Will Cunningham Technique Live On After Merce?

October 17, 2010

That depends on what happens to the Merce Cunningham Studio, which, like the Cunningham Company itself, may not be with us for much longer.

Fans and followers of Merce have, by now, come to terms with the fate of his company: After its two-year Legacy Tour, the troupe as we know it will disband. While the issue of preserving Cunningham’s works has generated much debate, there’s been less public concern about the future of the school, where students from all over the world come to study Merce’s technique.

Until about a month ago, that is, when Students for Cunningham began speaking up. The group, comprising students from the studio’s Professional and International Training Programs, evolved in response to the rumored plans of the Cunningham Trust to close the school—or substantially downsize it—in June 2011. This decision would leave the majority of students in both programs with incomplete certificates—nothing formal to show for the countless hours and dollars they’ve invested in their training. But their concern runs deeper: Cunningham technique, they believe, along with a home in which to teach it, is as integral to Merce’s legacy as his individual works, and as necessary to preserve. Without the studio, a major technique—and an invaluable piece of dance history—will surely dwindle, if not disappear.

Traditionally, the Cunningham Studio has served as a training ground for the company. According to Students for Cunningham member Irene van Zeeland, the Trust is therefore questioning the need for a school in the absence of a professional troupe, not taking into account that many dancers study there simply for the physical and intellectual benefits of the technique. “The Trust, we think, has this idea that people only come to the school because they want to be a member of the Cunningham company,” van Zeeland said. “But most of us are just here because we feel the technique in itself is valuable enough to invest our money and time and efforts into.”

The group launched this petition proposing a comprehensive vision for not only maintaining but expanding the studio’s activities. In just over two weeks, they’ve gotten 2400 signatures (plus 1220 “likes” on their facebook page). A look at the statistics reveals the international scope of their cause: From the U.K. to Switzerland, from Venezuela to Brazil, the dance community is voicing its support.

As a regular at the Cunningham Studio (I take open classes there about twice a week), I was relieved and uplifted to see the full-time students taking such resolute action. The place is indispensable to the dance field, both for its historical richness and for what it continues to offer dancers. Merce created, rehearsed, and taught there for almost 40 years; it is the only studio in the world fully devoted to teaching the fundamentals of movement—and thinking about movement—that he developed, that made his work revolutionary. Like many students, I study there not because I’m vying for a spot in the company, but because it gives me a solid technical foundation from which to launch into other forms of dance. Even its simplest units—the upper-torso bounces at the beginning of class, the subtle curving and lengthening of the lower spine in the “back exercises”—endlessly challenge, inspire, and fortify my body and mind. The expansive space on the top floor of Westbeth (a historic artists’ residence on a quiet West Village block), with its majestic view of Manhattan, is key to the learning experience: You can move big and travel far, while overlooking the kind of urban landscape that Cunningham’s works have been said to evoke.


If Merce’s dances are living entities, his technique is a kind of choreographic DNA, an elemental aspect of his legacy. To embody it is to access the potential he saw in the human body and its relationship to space, which can inform any kind of dancing one might do. I hope that the Trust will realize how essential this is and find a way to keep the studio doors open for dancers worldwide.

Students for Cunningham will present their petition to the Trust tomorrow, Tuesday, October 19. Signing it takes about 90 seconds. Click here to add your name, or send a letter of support to [email protected].

—Siobhan Burke

[email protected]