Spectres of Cunningham

by by by Lizzie Feidelson

illustration by by Cecilia Salama

Just before his death in July 2009, groundbreaking choreographer Merce Cunningham laid out a detailed master plan for the future of his company and work. A groundbreaking plan for the preservation and protection of his choreographic legacy. It involves a final, two-year world tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, after which the company will officially disband, and the creation of a massive digital archive of fifty “Dance Capsules,” the rights to which will be available for purchase through the newly-created Merce Cunningham Trust. Composed of video footage and notes on choreography, costume designs, lighting plots and production notes, these “Capsules” contain everything dancers of the future will need to recreate one of Cunningham’s masterpiece dances.

But without a company or a choreographer, whether or not Cunningham’s dances live on as dances (and not films and photographs of dances) depends on whether dancers are willing to pay for costly access to these “Dance Capsules.” The sheer feasibility of relearning Cunningham’s complex and unique work from digital resources is also still untested.

This fall, former Cunningham company member Daniel Squire spent three weeks teaching sections of Cunningham repertory to Brown students. On October 14-16, this choreography will be performed as part of an interdisciplinary collaboration with costumes created by RISD Apparel Design. Set pieces and a live improvised score will also be performed by Brown students. But as the closure of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company draws near, the question as to the practical fate of Cunningham’s work is only just beginning to play out.

A Leap is a Leap

Merce Cunningham consistently evades classification. He took much of his movement idiom from classical vocabulary, but placed none of ballet’s emphasis on symmetry or proscenium facing. Yet Cunningham also rejected the idea that dance’s purpose was to tell stories or represent emotion, unlike reigning 20th-century modern choreographer Martha Graham. Her dances followed the narrative arc of Greek myths. He also differed sharply from choreographic revolutionaries of the Judson Church movement in the 1960s-70s, in which choreographers like Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay used untrained dancers to perform everyday, “pedestrian” movement like walking, hopping, and crawling. His movement is swift, stately, and technically virtuosic, requiring of his dancers impeccable balance, stunning speed, and uncanny ability for sudden rhythmic and directional shifts. It is rigorous and unadorned, lacking ballet’s flourishes or other romantic embellishments; Cunningham’s movement seeks to be simply and flawlessly itself. As he put it, “a leap is a leap.”

Much of the genius and difficulty of his movement lies in his use of chance. Cunningham often flipped coins, rolled dice, or used the 64 hexagrams of the Chinese divination method I Ching to decide how his dances would be constructed. He might assign six body parts to six faces of a die, and then roll to see how chance would produce completely original combination of torso, arms, legs, and head. Then he might roll a die to see how many dancers would be onstage, which direction they would face, and how far and how fast they would travel. Thus his dances are often counter-intuitive to dancers’ bodies and to audiences’ expectations of how movement sequences will begin, end, and be arranged on a stage.

Cunningham also has a revolutionary approach to the relationship of music and dance. Developed alongside his life partner and constant collaborator the avant-garde composer John Cage, Cunningham never choreographed “to” music, or depended on music for movement cues or timing. Instead, he allowed musicians to play music that was totally unrelated to the movement onstage—resulting in frequent dissonance, occasional humor, and unexpected grace. When collaborating with composers like Cage, or visual artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Cunningham insisted that each element of the performance—choreography, music, lights, costumes, and sets—be developed independently and put together only on the night of the first performance.

A Company without a Choreographer is like a…

There is no widespread consensus as to the best method for handling a choreographer’s work after their death. Some companieshave gone on to commission work from new choreographers, such as the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, thriving under its third artistic director since Ailey’s death in 1989.

The fate of Martha Graham’s company is the most legendary debacle in modern dance history. Late in life, while descending into the depths of alcoholism, Martha Graham willed the rights to all her work to her friend Ron Protas, who then refused her company the right to ever perform her work again. A bitter and public lawsuit entailed. The court’s decision went against precedent, handing the rights back to Graham’s company. Asserting that choreographic rights do not necessarily belong to the choreographer, the Graham fiasco intensified the pressure on choreographers to come up with plans for the legal protection of their work.

These legal concerns exemplify the belief that the integrity of a piece of dance lies in maintaining its original choreography. Without careful regulation of rights to the work, it might be restaged incorrectly or sloppily, or simply lost. On the other hand, the dances possess an inherent requirement of repeated performance. Equally as important to their artistic integrity is the ability to see them performed on the stage—a dance is a dance, not a video of one. For a particular dance to survive requires that it both be performed again in present circumstance and that it not deviate too much from its original form.

