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Merce Cunningham Living Legacy Plan


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#1 Simon G

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Posted 10 June 2009 - 01:30 AM

Reported in the NY Times following a Cunningham Foundation press conference is the Living Legacy Plan:

http://www.merce.org...egacy-plan.html


The NY Times article here:

http://www.nytimes.c...n...gham&st=cse



Don't quite know what to make of it. The sense of dread comes from the fact that the company will be disbanded, and control of the "legacy"seems most likely to pass into the hands of the triumverate of Swinston, Carlson and Kuhn whose control of the company is fast becoming absolute.

I feel that work remains alive as does a choreographer through performance, that Cunningham has a body of work which stands the test of time, doesn't become dated and is best served through continual performance.

Again Protas & Graham are mentioned and it seems that turning the Foundation into effectively an archive is seen as a way of avoiding the acrimonious legal battles over ownership of the Graham legacy - though the courts ultimately ruled that the Graham legacy belonged to the people and to performance and not one man.

Would Petipa, Ashton, Tudor, et al be best remembered through archives - how long would those classics be preserved if eliminated from the performance world.

The notion of "digital capsules" as a means to preserve forever work is a contentious one - work is preserved in the body of the dancer.

They talk about money, which could have a factor in the company's disbanding, which in the light of the sacking of the three most senior, highly paid dancers seems increasingly the case for much of this current scrabbling for pole position as torch bearer for the legacy.

The Foundation are raising $8million for this Legacy Plan to be properly implemented - would that money be better spent ensuring the legacy is continued through performace?

And finally Swinston, Carlson and Kuhn - they're mortal, they're fallible, what happens to the internicine politics which these three have been involved in as they've positioned themselves to be the torch bearers of the Legacy.

cunningham in the NY article seems incredibly reticent it seems he just wants to continue making dance - and again the omnipresent Carlson is the only one whose voice we hear. He swears blind he doesn't speak for Merce - and that much I actually do believe, though of course he sees it as being Cunningham's mouthpiece.

Who exactly are they preserving the work for? And by turning the Foundation into an archive who do they think will be performing the work in the future?

The only companies which can afford to stage Cunningham's work in any fully-realised form are ballet companies and ballet dancers aren't Cunningham dancers they're not modern dancers. And then only a handful of works which can be slotted in time wise to mixed bills and the technique of which can be adapted for a ballet dancer doesn't ensure that that magnificent body of work can be represented in any meaningful way. And if the Cunningham dancers are no longer rooted in the repertory, are no longer being trained and aware of the technique as a vibrant living art form, who will be left to even teach these works and technique?

#2 dirac

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Posted 10 June 2009 - 10:56 AM

Thank you for posting this, SimonG. Odd. The whole thing sounds like a variation on the Balanchine Trust idea, but I agree, without Cunningham’s company performing the works regularly it is difficult to see how any continuity of style and training will be possible. Perhaps Cunningham, for his own reasons, doesn’t want the company to go on without him and is willing to accept the risk this poses to the survival of his work as living art. (He does leave open the possibility of starting up another troupe – it just won’t be ‘his’ company.)

#3 Simon G

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Posted 10 June 2009 - 11:38 AM

Dirac,

Do you know what just struck me? The irony of the title "Living Legacy Plan" - it won't be alive, it'll be contained on "film capsule" stuck in an archive and exhumed every so often when a ballet company wants to pick over the bones.

The Foundation which is founded on Cunningham Technique will be meaningless if that technique is no longer taught and alive, and within a generation there'll be no one left to teach it with authority or passion.

Bizarre, bizarre, bizarre course of action, it reminds me of one of those Soviet Five Year Plans for productivity. As well as the two year touring party with one final posthumous bash. Did they stop to think what if the dancers don't want to be contracted for those two years or if one decides to leave part way through - do they then forsake their severance pay? I also think it's quite presumptuous to state that the money will be there to help them find new careers - is the foundation so self-involved it sees no life in dance after Cunningham?

