This openness, this strong desire to see things in a new way, is so characteristic of Fitzgerald. I felt I recognized this quality when I encountered it in her work. It seemed the literary incarnation of something I’d experienced, for the first time, as a young dancer in the Merce Cunningham studio.
Some dancers, like Merce, become extraordinary, ready channels for grace. Even as an old man, he could lift his arm and captivate a room. Whatever he was looking for just charged through him. Fitzgerald has the same presence on the page—that deep immersion in what she’s seeing, what she’s understanding, and a beautiful ability to convey it.
In the Cunningham studio sometimes it seemed that the whole approach was to watch and wait for those moments of clarity and grace. When the effort falls away, and it becomes people doing something just as they should be. Not estranged from this world. That lovely un-estrangement.
When dancers learn a dance it is always through watching and imitating another dancer. Body and sometimes soul. There is a lot of theory around Merce, certainly, but it begins there. That transfer from one dancer to another. In class, there would be a set of steps given—a portion of a dance, a counted phrase. Merce, or whoever was demonstrating, would show it, and the dancers would mark it: Rather than just looking, you would make light gestures as if you were tip-toeing through the dance with your whole body.
Because Merce’s dances were difficult to do—he liked balletic legs and a flexible torso on top —people were less likely to relax into their strengths. As the dancing would begin, dancers would struggle to get various aspects of the sequence. But, sometimes there would come a point when that struggle would be suspended. The dancer would drop into the movement and the dance would sort of manifest itself. When that happens, it communicates profoundly: The dancer becomes all of a piece. Often—at least to my perception—the most extraordinary dancing happened in class, or in rehearsal, or in the warm up before a performance. There is no capturing dance really, and his approach honored that.
Merce, even in a crowded classroom, would be attentive to those moments. He was often present in the studio—watching, curious. Even when he was working at his wooden table in the back, he seemed tuned for when a dancer dropped into that ephemeral something. That phrase, that dancer, that instant. It couldn’t be grabbed and saved: Okay, this works, I’ll put it here. Instead—I’m guessing, by observation—those moments must have informed him somehow and helped shape his thinking and understanding.
For me, that kind of open engagement was revelatory. And when I first read The Blue Flower, I thought I recognized it in Fitzgerald. I’d never seen anyone put a novel together that way before. I imagined her composing somewhat like Merce Cunningham—devising all the delicate beautiful lines of writing and imagery that will then come up in different patterns far into the book. There’s a compositional instinct that felt very liberating to me. Reading Fitzgerald, I felt it was possible to write as I’d experienced dancing. That writing that way was feasible. It was thrilling to read her. It still is.