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Merce Cans Senior Dancers


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#1 miliosr

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Posted 11 March 2009 - 11:35 AM

http://www.nytimes.c...n...=3&ref=arts

Holley Farmer, Daniel Squire and Koji Mizuta, who have all performed with the company for more than a decade, were informed of the decision by Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The action, which was not formally announced to the news media, comes as the company is rehearsing for its season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which will open on April 16, Mr. Cunningham’s 90th birthday.



#2 Ray

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Posted 11 March 2009 - 11:55 AM

http://www.nytimes.c...n...=2&ref=arts


Ugh. These are fabulous dancers; their seniority makes them expensive, and fresh meat is more fun. This makes me remember why I quit the dance world. Everyone hides their decisions behind the artistic director's "artistic reasons"; and the paper doesn't allow any space for discussion or investigation on the part of the reporter.

#3 dirac

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Posted 11 March 2009 - 03:03 PM

Ray writes:

Everyone hides their decisions behind the artistic director's "artistic reasons"; and the paper doesn't allow any space for discussion or investigation on the part of the reporter.


To insist that this was an ‘artistic decision’ seems a grave insult to three dancers of distinction. (Rather like those companies who announce that their layoffs are ‘performance-based,’ implying that the employees got what was coming to them, not that their employer has any problems.)

Mr. Carlson also said that Mr. Cunningham was unavailable for comment.


I don’t doubt it.

Thank you for posting this unhappy news, miliosr. I admire the forthrightness of your topic title. :sweatingbullets:

#4 LiLing

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Posted 11 March 2009 - 03:27 PM

The executive dir., Trevor Carlson, was quoted as saying the co. was not downsizing, and that it was not an economic decision, but an artistic one, made by Merce. I find this believable because, 1. the difference in salary in a small co. between new and veteran dancers is negligible, and 2. these three dancers are not "dead wood", they have been dancing well and receiving good reviews. It would therefore reflect better on the management, and Merce, if they used the economic excuse.
Of course a choreographer/artistic dir. can choose to use or not use dancers for various reasons, some of which can be very personal. That is their prerogative.
The fact that Mr. Carlson released the names of the dancers to the press, and damaged their professional reputations by announced that their contracts would not be renewed for "artistic reasons" however, I find unconscionable! :sweatingbullets:

#5 Simon G

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 04:09 AM

I haven't posted here in a very very long time but this news I felt must be replied to as I am a lifelong lover of Cunningham's technique and artistry. I find this absolutely horrendous news, not just for the brutal and callous way it was carried out in the press (yes, playing the artistic differences card is a low, low blow, not least because any response by the three dancers now comes off as sour grapes - to a more cynical mindset it could be suggested this is a deliberately calculated and effective ploy on the Carlson's part.)

But the tragedy is that Farmer, Squire and Mizuta, for me at least are the only three dancers in the current line up (apart from Julie Cunningham & sometimes Rashaun Mitchell) who dance with eye-opening originality, poetry, grace and bring something else to the table besides a technical adherance to the rigours of the Cunningham technique.

Squire's dancing I love especially, I love the fact that apart from a classically perfectly proportioned body his is an extremely difficult body yet he's discovered a whole way of movement a way of marrying technique, artistry and personal sensibility - I often think of Tourettes syndrome in the description of his dancing (not a string of profanities) but rather these spectacular percussive blasts that seem to eminate from his gut, his core - a series of steps is flavoured by this exciting, angry energy.

Farmer is just simply phenomenal, season after season whatever the line up she's the standout female star and Mizuta who I'm not as keen on as Farmer & Squire is still a lyrical beautiful technically ravishing dancer.

One of my biggest shocks of the past few years is seeing how deeply, sadly mediocre the company has become for me. There really is a generic cookie-cutter look and feel amongst the newer dancers - in truth they may be more technically secure in some cases, but something's missing, something deep, poetic and soulful.

