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Seventy of us gathered that evening of Friday, March 30, 2012 to take the last class at the Merce Cunningham Studio, closing after 41 years at its Westbeth location. Among us were current and past students, teachers, and company members. Douglas Dunn (click here for his memories of Merce), Michael Cole, Patricia Lent, Daniel Squire, Alan Good, Banu Ogan, Carol Teitelbaum, Robert Swinston, and Ellen Cornfield were all there. About 25 others watched, from Neil Greenberg and Kimberly Bartosik to beloved Cunningham archivist and writer David Vaughan. Douglas Dunn gleefully announced, "Oh my spot is still available," going to the place where he always stood for class. Ghosts of many others who had shared our spots over the years were there too. The most veteran of the current faculty, June Finch, was to teach, and longtime accompanists Pat Richter and Taylor McLean were to play. I remembered Pat had played for the first class I ever took at the Cunningham Studio way back in 1968 when it was at 498 Third Avenue.
Thunderous applause greeted June when she entered to teach. Despite the mixed emotions I think we all felt, the mood was celebratory, not mournful. How wonderful it had been to dance in that room: the high ceilings, the endless space to run-run-leap, and the light from those 12 arched windows, particularly glorious at dusk that night. We were going to soak up that joy one more time in a technique we loved, born from a philosophy that embraced dancing as meaningful enough in itself. To dance there again as committed and fully as we could was a tribute we wanted to pay to Merce.
Last day of class at Westbeth. Photo by Kenneth E. Parris III, Courtesy Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation.
June masterfully took us through the exercises we all knew, bridling our high energy and varying the form enough to give us the kind of mental and physical challenges Cunningham classes always did. At one of many high-spirited moments, Daniel Squire held Kimberly Bartosik’s young daughter in his arms as he did the leaping combination, much to her delight, giving her an experience of dancing in that room that her grown up body would never have.
It all was magical and it went so fast. When we curved over in second position, as we always ended class, and rolled up to arch our torsos and gaze heavenward, my eyes filled with tears. Hard to believe I would never dance a step in that room again. It had been my dance home for over 40 years.
With June’s final words of thank you to the musicians, it was over. We broke into tremendous applause and whooping. No one wanted it to end. Then came lots of hugs followed by a party with snacks and drinks and colored lights flashing over the dance floor. Most people chatted and reminisced, a few younger ones danced about to the music mix. It got harder as the evening wore on and the time came closer when we would have to leave.
Robert Swinston teaching the morning class. Photo by Emil Bognar-Nasdor, Courtesy Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation.
The crowd gradually thinned. When I decided it was time for me to go, I kept studying every little inch, planting it in my memory: last time stepping off that dance floor, last time sitting in one of those pews or on the stage steps, last time looking over to where Merce always sat at his desk surrounded by the plants that were still there, last time looking out at the West Village from those windows, last time looking in those mirrors which had watched me age.
It was so hard to go. It seemed wrong that we had to leave this place where we loved to dance. Then came the last time pressing the elevator button, getting in, seeing "11" in red. When the doors closed I thought about what Robert Swinston had said that day before he taught the last morning class. He said the Cunningham Studio was not about a building; it was about the countless students who had come there to study and commit themselves to the work. And that, he promised, would continue, just elsewhere.
Pat Catterson, a NYC-based dance artist, is a 2011 Guggenheim Choreography Award recipient and dancer and rehearsal assistant for Yvonne Rainer.
Editor's note: Click here for Siobhan Burke's article on where Cunningham technique is being taught now.
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