Life After Merce

Life After Merce

Can the work of Merce Cunningham survive his death and the closing of his dance company?


Beginning in 1964, Merce Cunningham regularly produced “Events,” which he described as shows consisting of “dances from the repertory and new sequences arranged for [a] particular performance and place, with the possibility of several separate activities happening at the same time.” The show that took place inside the drill hall of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City on December 31 certainly fit that description but was also much more. The vast size of the hall was amplified by the imposing presence of three raised stages—resembling boxing rings—arranged in an arc between Park and Lexington avenues. Half of New York’s artistic tribe seemed to have turned out, from Meredith Monk to Chuck Close, to ballet stars like
Damian Woetzel and a herd of choreographers, ballet masters and dancers from companies of every stripe. There were also countless former Cunningham company members of all ages and a gaggle of what could only be described as New Year’s revelers, all aglitter and stilettoed. People mingled and greeted one another, or wandered in a daze, or jostled for the best sightlines, and then watched the nearly hourlong performance in reverent silence. Only a small number of seats were available, so most of the 1,500 ticket holders stood either at ground level or atop elevated platforms. A few, anxious that they might miss a crucial moment, wandered constantly from stage to stage and back again. All were there to witness the same thing: the death of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

The hall was bathed in a misty chiaroscuro created in part by the projection of lights through dangling, cloudlike clusters of pétanque-sized white balls. Thus refracted, the beams resembled the celestial rays of late-Gothic religious paintings. There were other quasi-religious touches: the glow of the neo-Gothic chandeliers in the foyer, the vaulted ceilings of the drill hall, the crowds filing in from the cold night as if to midnight Mass. The show’s music—never, in Cunningham’s case, an accompaniment but an autonomous, separate element—was a collage of work by four composers long associated with the company: David Behrman, John King, Takehisa Kosugi and Christian Wolff. It incorporated soaring harmonies of brass (reminiscent of Benjamin Britten); a seraphic cello; and the pure, high voices of a prerecorded youth chorus. There was also the usual plethora of noises, including something that sounded like the descending chromatic scale of the turbine engine of an airplane approaching a runway. Most telling were the rapt, almost ecstatic faces of the dancers, who, though they had already performed the same program five times over the course of three days, were clearly aware of this event’s unique circumstances. For the next fifty minutes, they would be Merce Cunningham dancers, and then they would not.

How had it come to this? The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which since 1953 has fundamentally altered some of the most basic precepts of dance, such as the notion that movement should reflect or comment on the music with which it coexists in time, is not a victim of the crummy economy or evolving tastes. Nor is it the casualty of a struggle over ownership of the repertory, which was nearly the case with Martha Graham’s troupe. Cunningham, the company’s founder and raison d’être, died in the summer of 2009 at 90, one month after the death of Pina Bausch, the director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal. But whereas Bausch’s dancers are soldiering on, Cunningham’s company has come to a calculated end, one formulated over several years by the company’s administration and board, approved by the choreographer and announced one month before his death.

In simple terms, after Cunningham was gone, several things were scheduled to happen. The company would launch a two-year tour showing a broad swath of its repertory (including several reconstructions of older works), which would eventually take it to almost fifty cities around the world and culminate in a series of year-end performances at the Armory with all tickets priced at $10. A group of dances would be preserved and archived as “dance capsules,” digital bundles that would include items such as performance videos, design sketches, notes and musical recordings, for the use of future researchers and stagers. (In 2008 the company had also asked the dance writer Nancy Dalva to produce a web series, “Mondays With Merce,” for the benefit of the general public, filled with interviews and footage of performances and rehearsals.) The rights to the dances would be held by a trust, which would be responsible for preserving and staging the work, with the assistance of former dancers. The Merce Cunningham Trust would also ensure the continued teaching of the technique developed by Cunningham, so central to the physical logic of the dances. (Unfortunately, this new entity could not arrange to retain its base at the current studio, a beautiful, meditative space perched above Westbeth in the West Village. Classes and offices will move to City Center, with training satellites at Dance New Amsterdam in Tribeca and the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn.) Then, after the two-year tour, the company would close, and a fifty-nine-year journey would come to an end.

