first intermission, the ushers would let us in to watch the rest of the New York City Ballet's program free, and thus we became familiar with a good part of George Balanchine's repertory. At the Apollo Theater we saw Wilson Pickett and James Brown; at the Fillmore East, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. We had a friend who worked as an usher and helped us sneak into Carnegie Hall, and we put together expert picnics in Central Park while waiting in line for free tickets to the performances there.
One day we heard that the revolution was in Brooklyn, and we went to the Academy of Music--again, we stood in line all afternoon, this time waiting for half-price tickets--to see the legendary Living Theatre, back in New York after a long exile in Europe. The actors took their clothes off and crawled naked all over the audience, which struck us as thrilling in the extreme. It was the period when the traditional divisions were beginning to blur between classical and modern dance, dance and the martial arts, dance and theater, improvisation and performance. Joe Chaikin and Jean-Claude van Itallie, Robert Wilson, and the actors at the Performing Garage were inventing revolutionary theatrical forms, and we were inventing a new form of dance.
I say "we" because though I was neither a choreographer nor a famous, outstanding, or even promising dancer, I too was part of this avant-garde, dancing here and there with choreographers who were getting their start. There was Margaret Jenkins, for example, a dancer who taught Merce's intermediate class when the company was on tour, and who was starting to create her own choreography: she'd book a performance at a theater in Queens or in a Staten Island gym and then ask several of us who took her class to rehearse with her.
Excerpted from Dancing with Cuba by Alma Guillermoprieto Translated by Esther Allen. Copyright © 2005 by Alma Guillermoprieto. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.