In the recent London season I was saddened to see how lobotomized Biped had become, a work which when I first saw it with Jeannie Steele, Cedric Andrieux, Ashley Chen and Derry Swan blew my mind. Steele's fabulous first solo where she circles the stage with a loping run before standing centre-stage, legs in parallel akimbo, fists drawn to the waist as if preparing to punch - as if daring the audience to "come and have a go" passed for absolutely nothing in the hands of the dancer who took her place. Likewise Cedric Andrieux's series of turns in arabesque, the soft off-kilter nature of his line and technique, his danger and excitement are absolutely not present in the technical rock of a dancer who takes his parts in the rep now.

Read any history of the Cunningham company by former members and you'll see that sadly the treatment meted out to Squire, Farmer and Mizuta is not unique, and disappointingly does indeed have many precedents throughout the company's history - one of Carolyn Brown's most censorious criticisms of company policy was the lack of communication between Cunningham and dancers who were no longer favoured. Moreover it's not uncommon in any company modern or ballet for an AD to feel that they've come to the end of the road with certain dancers, that they've explored everything they wish to say through that dancer - it happens.

And most poignantly, or perhaps presciently in light of this news, when I saw the company last November I have to say that it was as if Farmer, Squire and Mizuta were talking a different language from the rest of the company, it was like they were playing Mozart everyone else (apart from J.Cunningham and Mitchell) were practising the scales. It was like they were dancers from a different era of the Cunningham company.

It's not true that companies such as Cunningham's have no stars - dancers like Squire, Farmer, Mizuta are merely three in a long line who have shaped and formed the Cunningham technique and company from Brown, Farber, Lloyd, Armitage, Dunn, to more recently Lent, Barrow, Finlayson, Kovich, Komar, Gafner, Steele, Chen, Andrieux - those great individual stylists and artists are essential to the progression of the Cunningham technique as a living breathing art form - contemporary dance is only vital and alive within the performer at that moment. Look at Graham's company for example, it's death happened when the stars were sacked or departed and what was left was techincal automatons approximating a technique and legend. Because the truth is that Cunningham isn't going to be around for that much longer and if the company isn't going to become a gilded shrine it needs those great dance artists of wit, flair, originality and experience to stop the company and technique from fossilizing into a monolith, a monument of the past.

I do worry about these three, to find yourself at their ages, effectively jobless, their bodies at the end of road in terms of finding another full-time job in a rep dance company, having devoted the majority of your adult professional life to the vision of one man's art is utterly terrifying. And that's the thing these three great dancers deserved better and like the previous poster said they definitely merited greater respect, consideration and honour than having their artistry impugned in a press statement. Carlson's "get out" clause of not dreaming of questioning Cunningham's reasons for termination didn't translate to respecting these three artists when it came to denigrating them. Pity, because without artists of the calibre of Farmer, Squire and Mizuto - willing to offer their lives, faith and artistry to Merce Cunningham, there would have been no Merce Cunningham.

#6 Ray

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 06:14 AM

Thank you, Simon, for your erudite and informative post. Like LiLing, I want to place much of my scorn on Carlson's PR coarseness; Simon, however, shows us how these firings are part of a deeper pattern--one that reveals an unfortunate link b/t ballet and modern dance practices in re extreme autocracy.

#7 Simon G

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 06:59 AM

Cheers Ray,

As a quick addendum, LiLing is right regarding pay, Cunningham company's contract is available on the AGMA website and the difference between senior and new dancers in terms of pay is minimal.

What makes Carlson's statements all the more galling is that , in the Monday's With Merce podcast on the Cunningham website the installment from a month ago "Dancing with Merce" carries several interviews with Farmer, the blurb on the site introduces her as "iconic" & "amazing" which makes the denigration of her artistry in the press a month later all the more gutless.

The Cunningham company has been downsizing for a while, the ideal roster of 16 has been 14 for several years now, which has made restagings of full company works such as Ocean & Biped diminished where several dancers have had to double up parts, also a quick scan of the company schedule shows that there are only around 30 performances for the first five months of this year a dangerously low number. The month long/fortnight long block residencies at Sadlers Wells seem to be long in the past. In London for the past few years they manage maybe seven performaces over five days and never have I seen the Barbican even near full capacity, indeed the top tiers are closed.