* * *

The process of formalizing this uncompromising plan was not without anguish, as I learned from Robert Swinston, a longtime member of the company who, after Cunningham’s death, became its de facto director and is now a member of the trust. As Swinston explained,

In early 2005, [there was a] public interview at Stanford with Merce on the stage, and [the interviewer] asked Merce, what’s going to happen to your company when you’re no longer here? And his answer was: it doesn’t concern me. Our jaws collectively dropped…. The administration and the board felt obligated to start doing something about the inevitable. Later that year, they sent out a questionnaire to people in the dance and arts fields asking them about how Merce’s work should be preserved. Their responses were sent to a consultancy, and this became the foundation for the Legacy Project…. It’s not really accurate to say that Merce wanted the company and the school to close after he was gone. However, we were all perfectly aware that the studio existed primarily as a place for Merce to work with his company and that the school and the rentals didn’t make enough money to offset the cost of the studio. Without the creative work, we would have no new work, without the new work, we would have no new commissions, and without the commissions we would have no grants and fewer bookings…. They decided that this was the best way to approach it…. It was put to Merce, he read it, and he said “OK.”

The process resulted in a courageous, pragmatic and likely prescient decision. All modern dance companies are built on the choreography and technique of a single artist; beyond purely economic considerations, it has been difficult for them to survive the departure of their founder without becoming a shadow of their former selves. Most, like Denishawn—rare for having been created by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, teachers of Martha Graham—simply disappear; others languish and struggle for years, like the José Limón Company, and still others are forced to transform themselves in order to survive, as the Martha Graham company has done, drawing on new choreography and repackaging itself as a kind of living museum of American modern dance. Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, which has not made specific plans for its founderless future (Bausch died suddenly at 68), is still touring extensively, and now, with the release of Wim Wenders’s 3D film Pina, is enjoying renewed attention. The dancers have vowed to go on, but a recent Los Angeles Times review bluntly stated the conundrum they face: “What [can’t] be ignored, of course, [are] the aging Bausch dancers. That they continue to parade around in stilettos and make a show of their sexuality may be touching, but it is also a disturbing reminder of mortality. This obviously can’t go on forever, or even that much longer.”

The Cunningham dancers, while conflicted, seem to support the trust’s decision. Silas Riener, who joined the company in 2007—and who danced electrifying solos at the Armory and during the company’s final run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music three weeks earlier—told me that since Merce’s death, he doesn’t “feel like it’s the same kind of pushing boundaries, the way Merce always wanted to move forward. If it went on any longer, I would be stuck. I feel we’re going towards the end.” Daniel Madoff, a dancer with an explosive jump and an intense, deeply innocent stage presence, stressed Cunningham’s tendency to make small adjustments to the dances, to tailor roles to a dancer, which breathed new life into the material. Over the past two years, as older works have been reconstructed for the tour by Swinston and others, the dancers have faced the difficult predicament of having to decide whether to be utterly faithful to past versions of dances—essentially freezing the choreography in time—or to make choices regarding the placement of an arm, the amount of space covered or the timing of a movement that risk obscuring the choreographer’s underlying intentions and thus the work’s integrity. As Madoff put it to me, “Every time I make a decision, I run the risk of maybe doing something Merce wouldn’t have liked.”

Despite Cunningham’s recurring use of “chance techniques” such as rolling dice, flipping a coin or using the I Ching to shuffle his choices about a dance’s movement and sequences and to dispense with the overlay of narrative, the choreographer had, by all accounts, very clear ideas about the look and feel of his dances. At the same time, he was extremely reticent about communicating this underlying vision to the dancers, preferring instead to give intricate physical instructions that were painstakingly worked out and then seared into the dancers’ brains and bodies by sheer repetition. It follows, then, that not every choice made by a dancer in his absence would be equally sound and that, over time, the accumulation of such choices would erode a dance’s underlying logic, inscrutable as it might be. This erosion of clarity over time is an inescapable problem of dance. A symphony exists on paper, the composer’s intentions clearly noted and open for interpretation by each new performer, and for study by scholars and students. But a dance is an organism that morphs and grows—or usually atrophies—over time. Details are lost, transitions forgotten, and the bodies of dancers change over time with changes in dance technique and the surrounding culture. Cunningham dancers today look nothing like they did in the 1950s.

* * *

Rather than linger on, the company will be replaced by a new, more flexible model. Essentially, it has become a collection of works available for licensing by companies, conservatories and training programs around the world. This enterprise will be overseen by Swinston, former dancer Patricia Lent and other former company dancers under the auspices of the trust, aided by the materials found in the “dance capsules.” Because Cunningham was quite prolific—the company website mentions more than 200 works—an initial culling of the repertory was necessary. Lent, who serves on the trust as the director of licensing, told me, “There are about fifty dances that have a good chance of being licensed by other companies…. I’m trying to figure out how to encourage American companies to do their first dance and, more importantly, to get them to bring in their second dance…. I’d love to have the Alvin Ailey company do a dance. It would be wonderful for the Martha Graham company to try a dance. Pacific Northwest Ballet has done one. Boston Ballet has done several, but it’s been a long time. I already have a second piece in mind for American Ballet Theatre.”