I've written a lot here about my dismay at the treatment of the "Cunningham Three", this Legacy Plan just deepens my feeling that what's happening here is an atrophying of something that is potentially still so alive, enshrining in a tomb of something that exists after Cunningham's death; with the gatekeeper or prospective applicants for that role being Carlson, Swinston & Kuhn

Graham famously said she didn't want her choreography to exist after her death, indeed when she could no longer dance - it would seem Cunningham is set to achieve that which she never could.

Moreover, does anyone else feel that $8million+ for something that no one will ever use is a bit much? Graham and Limon attempt to carry on their founders' legacies where it counts, through performance.

This quote from the omnipresent Carlson, caught my attention:

The Cunningham Dance Foundation's plan "is comprehensive, multifaceted, and — like Merce himself — precedent-setting," said foundation executive director Trevor Carlson. "It offers a new model for dance companies and other artist-led organizations transitioning to a post-founder existence."



Atrophy, internment and dissolution are hardly precedent setting. And offering a new model? How, exactly, how?

#4 Quiggin

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Posted 10 June 2009 - 02:31 PM

Cunningham has had a keen interest in video collaborations for years. James Atlas was the person he worked with for years states--on PBS--states,

I first met Merce Cunningham in 1971 and in 1974 began collaborating with him over a period of ten years making “media/dances”, works combining dance with film and video, pieces made for the camera.


So maybe the idea of his works being in a different form, being archived and licensed, and as video records, the body of them going through a true "sea change" is not such a recent one. Or maybe he doesn't quite know, and is moving towards some resolution, but nonetheless is in sly control, as people who set up trusts--at least in novels--often are.

When the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor died, his company did a final tour, then disbanded, leaving memories of his work cleanly intact.

#5 Simon G

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Posted 10 June 2009 - 03:10 PM

Cunningham has had a keen interest in video collaborations for years. James Atlas was the person he worked with for years states--on PBS--states,

I first met Merce Cunningham in 1971 and in 1974 began collaborating with him over a period of ten years making “media/dances”, works combining dance with film and video, pieces made for the camera.


So maybe the idea of his works being in a different form, being archived and licensed, and as video records, the body of them going through a true "sea change" is not such a recent one. Or maybe he doesn't quite know, and is moving towards some resolution, but nonetheless is in sly control, as people who set up trusts--at least in novels--often are.

When the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor died, his company did a final tour, then disbanded, leaving memories of his work cleanly intact.



Quiggan,

The thing is though, Cunningham's exploration into film with Atlas and Kaplan wasn't to record for posterity and put away, it was about the collaborative effort of disparate mediums and how it could advance the art. No different from chance operations, collaborations with Cage, Tudor, Rauschenberg, Johns etc.

Not all of those collaborations were entirely successful but it was a period and it moved on. The extensive use of archive footage is why Cunningham's classics weren't lost and why they could be reinterpreted, restaged and passed down so effectively through generations. Why the restaging of Crises from 1960 was a storming success, yet the recent restaging of Graham's 1958 Clytemnestra, which relied primarily on memory and remnants of film wasn't.

Yes, perhaps Cunningham wants to take a Grahem-esque approach, when he goes all the lights go out, but this is selfish. Cleanly intact, nothing is ever left cleanly intact, times change, performance styles change, technique advances, new interpretors make the work their own - it's natural and maybe it's not as "great" as it may have been, but it's different and the work moves forward into new generations. To be afraid of change to an extent where 70 years of achievement and revolution are to be shut away isn't progress, it's regressive.

It's funny you should mention Kanter, I used to be friends with one of his main actresses, Sophia Kalinska, a very ballsy woman. To deny the world however, a body of work, a lifetime of dance which pretty much changed the world is just wrong. It's unfair and terribly selfish, which is a pity because in his dance at least, Cunningham was the most generous and outward looking creator of the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. Dance students and performers of 20 or 30 years in the future deserve more than merely saying they saw a film clip of Biped, or discussed chance operations in a dance theory lesson.

You know, if when he does die, I were to think of a perfect eulogy to Cunningham and his work and legacy I could think of nothing better than his famous quote:

You have to love dance to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to hang in museums, no poems to be printed... nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.