I do sympathise, on the food chain contemporary dance companies are bottom feeders and costs which can be written off or covered for major ballet companies spell death for the mid-scale modern dance ensembles. Especially as with Cunningham where only one choreographic style is served up.

One can only speculate about the nature of the NY Times press release - it does seem brutal in the extreme in its treatment of dancers who've given over 30 years of their lives between them in service to the company, and it does have the feel of a retaliative gesture, were they given the option of leaving by their own steam? Since Farmer, Squire and Mizuta are refusing to comment we'll never know.

#8 Helene

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 07:25 AM

I haven't posted here in a very very long time but this news I felt must be replied to as I am a lifelong lover of Cunningham's technique and artistry. I find this absolutely horrendous news, not just for the brutal and callous way it was carried out in the press (yes, playing the artistic differences card is a low, low blow, not least because any response by the three dancers now comes off as sour grapes - to a more cynical mindset it could be suggested this is a deliberately calculated and effective ploy on the Carlson's part.)

When I took an arts management seminar in 1989 at Jacob's Pillow the core seminar team was Sam Miller, then managing Pilobolus; Art Becofsky, then Executive Director of Merce Cunningham, Barbara Horgan, who, too, dealt with the aftermath when Balanchine, as you put it, "[had] come to the end of the road with certain dancers, that they've explored everything they wish to say through that dancer" for personal or professional reasons. One of the main topics was how they approached their roles. In contrast to Miller, who lived with his wife and small children in Connecticut and conducted most of his business by phone, Becofsky described, with disciple-like devotion, being on the road with the Company, and how his role and goal was to enable Merce Cunningham to do his work, whatever it took. It looks like someone with that single-minded dedication is what MC hires, and I'm not surprised to see it again, although I would have been surprised if Becofsky was still in the role: it sounded completely exhausting.

The ruthlessness of an Artistic Director was well documented in "Dancemaker".

I do sympathise, on the food chain contemporary dance companies are bottom feeders and costs which can be written off or covered for major ballet companies spell death for the mid-scale modern dance ensembles. Especially as with Cunningham where only one choreographic style is served up.

This applies to almost all small- to mid-sized ballet companies as well; I don't think there's ever been a modern dance company on the same scale as a major ballet company, and few modern companies of any size, like Compañía Nacional de Danza de España, have ever been state subsidized to the same degree as the major European and Russian companies. Those that have survived the best are those that keep their expenses low and don't strive to grow from small to medium or medium to large, with all of the overhead that entails. New York Theatre Ballet is one example.

#9 kfw

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 08:42 AM

Since Farmer, Squire and Mizuta are refusing to comment we'll never know.

Perhaps we'll know after their contracts expire. Like others here I feel for the dancers and wish that instead of insinuating that they no longer meet Cunningham's standards, Carlson had praised them for their talent and long service. If the difference between the salary levels of junior and senior dancers is so slight, that suggests that Merce really was motivated by artistic considerations, and that he probably has his eye on new dancers he wants to make room for. Carlson could have stated or implied as much. On the other hand, people who really care about dance, including directors of other companies who might be hiring, won't be misled by the press release, and will know how good these dancers are. The dancers' reputations won't be damaged.

It is cruelly ironic that Farmer is being let go after being featured in Mondays with Merce. But the dancers knew they were entering a field where there is little job security. Would we call it autocratic for the founder and director and chief artistic force of an artistic enterprise to fire an employee who he'd hired, say, only 2 years ago? Sentiment suggests that because these senior dancers have dedicated long careers to his work, they deserve to be kept on, to be taken care of financially. That seems only decent. But for how long? And what if (through no fault of their own) they really don't any longer stimulate the choreographer's imagination when he's making new work? Isn't that part of what they were hired for? I feel bad for the dancers and I'll miss seeing Farmer, but I don't know how to answer those questions.

#10 dirac

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 08:55 AM

I haven't posted here in a very very long time but this news I felt must be replied to as I am a lifelong lover of Cunningham's technique and artistry. I find this absolutely horrendous news, not just for the brutal and callous way it was carried out in the press (yes, playing the artistic differences card is a low, low blow, not least because any response by the three dancers now comes off as sour grapes - to a more cynical mindset it could be suggested this is a deliberately calculated and effective ploy on the Carlson's part.)