It’s not necessarily an easy sell. Despite Cunningham’s larger-than-life reputation, his work is far less mainstream than one might imagine. The first challenge for dancers and audiences is the lack of connection between music and dance, except in the earliest works. Cunningham and John Cage, partners in life and art, established early the precept that the music and steps would coexist in time but proceed independently of each other. One is used to seeing bodies moving to music—to most of us, music is the reason for moving—but Cunningham and Cage maintained that this was not necessarily true. Dance has its own rhythms, its own internal music. Thus, the dances are created and rehearsed in silence, which can at times be challenging even to seasoned Cunningham dancers. Because the music and steps are created separately, the tempos and dynamics of the two do not coincide—one might see devilishly fast footwork while hearing slow, quiet music, or the opposite, a long, drawn-out phrase set to fast, percussive sounds or, worse yet, movements of the feet, arms or torso that are just slightly out of sync with the music. This last scenario can tempt a dancer to follow the rhythm of the music, a temptation that is difficult to resist. The dancers hear the music only during performance. For a non-Cunningham dancer, this can be downright bewildering. During a demonstration and discussion at the Guggenheim last year, a highly skilled young dancer from American Ballet Theatre performed a short Cunningham duet, and was then asked what it was like to hear the music for the first time. “Distracting,” she said, with a shy laugh.

The music is also not always easy on the ear. The scores, by avant-garde composers like Cage, Morton Feldman, LaMonte Young, David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi and others, can seem chaotic, abrasive, even aggressive, or, conversely, strangely inconsequential or irrelevant. But sometimes they can be quite beautiful, like Cage’s wild collage of Irish ditties and sounds for Roaratorio, from 1983, or his “cheap imitation” of Satie for Second Hand, from 1970. The most common reaction I have heard from Cunningham dancers about the experience of dancing to such music is indifference. Swinston told me, “It’s not pleasant all the time, I have to say.” An understatement from an understated man. In her highly illuminating and strongly opinionated book Chance and Circumstance, founding company member Carolyn Brown—a star in a company without stars—was rather more dramatic: “I won’t attempt to defend the music. Certainly some of it I disliked intensely, and among the company dancers I was not alone. If I found it unbearable, I tried to ‘turn it off,’ tried to not hear it, because it could be disruptive, painful, even violating. For me, those pieces did not coexist with the choreography, they competed with it, even attempted to annihilate it.” Brown was married to Earle Brown, one of the composers who regularly collaborated with the company early on. The music can be an insurmountable obstacle for audiences, no matter their devotion to Cunningham’s art.

* * *

Another complication for companies wishing to license a work is the nature of the choreography, which is both intensely virtuosic (especially the pieces made after the 1980s, when Cunningham began to use a computer program, LifeForms, to further extend his options beyond what the mind and body could imagine on its own) and highly specific, rooted in a comprehensive technique for moving, bending and sustaining the body. Even troupes with top-notch dancers trained at the finest schools find the choreography extremely challenging. Cunningham company members begin every day with a specially developed class, vaguely reminiscent in its form of a ballet class but filled with complex exercises for the spine and torso that involve torquing and twisting the upper body as well as tilting into wildly off-kilter, seemingly impossible, balances on one foot and extremely fast and detailed use of the legs and feet (as in ballet). The training also includes complicated, space-devouring jumps that change shape or direction in midair and positions that constantly engage the muscles of the lower back and sides in a manner and with an intensity quite different from ballet or other forms of modern or contemporary dance. As with George Balanchine’s modernization of ballet in his work with New York City Ballet, the classroom technique is directly reflected in the dances. It’s not easy for companies to “pick up” the Cunningham style, because it’s not simply a style: it’s a philosophy about the movement and coordination of the body. Given the tight financial and time constraints under which American companies operate, it’s almost impossible even to begin introducing dancers to this unfamiliar and difficult vocabulary. (In Europe, where rehearsal periods tend to be longer, thanks to government subsidies, several companies, most notably Lyon Opera Ballet, already perform Cunningham works.)

