The Merce Effect
What happens when one of America’s most iconic modern dance companies closes? Six former Cunningham dancers reflect on how the experience led them to where they are today.
When the Merce Cunningham Dance Company gave its final performance on December 31, 2011—the culmination of its two-year, international Legacy Tour—many people wondered what would happen to Cunningham’s vast, pioneering body of work. Would other companies continue to stage his dances? And would audiences still want to see them?
But in addition to the 150-plus pieces in his archive—now in the hands of the Merce Cunningham Trust—there were 15 phenomenal dancers (plus four “RUGs,” or members of the company’s Repertory Understudy Group), whose futures remained to be seen. Where would their careers take them? And how might they carry on Cunningham’s legacy, even as they veered off in seemingly unrelated directions?
With two and a half year’s notice—and severance pay to ease the transition—the end wasn’t necessarily a shock to these dancers. But it was a time filled with both promise and uncertainty. Today, many continue to take the daily Cunningham technique class offered by the Trust, and to teach and stage his work around the world. Others have moved into new fields such as filmmaking and web development. Dance Magazine caught up with several dancers from the final generation of the company to find out how they have (and haven’t) moved on from Merce.
Choreographer; collaborator with Rashaun Mitchell; freelance dancer with Tere O’Connor, Wally Cardona and others
Joined MCDC in 2007
I’m still adjusting to a freelancer’s existence. It requires a certain technical in-shapeness, which is really different when you’re on your own, as opposed to showing up to the same place every day and taking free class.
Tere O’Connor is a huge Merce fan, so it was really interesting to start working with someone who had followed the company for so long. Especially in poem, which he made in 2012, I think he was drawing upon my body of Merce knowledge, that technical background, but he was also trying to alter certain ways of moving that I had unconsciously adopted. He would talk about softening the spine, or dropping the head-weight in ways that you would just never do in Merce’s work. It’s been a really rich, exciting experience to see the way that Tere crafts his dances. That wasn’t so transparent with Merce; he never shared a lot about the choices he made.
Riener midair in his and Mitchell’s r e v e a l. Photo by Darial Sneed, Courtesy Riener.
Choreographer; collaborator with Silas Riener; faculty member at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts
Joined MCDC in 2004
I started choreographing when I was still in the company, in 2008. I had a sense that there was going to be a huge chasm in my life after the company closed, so it was important for me to get the wheels turning. I didn’t expect to have much going on, but in the end, I pretty much hit the ground running, finishing Nox and then making Interface and Way In. It’s only now that I’m going, “Whoa, what just happened?”
For a while, I measured what I was doing against Merce’s work. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of anxiety around that, but I was very aware of it. I knew I wasn’t going to escape his influence, so I tried to have a healthy relationship to it. With Nox, I was definitely trying to get away from the Cunningham vocabulary; then with Interface, I allowed myself to go backward a little bit. Ultimately, I find so much value in his work—I think it’s extremely relevant still, and it’s not a particular interest of mine to reject it.
Mitchell in his and Riener’s site-specific installation Taste. Photo by Lilly Evecherria, Courtesy Riener.
Dancer, Trisha Brown Dance Company
Joined MCDC in 2009
We had our final show on New Year’s Eve, and on January 3, I think, there was an audition for the Trisha Brown Dance Company. I was like, You know what? This timing is kind of insane, but it’s here, so I should just try.
There’s an attack, a fearlessness that I learned from Merce’s work: Just do it, don’t think about it. That’s really hard to do onstage, in a performance setting, and it’s something I’ve taken with me. But I also had to peel back a lot of layers to get into Trisha’s work. There’s a quiet precision about her choreography: It’s super-specific, but in that quiet place, movement can resonate in a very strong way. That’s something I’d always admired and wanted to learn how to do, so I felt up for the challenge of trying to retrain effort, retrain physicality.
Scott performing Trisha Brown’s Newark. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy TBDC.
Dancer, Mark Morris Dance Group
Joined the Repertory Understudy Group in 2009
I thought that being trained in Cunningham, I would be able to do anything. That seems silly now. The moment I started working with Mark Morris, I was very quickly humbled. We take ballet class, which was hard to get back into after Cunningham: the port de bras, the use of the head and neck. Mark is an incredible teacher. He can work with any kind of body, any kind of challenges, and give that dancer the strongest base of technique possible. I’ve learned so much in these past two years about the placement of my body.
