How I teach Cunningham technique

The young students at the Complexions Contemporary Ballet summer intensive exchange uncomfortable glances when Banu Ogan walks into what, for most, is their first-ever class in Cunningham technique. “Please take off your ballet shoes,” she says, after eyeing their feet. As the group—a mix of comp kids and bunheads—begins pliés and tendus in center, it’s obvious they’re struggling with the curvy, twisting Cunningham torsos. Their upper bodies are loose and disconnected, and their movement is timid.

By the time they’re moving across the floor, the dancers have gained more confidence. They lunge deeply into position and play with their balance in off-kilter shapes. They initiate leaps from stronger cores and grounded transitions. “What do my arms do when they aren’t choreographed?” says one student. “How do you know how much your body should curve?” asks another. A girl observes aloud, “The timing is different from ballet because of the weight.”

By the end of class, they’ve made marked progress with the style’s demand for technical precision. The biggest contrast, however, was evident in the chances they were willing to take. “It’s about going for the impossible,” says Ogan later, after the dancers leave. “Merce wanted dancers to not be afraid of failure.”

Ogan, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, now teaches at The Juilliard School and Marymount Manhattan College. She says she loved the risk Cunningham demanded in company rehearsals. “There was one time Merce wanted us to do a crazy jump. He held himself up with the barre and rattled off eight movements that had to happen: Twist, curve and make these shapes with your hands and legs just before landing,” she says, imitating an older Cunningham’s hunched shoulders and gruff voice with complete admiration. “He walked away to sit down and we all started eyeing each other. It was impossible! Then, he turned around and started chuckling. He knew it wasn’t going to work, but it was his way of trying to make something that hadn’t been done before.”

It was this fearlessness that allowed Cunningham, who passed away in 2009, to flip technique on its head. His modern approach to space (using all facings of the proscenium), timing (combining counts of say, five, seven and nine in the same portion of choreography to discover new phrasing) and chance operations (like rolling dice to determine the order steps are performed in) were radical in his day. “I try to teach a class close to Merce’s, but he had a sporadic quality I can’t re-create,” says Ogan. “Most important for me is helping students understand that the technique teaches you how to make choices, even in a non-Cunningham work. And that they should feel emboldened by that independence.” DT

“At its most basic, Cunningham technique uses a classical lower body with an upper body that is influenced by Martha Graham,” says Banu Ogan. Here, student Gia Mongell demonstrates basic and advanced versions of a Cunningham tilt. The exercise promotes core strength and correct placement, while teaching students to use weight to take risks and find power in transitions.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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