For its fall season American Ballet Theatre revived Duets, a short, relatively straightforward Cunningham work from 1980, under the direction of Patricia Lent. It consists of a series of six duets followed by a short, sweet finale. At ABT, there was no time for a Cunningham technique class; instead, Lent spent the first few days just teaching the dancers “a few phrases of movement: ‘this is a triplet, this is another way to get around the space, this is an example of a fast rhythm backed up against a slow one.’” These circumstances are neither unusual nor extreme, but one can immediately see the difficulties one faces when trying to communicate the nuances of the choreography. ABT has a deep bench of gifted, willing and superbly trained dancers (there were three casts for Duets). What the audience saw was a valid reading of the choreography, but also an imperfect one, a stew in which the flavors had not yet fully blended. At the same time, the dancers found the experience exhilarating. Isabella Boylston, a young performer who had demonstrated an excerpt at the Guggenheim, told me, “What’s great is that you can really look at each other as people, so we would watch each other. And you can just be yourself. I felt very present.” It was fascinating to watch them—especially those trained in a different aesthetic, such as the Kirov school—as they discovered a new way of moving and relating to the audience, with a mature, serious and open demeanor, or, conversely, with a kind of glee that struck some members of the audience (though not this one) as excessive.

ABT’s revival of Duets was a faithful, informed version of the dance but not an especially illuminating one. Arms were sometimes held rigidly rather than in a naturally “plain” manner, and some dancers almost unconsciously returned to familiar balletic pathways of movement between one position and another. Fingers retained their balletic courtliness; the spine did not really curve from its base, and side bends were accomplished mainly by the head rather than the torso; a few dancers succumbed to the desire to “interpret” the material, overlaying it with hints of story or extraneous expression. On the other hand, the audience seemed to truly enjoy the piece—Cunningham is always stimulating to the eye and the mind, and it certainly beats seeing the Black Swan pas de deux for the thousandth time or an uninspiring new work by a lesser choreographer.

* * *

In addition to a new “Fellowship” program, which will provide funding for former company members who wish to stage Cunningham works (a promising, if still vague idea), the trust will also encourage the licensing of works to dance departments at universities (like the Yale dance program or Columbia College in Chicago) and conservatories (like the North Carolina School of the Arts or Juilliard). Such academic settings would limit access to the world’s finest dancers but offer something extremely valuable in exchange: the opportunity for young dancers to study for a longer period with a Cunningham expert like Lent or Swinston or Carolyn Brown, and explore the technique with classes and workshops. A few years ago the Juilliard School, where Cunningham’s and Graham’s techniques are taught, staged a performance of Graham’s Appalachian Spring that opened my eyes to the iconic work’s emotional immediacy. I had seen it performed by the Martha Graham company more than once, and appreciated its construction and the force of Graham’s gut-wrenching style, but at this performance I was swept away by the dance’s beauty and emotional resonance. If we are lucky, this may happen in the future with Cunningham dances as well. As Lent said to me, “Exactly what it’s all going to look like five years from now, I don’t know.”

Right now, though, after the fullness of the company’s weeklong season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December and the year-end “Events” at the Armory, what lingers is a feeling of loss and emptiness. Will these works ever wield as much power as they do now, in the hands of this company? Swinston’s performance of Cunningham’s solo in Second Hand, one of the few Cunningham dances that allude to an underlying “story,” the death of Socrates, carried such weight, such shadings of anguish, that the theater fell utterly quiet. Roaratorio, a playful, gentle romp on Irish themes—jigs, reels, the communal experience of dance halls, couples dancing to pass the time—was luminous and airy and irrepressibly fun. RainForest, a piece in which the stage is littered with Mylar pillows designed by Andy Warhol, was nasty and animalistic, the dancers pushing and yanking at one another, vigorously kicking the pillows out of the way or rolling on the floor, but also nuzzling and seeking solace from one another. Freed from the usual concerns about the longevity of their bodies and stamina, the dancers performed with more intensity and abandon than I had ever seen. They seemed half crazed.

At the final performance at the Armory, on New Year’s Eve, the dancers gazed at the audience in shell-shocked amazement, as waves of applause rippled through the hall. Silas Riener, looking gaunt after the intensity of the tour and the relentless schedule of the final weeks, did a solo from the 1992 work Enter that led him as far as his body could go, swatting his arms and moving his head jerkily, like a man possessed, while sinking into deep squats that switched, seemingly without transition, into turns, or flipping himself from a downward facing position to an upward one, the arch in his back reversing dramatically. Emma Desjardins, a sensualist of the stage, looked as if she were about to cry. Jennifer Goggans, a company veteran, seemed the most at ease, joining Daniel Madoff in a stately, formal walkabout on one of the platforms. Andrea Weber, with her athletic, healthy, beautiful body, smiled beatifically, as if constantly amazed at the challenges presented to her. As electronic and brass sounds filled the hall (I think it was David Behrman’s “Open Space With Brass”), she bent her legs deeply, balancing on her toes, then tipped into a sideways tilt and slowly curved her spine backward and looked up at the heavens. She was dancing for Merce. They all were.

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