Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

How the Dance World is Celebrating a Century of Merce Cunningham

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.


Merce Cunningham in his Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of ThreeGerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell and Associates

Additional programs are happening everywhere from Cuba to France to Missouri. Although the Trust was not directly involved in some of these homages, such as a revival of Jérôme Bel's Cédric Andrieux in Italy or commissions during a Merce-focused 25th Harkness Dance Festival at 92Y, this expansive approach fits hand in glove with how the Trust aims to extend and preserve Cunningham's legacy. "Because of who Merce was as an artist, we have the opportunity to make connections beyond the dance field, beyond his technique and beyond his repertory, to the way that he was with his collaborators," says Trevor Carlson, Centennial producer and Cunningham trustee. "It's fantastic to be in a workshop, for example, with a group of people that includes an architect, an emergency-care technician, two choreographers and a filmmaker, to see how they interact thanks to tools provided by Merce."

Ballet West in Cunningham's SummerspaceBeau Pearson, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Look no further than the Night of 100 Solos roster for evidence of this bridge between past and future. Staging artists and associates include more than 40 Cunningham company alumni, whose coaching sessions will be documented and added to the Trust's archival Dance Capsules. Blue-chip performers, some of them making their debuts in Cunningham's choreography on April 16, include Kyle Abraham, Matthew Ball, Peiju Chien-Pott, Siobhan Davies, Francesca Hayward, Sara Mearns, Vicky Shick, Jermaine Maurice Spivey and Beatriz Stix-Brunell.

"To celebrate his birthday in a way that signals what the legacy is really about, it has to take place in more than one city, so we have programs in Iowa City, in Oklahoma, in Miami," says Ken Tabachnick, executive producer of Night of 100 Solos. "They're all part of a conscious design to really push the work, process and ideas as broadly as we possibly can. The entire Centennial has been built around that concept—that the legacy has a life far beyond performance."

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Relegated to the last phases of COVID-19 reopening, many dance companies have hung on precariously through slashed ticket revenue, reduced government funding and slowed philanthropic giving.

"A heartbreaking reality is that some companies may not recover financially from this pandemic," says Nora Heiber, the Western executive at the American Guild of Musical Artists. Many large companies will survive by tightening their belts, but smaller groups, hardly with an abundant cash flow to begin with, may face closures, leaving their dancers afloat in a tenuous job market. We asked three experts, including a dancer who has been through a company closure, to weigh in on what to do when your job disappears.

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