When you were growing up in Centralia, Washington, what did your bedroom look like?
I shared a room with my younger brother. I don’t think we decorated it, but there was a kind of balcony with a door, and there was a tree—I think it was an apple tree—and in case you wanted to go out at night, secretly, you could go through the door, out to the tree, and down. That I remember. [Laughs.] I think my father caught on.
What first gave you the idea to take dance lessons?
Fred Astaire movies, of course. And Mrs. Barrett, who taught tap dancing in Centralia—she did have a small studio, but later, she taught in her kitchen. She gave a program in the local theater. It was mostly little girls, of course, doing Dutch dances and Irish dances and Scotch jigs and waltz clogs. Oh, it was wonderful. [Laughs.] I was probably 11.
What movies did you like besides Astaire’s?
There were the wonderful Nicholas Brothers, and Bill Robinson dancing with Shirley Temple. We were so lucky they put them in the movies! [Laughs.] It’s when sound began to appear—before, in silent films, there was dancing, but nothing like when sound came in.
Did you ever act?
Yes, at the Cornish School. I was in The Cherry Orchard—I’d never heard of Chekhov. I was Yepikhodov, I think. The English teacher was a lively man, and for graduation he arranged for three of the boys to do Macbeth, and we played the witches. I never forgot it.
Did you read much as a kid?
Both my mother and father read a great deal. We subscribed to The Literary Digest. There was a picture in one issue—the Nude Descending a Staircase, by Marcel Duchamp. Mind you, I would not have known anything about any of this. I was 10 or 11. And when I later saw it in a museum, I said, “That’s what it was!” I just remember the vivid shape—I’m sure I didn’t even know it was a nude. [And] I began to read Dickens at some point. And I remember Robert Louis Stevenson. And I remember my mother one evening reading Alice in Wonderland to the three of us.
Did you listen to the radio?
Oh yes—when it came in, my father liked it. He liked sports. Baseball and football. He also liked “Amos ’n Andy.” My mother didn’t approve of the radio. She thought there was something wrong with it.
What are your favorite books now?
A wonderful biography about Houdini, by Kenneth Silverman. I’m looking forward to the one he’s written about Edgar Allan Poe. But now I’m more likely to go to the computer than a book. I use it for working on dance forms for the choreographic possibilities.
What kind do you use?
I have a Mac titanium PowerBook. I’m not good—I have a friend who helps me all the time. But I like working at it. It makes you think differently.
What about TV?
I didn’t have one for years—I couldn’t afford it. I finally got one in the sixties, after Kennedy was assassinated. In the last several months, I’ve probably looked at more than I ever have in my life. Oh, The Golden Girls! [Laughs.] These ladies who are whatever age, what they talk about and how they talk about it is extraordinary. It’s funny. It isn’t just pretending to be funny. I think it’s because they’re so outspoken. They don’t try to hide anything. This is—what? Twenty years old?—and it doesn’t sound dated.
You’ve used Radiohead and Sigur Rós in one of your dances. What popular music do you like?
All of those Irving Berlin and Cole Porter tunes. I listened to the Beatles. It was something different—really amazing. And Dylan: You listened because there was something real about it. But then, my whole world was deeply involved with contemporary serious composers, John Cage and so many others. This was music which very few other people heard, but it’s beginning now to be heard more because there’s a difference in the way people listen.
How did you and John Cage meet?
At the Cornish School. He was the pianist for the dance classes. At one of the rehearsals, Cage said to one of the teachers, “You’re playing everything absolutely perfectly—now go a little further and make a few mistakes.” I’ve never forgotten it—a remarkable statement.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs at the Lincoln Center Festival from July 12 through 16.