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.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
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.