Dance Matters: Saying Good-bye to Merce

Cunningham sends up his first boss, Martha Graham, in Antic Meet (1958). Photo by Anna Finke, courtesy MCDC.



In 2000, Merce Cunningham began to weigh his options for the fate of his life’s work. And then, one month before the choreographer died in 2009, his foundation announced a “Legacy Plan.”


Intended to avoid the disastrous legal squabbles of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the 1990s, the plan provides a road map to ensure the continued life of Cunningham’s oeuvre while also making the announcement of the phased shutdown of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The two-year Legacy Tour has already traveled to more than 20 cities and will wind down with a final performance in New York on Dec. 31. On that bittersweet New Year’s Eve, the remarkable ensemble, a creative engine for the last half of the 20th century, will disband.


Dancer Robert Swinston, MCDC director of choreography, describes how he’s coping with the coming change: “I’m trying to stay in the present and in the moment. I know an end game is there; in the meantime I have plenty to do.”


Four core activities make up the plan: the world tour; severance packages for dancers and staff; digital preservation of works as “dance capsules”; and the transfer of assets, administration, and licensing to the trust. Swinston, joined by former dancer Patricia Lent, lawyer Allan G. Sperling, and John Cage Trust director Laura Kuhn, are trustees.


Inevitably, fissures have surfaced. Most glaring was a public protest by Cunningham school students, out of concern that the 11th-floor studio at the Westbeth Artists Housing Complex would likely close along with the foundation that administers it.


Christiana Axelsen, pursuing a college-accredited certificate at the school, led the protest. “One day they just told us the studio would be closed, that we shouldn’t count on getting our certificates,” she says. “The international students were freaking out about their work-study visas.”


Group meetings and the launch of a “Students for Cunningham” Facebook page led to an online petition garnering more than 4,000 signatures from around the world.


Cunningham’s creative activity at Westbeth enabled the foundation to allocate the cost of running the studio, which has never been self-supporting, as overhead expense in company budgets. Says Lent, “I have a great interest in having a studio, but I cannot guarantee it will be at Westbeth. We are working on a proposal to create a separate non-profit organization devoted to creating a center where people who are staging the works can come and meet others. I’m optimistic.”


Overseeing the restaging of classic MCDC works for the Legacy Tour, Robert Swinston pored over Cunningham’s notebooks, video renderings, and his own memory, and invited former company members to set certain pieces. The restaged masterworks, cherry-picked from across five decades, make a Cunningham aficionado salivate: Pond Way from the ’90s; Roaratorio, Duets, and Quartet from the ’80s; Squaregame from the ’70s; and from the ’60s, the iconic RainForest.  


Antic Meet (1958), a series of 10 vaudeville-style sketches that famously sends up Martha Graham (Cunningham’s first boss)—along with Suite for Five (1956–58)—will be performed at New York’s Joyce Theater March 22–27. Robert Rauschenberg’s idiosyncratic costumes, deemed too fragile for touring and performance, were copied: parachute dresses, a four-sleeved sweater with no neck hole, and a chair originally strapped to Cunningham’s back. A peerless trio of MCDC doyennes, Sandra Neels (who staged the piece), Carolyn Brown, and Valda Setterfield, coached the younger generation in Antic Meet.


The massive “dance capsule” archiving project, digitizing the data of more than 50 works, also advances. The capsules include videos, restaging information, rehearsal footage, Cunningham’s notes, lighting and costume information, and even program copy. The licensing process, overseen by the foundation for years, will find stronger footing based on the capsule material. Universities are key clients (Rutgers, University of Michigan, Chapman University, and Cornish College of the Arts are recent examples), melding well with Cunningham “events,” a more flexible performance framework that draws from the repertoire.


Speaking from France, where the company has forged deep ties, executive director Trevor Carlson muses, “It’s been a cheerful time, seeing the last group of dancers Merce trained perform together. At the same time, it’s fraught with feelings. There’s not one singular emotion. There are a lot of emotions.” —Debra Levine

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