Merce’s work almost felt safe to me, because I loved the idea of pure movement. Mark’s choreography challenges me in ways that are outside my comfort zone: being more expressive sometimes, expressing different characters or ideas. But it also feels wonderful on my body.
Martorana (right) in Morris’ Crosswalk. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy MMDC.
Freelance dancer with Pam Tanowitz, Stephen Petronio, Rashaun Mitchell and others
Joined MCDC in 2007
When the company ended, I was scared that I might not really get to dance again. I wasn’t ready to leave. But I made it known that I wanted to keep dancing, and luckily doors started opening.
Working with Stephen Petronio has been fantastic; I didn’t think at this age or point in my career I would make such a big jump in learning. It’s a whole new way of approaching movement, like, Oh! I can sink into my hip, and it’s not that it’s technically incorrect; it’s just a different aesthetic.
In a lot of ways, dancing with Merce changed my instincts; it allowed me to see many ways of doing things. When you ask a Cunningham dancer to try something, there’s not really any resistance to it: There’s nothing too strange or too hard. Not that it’s easy for us, but there’s never a bizarre task, because you get so used to trying anything and not questioning whether it’s possible. You’d never think of telling Merce “no.”
Toogood (right) in Tanowitz’s The Spectators. Photo by Elyssa Goodman, Courtesy Tanowitz.
My last five months in the company, I was dealing with a serious back injury that wreaked havoc on my body. When the company closed, I was offered a few jobs, one of which I really wanted to take. But I couldn’t do it. It was disappointing, but life is strange and pulls you in weird ways. I’ve been learning that more and more over the past two years.
I used to come up with choreography in my head. Now I come up with pictures, shots, scenes, plotlines. Merce's style of performing, of just being onstage, has affected me profoundly. It's almost an innocence: He's in it, and that's it. Merce is onstage, and he's dancing, and he's not doing or thinking anything else. I feel like I was able to incorporate that into my dancing, and now into my life. Whatever I'm doing, that's what I'm doing. Full out.
Web developer in training
I feel like I'm still in transition, trying to find my next major goal. I'm still interested in dance, but it's rough being in the arts; it's not a stable profession. i was just thinking the other day how the last 15 years of Merce's career, when he started working with DanceForms—that major shift in his work—he was 75 years old. He worked from 75 to 90 and made some of the most amazing work of his career. That really struck me. Like, "Oh, I'm only 30." It was a liftime pursuit: He just kept with it, one foot in front of the other. And he continued even at 75 to change and experiment.
Carrying the Cunningham Torch: Robert Swinston
A Cunningham dancer of 31 years (including 17 as assistant to the choreographer), Robert Swinston continues to champion Merce’s work, while branching out into new territory. When Cunningham died in 2009, Swinston led the company forward as the director of choreography, and he continues to be a member of the Merce Cunningham Trust. But he has also started fresh in some ways, moving abroad to become the artistic director of the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine (CNDC) in Angers, one of France’s 19 government-funded choreographic centers.
In his new position, Swinston has assembled an eight-member company to perform Cunningham’s work, as well as his own adaptations and original choreography. He has also reimagined the CNDC’s two-year pre-professional training program. Students learn the techniques and repertoire of modern and contemporary dance masters, from Martha Graham to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker—and, of course, they get a heavy dose of Cunningham technique.
Reflecting on the past two years, Swinston says:
“I’ve ended up in a job where I’m able to do more than I could possibly have dreamed of, after such a long career with a great artist. The transition was not easy: I felt it was a loss, to lose the structure in which to present Cunningham’s work at its best. But I later realized that the decision to disband the company was not an artistic choice; it was a matter of finances. If you don’t have new work, you cannot sustain an organization. No one will give money to it. The future of the Cunningham company was limited by that basic fact. It was hard to recognize, but I’m glad it happened now, and I’m glad I have this opportunity, because I can also find my own vision. That’s a great luxury.”
Swinston teaching at CNDC. Photo by Jef Rabillon, Courtesy CNDC.
Siobhan Burke, a former Dance Magazine editor, writes on dance for The New York Times.
Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.
I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.
I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.
That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?