New Points in Space

November 28, 2011

Students move through the back exercises at the beginning of a Cunningham class, at Westbeth in 2007. Photo by Colin Fowler.



In an episode of the online video series Mondays with Merce, an aging yet ever-youthful Merce Cunningham reminisces about his window-lined studio in the West Village.


“When I used to teach the 4:30 class,” he recalls, “I’d be giving something, and you would see one of those very slow cruise ships, great big liners, going slowly past, out the window—a marvelous view. I would try to take its tempo, and try to give something for the class with that tempo—very, very slow.”

Eleven stories above some of New York’s quieter blocks, on the top floor of the artists’ housing complex known as Westbeth, the Cunningham Studio is framed by two urban panoramas: Manhattan to the east, the Hudson River to the west. Indeed, the dancing that happens inside this big, open space often seems like a conversation with the world outdoors. Taking class there, as I first did two years ago, and as generations of dancers have done since 1971, you feel both cocooned from the city and continuous with it. A typically forthright yet brain-teasing phrase—torso twisting, tilting, curving, and arching atop decisively lunging legs—might take place against a score of distant traffic or the backdrop of a sunset. It is this interplay that, in part, makes studying there such a pleasure and a ritual that will be hard to part with.

As the Merce Cunningham Dance Company prepares to close (see our photographic farewell, p. 33), so too does the beloved studio that has served as its headquarters—and as a vital training center—for 40 years. With two accredited training programs and a schedule of open classes, the school at Westbeth has drawn dancers from around the world to study Cunningham’s technique in a space charged with his creativity. “You can sense him still there in some way,” says faculty member and former MCDC dancer Jean Freebury. “You feel the history.” While open classes will continue through March, the school has already begun to shut its doors; its Professional and International Training Programs ended last August.

With this closure, however, comes what may be the beginning of a new era—a diaspora of sorts—for the Cunningham technique. The Merce Cunningham Trust, the entity devoted to preserving Cunningham’s legacy, recently announced that it will offer a daily class at New York City Center in midtown, starting in April. This month, Freebury begins teaching at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn. Robert Swinston, the company’s director of choreography, is designing a more elementary course for Dance New Amsterdam, a busy studio in lower Manhattan. In addition, through the new Cunningham Fellowship program, former company members will reconstruct Cunningham’s dances during four-week workshops in New York, throughout the U.S., and abroad. Rather than stationed in one home, the technique will now migrate between many.

“But why?” many a dancer (myself included) has protested. The choice came about through a cold, hard look at the numbers. After Cunningham’s death in 2009, as the trust prepared to close the Cunningham Dance Foundation (see “Dance Matters,” March), it became clear that sustaining a full-time school at Westbeth would not be financially viable.

“The school has functioned for decades through the primary support of the dance company,” explains trustee Trevor Carlson, executive director of the foundation. Without that support, there was little hope of maintaining such a costly space (which also houses offices, dressing rooms, and a smaller rehearsal studio). “It’s a bottom-line, practical issue. But it opens up other opportunities.”

Swinston, a company member of 31 years, looked for ways to keep the studio running. “It’s like a home to me,” he says. “It’s a very special place.” He researched possible partnerships with universities and other companies, but eventually, he says, “It became an unmanageable idea. All of our efforts would be spent just trying to pay the rent.”

Students, too, resisted change. In 2010, international student Irene van Zeeland launched the attention-raising Students for Cunningham initiative. Responding to the group’s petition to “save the Merce Cunningham Studio” (which garnered over 4,000 signatures), the trust wrote, “Rest assured that Cunningham technique will continue to be taught.”

The trust has followed through on that promise—and optimistically. Trustee and former company member Patricia Lent, while sad to leave Westbeth, looks forward to reaching new students and integrating Cunningham technique into New York’s dance landscape.

“One drawback of the studio is that it’s a little bit off the map, isolated from the rest of the dance community,” she says. She adds that enrollment has decreased in recent years, possibly because of a shift in how dancers study: dipping into multiple techniques rather than pursuing a single style. “We’re hoping that by being in places like City Center and Mark Morris and Dance New Amsterdam, we’ll find dancers where they already are.” As the company’s director of repertory licensing, Lent also notes that Cunningham’s work is developing a stronger presence in U.S. university dance departments.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to aspire to perform Cunningham’s dances in order to benefit from the technique. “People think the only reason to study Cunningham technique would be to dance his work,” says Swinston. “But it’s really useful for any contemporary dancer.” Lent agrees, pointing to the clarity, athleticism, and spatial awareness that it develops. “There’s a boldness that comes out of the training that I personally look for when I watch people dance.”

The loss of the school weighs heavily on the most recent generation of students. “I think it is a very special community of dancers and faculty members, and I hate to see it fall apart,” says Christiana Axelsen, who was enrolled in the Professional Training Program and wrote the Students for Cunningham petition. “It has been particularly devastating to see dancers who have traveled from all over the world cease their studies and return home.” The change is difficult for faculty members, too, even those who will continue teaching. As Jean Freebury says, “I can’t imagine that the space is not going to be part of my life.”

Recently, on my way to class at Westbeth, I found myself thinking about a passage from Roger Copeland’s book, Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance: “In the world of Cunningham’s dances, the driving impulse is to hurry up, then stop: Race to the street corner, but then stop at the traffic light; run for the elevator, but then wait—impatiently—while it descends to the ground floor. What we witness is the deep structure of urban life, not its photographic surface.”

The same, I believe, goes for the world of a Cunningham class, in which we learn the underlying mechanics and dynamics of those dances. Soon, we may be taking new routes to class, and when we get there, we won’t be gazing out on the Hudson as we warm up. But as long as the technique endures, we will still be dancing with the city.


Siobhan Burke is a
Dance Magazine associate editor.