A eulogy for Merce
Cunningham, a broken home, poisoned mash potatoes and a stash of Grateful Dead




“You have to love
dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store
away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be
printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It
is not for unsteady souls.”
– Merce Cunningham


The first time I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company
perform I was 13 years old. My parents took me to the show and I wished, more
then anything, that I could be one of those dancers. I felt that nothing
outside of that performance hall really existed. Not my bed with the pink and white
checkered bedspread, the feeling of nothingness that filled the grey classrooms
where I went to high school or the fear that things would never turn out okay.
I sat beside my parents watching Merce and his dancers, and for those two
hours, my world was perfect. But, a few months after that performance
everything came apart. My mom had an affair with someone from the hospital
where she worked and my dad ended up marrying her best friend.


My stepmother tried to poison me. I’m sure of this, though
she never confessed. She piled a mound of mashed potatoes onto my plate at
dinner one night. I was about to take a bite when my stepbrother asked her for
some. She told him he could not have any and when he argued that she had given
me some, she took the bowl of potatoes and washed them down the drain. “Have
some of mine,” I said to my stepbrother. She took the plate from my hands and
poured that down the drain too. She washed everything the potatoes had touched
with bleach.


I was always trying to escape. I would sneak out of the
house when everyone was asleep. I didn’t know where I was going, just that I
wanted to leave. I loved the quiet and how the moon lit a path for me. My
sister, who was two years younger then me, tried to escape once too. One
morning, she left a note at the breakfast table saying that she had run away
from home. Everyone panicked. The police came and a search began. Several hours
into the chaos, I wondered if my sister might still be in the house. She wasn’t
one to travel far. I ran down to the basement. There she was, in the tiny old
bathroom that no one ever used, with a box of Captain Crunch, some bread and a
radio. She was listening to her favorite station, with her hand in the cereal


I kept a stash of Grateful Dead albums in a box in the
garage. I took them out and played them for David, the cute boy who lived just
up the street from me. He was a die hard Deadhead and I wanted him to know how
cool I was. He said “Lauri, what are you doing? You are just pretending to like
these songs, you don’t even know them”. He was right. The truth was I liked the
idea of them. I liked the circus feeling that engulfed our town whenever they
traveled through. I would sew bells onto every skirt I owned and stand outside
of the concert hall where they were performing and lose myself in the reverie
for awhile.  


I left home the moment I turned eighteen. From the age of
fourteen I prayed for eighteen and its arrival couldn’t come quickly enough. I
lived in several different places before I eventually found my way to New York City. The city
offered me a kind of liberation I’d been waiting for my whole life. I worked
for peanuts at the William
Morris Agency,
but the job came with a great perk: free tickets to almost any dance, theater
or music event in NYC. I saw things that completely blew my mind. Those tickets
were my escape route into new worlds whenever I wanted them. At some point, I
stopped pretending to be the person onstage and lost myself completely in the
performance. In those moments I wanted to be exactly where I was. I’d leave the
show with a feeling that everything was possible.


Merce Cunningham died last year at the age of 90. When he
spoke about “that single fleeting moment,” he was speaking about the
perspective of a performer. But it was those sublime moments as a member of the
audience that changed my life forever.


I love it when the theater goes dark, just before the
performance begins. That moment holds the promise of what greatness might come.
I never miss it.



Snow & Voices – Kranz
plus Jebin Bruni – have their latest album,
Anything That Moves, just out on Elastic Ruby Records. Visit
the band at their official site or their MySpace page.


[Photo Credit: Annabel Mehran]


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