This Living Legacy Plan just seems the antithesis to that sentiment. It's storing away into archives and museums, all those incredible wonderful fleeting moments of life he created. Ultmately for what? If they're not performed, they're worthless.

#6 miliosr

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Posted 10 June 2009 - 05:11 PM

As a wise woman once said:

"If people are not living the dances as they're intended to be, then the dances become something else. Dance is like an oral tradition, passed on from person to person. You can't divorce events from the time in which they're happening. Just like in Chopin, Beethoven, Bach: The music stands for the beauty it has, but you have to wrap your soul and your head around what the creator was putting out there for you. Your training has to reflect that, and open the possibility for you to do that."

I really have to question whether the Cunningham works can survive long-term if, eventually, there will be no Cunningham dancers to stage them after having lived them in performance. Without a flagship Cunningham company to act as the stylistic/technical standard bearer, won't the works start to drift over time -- film or no film?

#7 dirac

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Posted 26 June 2009 - 07:00 PM

Terry Teachout writes on Cunningham's decision and dance preservation issues in The Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.co...3609302846.html

Why break up so solidly established an ensemble? Because modern-dance troupes, which are almost always dominated by a single choreographer, have a notoriously poor track record of institutional survival after their charismatic founders pass away. Mr. Cunningham, by contrast, is more interested in preserving his fragile choreographic legacy than in keeping his company afloat. His plan is to transfer the posthumous rights to his dances to a trust that will license them for performance by other companies. That way their survival will not be contingent on the continuing existence of the ensemble for which he created them.



#8 Ray

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Posted 26 June 2009 - 08:02 PM

Terry Teachout writes on Cunningham's decision and dance preservation issues in The Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.co...3609302846.html

Why break up so solidly established an ensemble? Because modern-dance troupes, which are almost always dominated by a single choreographer, have a notoriously poor track record of institutional survival after their charismatic founders pass away. Mr. Cunningham, by contrast, is more interested in preserving his fragile choreographic legacy than in keeping his company afloat. His plan is to transfer the posthumous rights to his dances to a trust that will license them for performance by other companies. That way their survival will not be contingent on the continuing existence of the ensemble for which he created them.


Well, this is why TT writes for the WSJ, I guess. "The art" stands separate, somehow, from the artists who embody it--in dance this makes even less sense than other forms--just as the capitalist individual stands separate from (and is better than) any lousy ol' community/collective/institution. (Unless of course the capitalist runs out of money....) TT doesn't explain how dispersing MC's works to the wind will preserve them better than being maintained by a dedicated company. That such an arrangement hasn't worked in the past is not a sure-fire predictor of the future. Unless, of course, you're inherently suspicious of institutions--a suspicion that fits in with the WSJ ethos.

#9 Simon G

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Posted 27 June 2009 - 03:05 AM

Thank you for posting that Ray. What a banal and breezy article and no mistake. The thing is doesn't address is that why is change such a bad thing? Those 19th century ballet classics if danced today by the rather robust and rubenesque ballerinas of that era would be pretty grim; ditto Shakespeare if performed in the 16th century manner. And even composition Teachout fails to address that Beethoven's fifth when played badly with a poor conductor is atrocious but with top flight orchestras and a conductor who wants to take risks, push the performance in new directions adds to the symphony - takes it to a new level.

The thing that really helped Graham take her company to another level after her retirement from dance was accepting that yes, dances change, new performers and generations change things, they have to, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - in fact it's vital if art is to continue to be relevant for succeeding generations.

The other thing is in Carlson's grandiose statement that this legacy plan sets a new precedent in preserving a dance makers art is wrong.

In 1983 Graham with the administration of Protas tried to do exactly the same thing. The applied to the National Endowment of the Arts for a $1million grant (a mere trifle compared to the $8m Cunningham Foundation seeks.)
Their goal was to create a film archive to preserve the entire repertory - with three films made of each dance: 1 in full costume; 1 in rehearsal costume and 1 rehearsal with Graham narrating over the film the motivations, impetus and technique needed for the effect. The $1m was turned down but $250,000 offered. Graham and Protas refused the lower amount as an insult to her legacy and integrity. However, a year later the lower grant was offered again and this time they accepted, thinking that with advances in digtal technology their legacy plan could be achieved.