Perhaps more than any other choreographer of his time, Cunningham understood the ephemeral nature of dance as inherent to the medium. “Dance gives you nothing back,” he famously said, “no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to hang in museums, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

A Distinctly Ephemeral Art

Unlike live art forms like theater and music, dance has no accepted form of written notation. It is an oral tradition, relying on transmission from dancer to dancer. Even with a dancer’s keen physical memory, the exact steps to specific dances are devilishly hard to retain. Yet the distinctiveness of a particular dance work lies in high physical specificity and precision. To this end, video technology is surprisingly insufficient—better for memory aid than learning a dance from scratch. It is incredibly difficult to pick up the complicated mechanics of specific dance movements from video recording alone. Video captures a performance, not a dance, and mimicking the way a movement looks onscreen is not the same as understanding how to perform it in all its dynamic complexity.

The functionality of the “Dance Capsules” is much less certain without the presence of knowledgeable experts who can interpret and teach the material. Patricia Lent, Director of Repertory Licensing and a former Cunningham dancer who was instrumental in creating the Dance Capsules, told The Independent that input and expertise of real flesh-and-blood Cunningham dancers is the “Dance Capsules’” necessary final ingredient for successful recreation of his work. “The main training you get [to recreate Cunningham’s work]…is from doing the work. You get it from working new dancers into a piece. There’s constant reconstruction going on in a company.”

For now, when dance companies and schools purchase rights to a “Dance Capsule,” they will also pay additional fees for a visit from a reconstructor, one of several former Cunningham dancers, who will be hired on a freelance basis, whenever there is interest, to interpret the available archival materials and teach the work to dancers. Said Lent, “You go twenty years from now and you want to restage the work, and there isn’t anybody who knew Merce, or who worked with Merce, or who ever learned his choreography, and the question is—how do you train them? I don’t have an answer for that right now.”

An Endangered Dance Form

While the “Dance Capsules” supposedly balance simultaneous needs for replication and authenticity with a plethora of digital materials, their effectiveness in the long run is debatable, especially when the living resources for Cunningham’s work will no longer be maintained. After the closure of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, no dancers will be employed full-time to dance his work. Cunningham has provided for severance packages for his dancers to ease their transitions into jobs with other dance companies or careers as solo artists. Some, of course, will continue to work with his choreography by taking restaging jobs, but this won’t be their primary form of income, and these dancers, too, will eventually retire.

Some Cunningham dancers will also continue teaching classes in his style at dance studios in New York City. But the Merce Cunningham Studio, the school devoted entirely to teaching his technique, has announced that lack of funding will soon force it to close. For decades, this school functioned to train dancers who eventually might join the company. Thousands of other students gained exposure to Cunningham’s work through the many high quality classes offered there. Going forward, young dancers will learn a significant amount of Cunningham’s work through classes in other dance schools and residencies like the one at Brown this fall, but several weeks or even months of intensive study is simply not comparable to being trained exclusively in his technique.

With the studio’s closure, no new dancers will be trained to dance Cunningham’s work with the degree of skill and understanding that veterans of his company now possess.  So while the innovative “Dance Capsules” supposedly provide a 21st-century solution to the problem of preserving dance, those required to give the “Capsules” life are a dying breed. Like an endangered language, the physical fluency of Cunningham’s technique will slowly become extinct if it is not taught to new speakers.

Something Bigger

Patricia Lent spent months trying to devise a way for the studio to remain open. She courted surrounding universities for potential partnerships with the studio, but found no takers. “It makes me sad,” Lent told The Independent, “I wouldn’t be truthful if I told you I was a hundred percent happy with the way things turned out.” In addition to training new students, the studio is home to Cunningham devotees long after their training ends. “I’d love to keep taking class there for the rest of my life,” said Lent. “But I couldn’t find a way to make that happen.”

She focused instead on making sure that Cunningham technique will be taught somewhere in New York City. Recently, the Cunningham Dance Foundation announced that Cunningham technique classes will continue at the Mark Morris studio in Brooklyn and at City Center. It’s still no Cunningham Studio, but Lent is optimistic. “Rather than make people come to the studio, we’ll try and take the technique to where people are!” She said. “We’ll see if we can build new interest in the work and the technique. The idea for the future is to start small, and then if we need to get bigger, we’ll build something bigger.”

A Cunningham Collaboration

One place Cunningham’s work currently flourishes is at Brown. On October 14-16, Brown and RISD students will join forces to create an interdisciplinary performance of Cunningham’s work, called a MinEvent, composed according to the distinct creative process he used throughout his career. Sixteen Brown student dancers, set designer Cecilia Salama (B’12), eleven RISD Apparel Design students, and three musicians led by MEME phD student and former sound engineer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Stephan Moore, will wait to combine the pieces of the performance until the final tech next Thursday. At Brown this semester, Merce Cunningham’s historic body of work and masterful artistic process are generating new collaboration, and Brown/RISD students are putting one possible future of Cunningham’s work into action.


Lizzie Feidelson B’11.5 wants you to see it for yourself next weekend: go to