One morning in 1947, on a particularly onerous trudge to class, a Cornell undergraduate named Marianne contracted a minor foot injury. During a subsequent clinic visit, a physician noted the flexibility of the patient’s feet. “You should join the dance team,” the physician said. Soon after, Marianne did just that.
This suggestion changed the trajectory of Marianne’s life. At a Pierson College Tea on Wednesday, Marianne Preger-Simon will recount these events during a discussion of her debut book, titled “Dancing with Merce Cunningham.” The book details Preger-Simon’s experiences dancing in Merce Cunningham’s eponymous dance troupe, and serves as a memoir and homage to the prolific modern choreographer.
“He’s a remarkable innovator as a choreographer,” Preger-Simon said. “He was a master rule-breaker in terms of modern dance choreography and was very influential — he has released modern dance into many different directions and given people many roads to follow.”
Following her introduction to the Cornell dance team, Preger-Simon decided to spend a school year abroad in France. While studying abroad, Preger-Simon saw Cunningham perform at a studio and was enraptured. On a whim, Preger-Simon waited outside of his hotel in order to introduce herself. Fortunately for Cunningham, Preger-Simon had information that would be useful to him. Cunningham was searching for a studio, and Preger-Simon was aware of one in the States that would accommodate him.
Upon returning to the United States, Preger-Simon halted her studies at Cornell and moved to New York City, enrolling as the first and only student in Cunningham’s first dance class.
Cunningham, a charismatic personality with effusive passion for his art, had to capacity to influence such a major life decision for Preger-Simon and others. She wrote in her book that “many of [the] dancers were somewhat in love with him, having little comprehension of homosexuality.”
Charisma and passion were required to maintain a modern dance troupe at a period in which American audiences expressed a lack of receptivity to the genre. Unlike genres like ballet, modern dance is non-narrative and pushes audiences’ boundaries. Cunningham and his life partner, the composer John Cage, developed the idea that music and dance could exist within one performance yet remain separate.
“[Cunningham] didn’t use music as a basis for the dance, he just thought of the music as something that was composed in the same time-space as the dance,” Preger-Simon said. “There’s no story or psychological history behind it — it’s just movement, beautiful movement. It’s not about something, it is what it is.”
After retiring from dance, Preger-Simon finished her bachelor’s degree at New York University and pursued various careers and life paths. She taught drama courses, wrote dance criticism, sang folk music, started a family, acquired a doctorate in psychological education and became a psychotherapist.
Cunningham died in 2009 at the age of 90. The choreographer’s passion for his art extended to his final days. Even when confined to a wheelchair, Cunningham continued to choreograph via a computer program with which he manipulated 3D figures on a screen. Preger-Simon began writing “Dancing with Merce Cunningham” after his death, inspired by the letters the pair exchanged throughout their lives.
The tea will take place the day before Preger-Simon’s 90th birthday. Professor Anne Fadiman, the Francis Writer in Residence at Yale College, noted that merely being in the same room as Preger-Simon will be entertaining, due to Preger Simon’s wit and electricity.
“She’s one of the most fully present people I have ever met,” Fadiman said. “If we could all be like Marianne at 90 — or even at 20 — we’d be lucky.”
Fadiman added that Preger-Simon met Cunningham when she was 19 — the same age of many students who will be attending the college tea. Preger-Simon will be able to provide the perspective of a rebel to students who may also consider how their life choices contradict or align with the norms of their hometowns.
“At that age she made a series of decisions that diverged from parental expectations and also from the paths taken by her friends back home in the United States,” Fadiman said. “Those unconventional decisions ended up changing her life. She’s an inspiring example of the bohemian nonconformist with the courage to follow her heart rather than social norms.”
The tea — which is sponsored by Pierson College, the Dance Studies curriculum, Theater Studies and Creative Writing — will be moderated by Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11 ’18, the director of dance studies and an associate professor in theater studies, with an appointment in directing at the Yale School of Drama.
Rianna Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org