Well, even with the grant the Graham legacy plan failed to materialise: perhaps because Graham knew that preservation isn't pickling in digital aspic. A legacy is only real when it's used and is alive.

This paragraph pretty much sums up how Teachout mixes his metaphors and confuses the demands of ballet vs modern.

For a dance to last, it must be performed regularly, not just by its creator’s own company but by troupes of every other kind and persuasion. This means that it will change over time, as a result of the imperfect memories of its performers and for other reasons as well. Take a look at photographs of the ballet dancers of a century ago and you’ll be struck by how chunky their bodies were. Not only are today’s dancers thinner than their predecessors, but they can also move faster, the same way that Mike Powell could jump farther in 1991 than Jesse Owens could in 1935.


Contemporary dance isn't ballet and for techniques so thoroughly rooted in the choreography and arising from the language of the creator's original technique the only way to last is for performance not by ballet companies, rep companies but by dancers dedicated to that branch of the art.

I've also noticed that the Cunningham company is scaling back again. The three dancers fired have been replaced by only two, the sixty year old Swinston is still listed as a dancer.

#10 dirac

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Posted 27 June 2009 - 02:15 PM

"The art" stands separate, somehow, from the artists who embody it--in dance this makes even less sense than other forms.....TT doesn't explain how dispersing MC's works to the wind will preserve them better than being maintained by a dedicated company. That such an arrangement hasn't worked in the past is not a sure-fire predictor of the future.


Well put, Ray.

#11 bart

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Posted 27 June 2009 - 02:30 PM

Meanwhile, of course, the arts bureaucrats WILL be paid to administer, legislate, pontificate, and collect salaries. The studio and the performances may be in danger, but the OFFICE will survive.

#12 LiLing

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Posted 27 June 2009 - 04:35 PM

I share the distress expressed by the posters above over the loss of the company and studio. If the works are only performed by ballet companies with no training in Cunningham technique, they will change a great deal, and what will be lost will be the very elements that make them distinctive, unique, and worth preserving.

One problem that hasn't been discussed, either in the press or here is the need for a company to have new works after the founding choreographer is gone. Common wisdom is, you can't have a season without a premiere. This problem of new works, that fit the company has been a big issue for the Graham and Limon companies in trying to go on, and they both performed work by others during the founder's lifetime. I don't think the Cunningham Co. has? That may be one reason they don't envision continuing.

#13 miliosr

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Posted 28 June 2009 - 05:57 AM

I wouldn't get too worked up about what Terry Teachout wrote. He writes about all of the arts -- high and popular -- and his dance writings are by far the weakest. I've read some fairly eccentric predictions by him. For instance, that the period since Balanchine's death would be remembered as the kickoff point for the classical ballet's Golden Age and that the works of Robert Weiss (at Carolina Ballet) would sweep the ballet world. Good luck with both of those predictions!

As for the dissolution of the Cunningham company, I think they're missing an opportunity to become something akin to what Baryshnikov was trying to do with his White Oak troupe in the 90s (but unburdened by his celebrity) -- a repository for postmodern American works which won't find a home elsewhere.

#14 kfw

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Posted 28 June 2009 - 04:52 PM

One problem that hasn't been discussed, either in the press or here is the need for a company to have new works after the founding choreographer is gone. Common wisdom is, you can't have a season without a premiere

The company's appearances, even in the New York area, are so infrequent that I'd think they could have gone on for quite a while just with revivals.

#15 miliosr

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Posted 05 July 2009 - 11:47 AM

http://www.nytimes.c...n...=1&ref=arts

The comments by Mark Morris in the very last paragraph should serve as a useful reproach to those who say that ballet companies will sustain the unique qualities of the Cunningham repertory in the absence of an actual Cunningham company.


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