Welcome back, Simon G. Thank you for posting. The article notes that this news was not released to the press (but it doesn’t include ‘in response to press inquiries’ language, either, so it’s hard to say what happened).

Like LiLing, I want to place much of my scorn on Carlson's PR coarseness;


Ray, Carlson says that it was Cunningham’s decision, so perhaps it’s not quite fair to dump all on the PR guy, although taking the flak is a flack’s job. Dancers are artists working for artists but they are also employees and workers (union members, in this case). The union is quoted in the article as saying because the firings took place for “artistic” reasons there’s nothing they can do. I wonder if such considerations played a role.

Interesting also that the company didn’t even thank the dancers for their accomplishments and long service, as kfw notes.

#11 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 09:28 AM

Cunningham's company has been around a long while and as implied in Helene's post, this isn't unheard of there. In the 15 years I've watched the company (a comparatively short time) there have been acrimonious departures. If my memory is correct, ironically enough, Becofsky was one of them. Helene also described Becofsky's perceived duties as an "enforcer" - Carlson is following in his footsteps.

#12 miliosr

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 09:34 AM

Thank you, dirac, for the positive feedback about the thread title. I almost didn't use that title, as I know Alexandra encourages us to use a genteel tone. But sometimes it's just hard to put a positive gloss on events.

As to Cunningham's decision itself, I find it interesting that he would cause such a disruption in the fabric of his company when (to be incredibly tactless) he will probably leave us sooner rather than later. Succession issues are always delicate ones for one choreographer dance companies and, of the major modern/postmodern/contemporary companies in the United States, his will most likely be the next to confront it (with Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown to follow.) Of all the companies that achieved some kind of reknown during the founder's lifetime, I can only think of three in the United States which have survived the founder's death and continue to perform a reasonably full schedule: Limon (since 1972), Ailey (since 1989) and Graham (since 1991, albeit with some disruptions).

To my knowledge, Limon and Ailey never experienced any major disruptions in terms of former dancers being frozen out. Whatever other difficulties they may have experienced, the former dancers were always on hand to pass on the works to the next generation(s). And so, whether the works are to your taste or not, you can still see them as living things close to the creators' intentions rather than as museum pieces.

As SimonG points out, however, the Graham company experienced severe disruptions in terms of one generation passing on its knowledge to another and, as a result, the succession was compromised. [Personally, I agree with those individuals who believe that Graham wanted the works to die with her and, therefore, that the current Graham company is heretical. But that, as they say, is a matter for another day and another thread.] The Graham people are valiantly trying to reverse the erosion but I think the results have been mixed -- at best -- so far.

Ah well, we shall have to see how Mr. Cunningham fares. It's tricky business this succession thing! :wink:

#13 dirac

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 10:48 AM

Thank you, dirac, for the positive feedback about the thread title. I almost didn't use that title, as I know Alexandra encourages us to use a genteel tone. But sometimes it's just hard to put a positive gloss on events.


Alexandra’s quite right. But considering the bluntness of this announcement, your phrasing was all too appropriate, alas.

(Of course, one of the signs of economic hard times is the ingenious deployment of euphemisms for firing people. These days “headcount reduction” seems to be quite popular. In Britain they’ve always referred to “redundancies.” I remember Spike Milligan used to play a character whose occupation was "retired redundant.")

#14 miliosr

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 11:10 AM

Rereading my post, dirac, what I should have written was:

But sometimes it's just hard to put a positive gloss on Events. (Bahahaha -- a little Merce Cunningham humor there!)

#15 Simon G

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Posted 12 March 2009 - 11:29 AM

I do feel very strongly that the prevalent mood around the Cunningham Foundation amongst the administration is the unspoken imminence of Cunningham's age and mortality and a jostling for position for the continuance of that legacy.

The Graham analogy is sadly more apt than it first appears; in the diumverate of Carlson and Swinston Cunningham may very well have his Ron Protas.


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