Simon G

Merce Cunningham Living Legacy Plan

66 posts in this topic

The NYT article makes the point that if there is no Cunningham company his dances will go to ballet companies almost by default, because many modern troupes don't have the technique.

But then the article goes on to say that very few companies ask to perform his works because of the music and those that do (presumably ballet companies) do not perform them in the correct technique and with the correct style.

So, they're really betwixt and between, aren't they?

Sure looks that way.

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The question of who will perform the work and how is one of the reasons why I've been wondering if perhaps this two-year blow out, followed by a winding down isn't the best course of action.

The problem with Cunningham technique is how ferociously difficult it is to learn and develop and how misunderstood it can be in the hands and technique of ballet dancers; who assimilate and approximate into a balletic lexicon.

The most obvious example of this for me was the 1988 filming of ABT dancing Duets, originally made by Cunningham for his company in 1980. In the hands of the ballet dancers the rhythmic subtleties and nuances had been abstracted down to counts of 2,4 etc balletic counts, the use of the back was totally absent, the way Cunningham plays with extensions, setting them against curves and turns of the spine was substituted for developpes and arabesques, the men seemed content to be playing the Cavaliers in the Rose adagio, glissading prettily, supporting the women, bringing none of the wit and weight of a modern dancer schooled in Cunningham.

Which is the problem, if the technique isn't taught, who will dance the work? And a ballet dancer isn't a contemporary dancer, let alone a Cunningham dancer - though Cunningham's modern work is appealing to ballet dancers because the technique with its onus on extension, beats and balance does at first glance seem balletic. If no one is left to work closely with the ballet companies and school them properly in the technique - an impossiblity given financial & time constraints, how will ballet companies ever give performances of Cunningham works?

The other problem is of course the music or lack of it. Cunningham dances are dances of counts and rhythms taught and learnt independently of music, the rhythm is in the steps. Ballet of course is in its most basic sense inextricably linked to the music. Moreover, the sound used for Cunningham is alien, abrupt, sometimes abusive and aggressive - the very great Cunningham works provoke intense and hostile emotions on a pure level of sound. The antithesis of what ballet audiences are used to or expect. The works which have passed into ballet companies are palatable in terms of music: Duets, Pond Way, Points in Space none of them have the coruscating soundscapes of Canfield, Rainforest, Winterbranch.

And this is an issue Cunningham's choreographic legacy is marvelous, troubling and provocative - if all that will be allowed onto a ballet stage are polite and unobtrusive soundbites performed as ballet exercises, what is the point?

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Well said Simon. I am in total agreement.

Several years ago a critic reviewing a Cunningham performance with a couple of new co. members remarked that it seemed to take about two years of dancing the repertoire for a dancer to look at home; and of course dancers joining the co. have been studying the technique intensively for some time.

It is unreasonable to expect that a ballet co. can do justice to these works. Sadly, if the studio and co. are not to continue, I would rather not see the work at all, than diminished by unworthy performances.

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Well said Simon. I am in total agreement.

ITA as well.

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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.

The filmmaker who worked with Merce is Charles Atlas.

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"The final New York performances will cost $10 a ticket, according to Cunningham’s wishes."

I find this very moving. Thank you Merce.

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Two reviews of Lyon Opera Ballet's recent performances of Merce Cunningham's Beach Birds:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/11/arts/dan...llet&st=cse

http://www.observer.com/2010/culture/balle...y-spring-season

The real test of Cunningham's repertory will occur not now . . . but 25 years from now. How well will the works be performed then in the absence of a Cunningham company to perform them regularly and pass on their knowledge?

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I thought it might be nice to have a new thread for performance reviews of the tour. It's here.

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I thought it might be nice to have a new thread for performance reviews of the tour. It's here.

Thanks for setting it up -- I keep thinking maybe I can get to California for a performance but it's not very likely.

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The New York Times continues its perpetual wake/Viking funeral for Merce Cunningham:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/design/at-walker-art-center-art-inspired-by-modern-dance.html?ref=dance

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/arts/music/merce-cunningham-and-the-composers-he-inspired.html?ref=music

And Dance Spirit discusses the four bedrock modern dance techniques:

http://www.dancespirit.com/articles/2953

Let me ask again: How will the Cunningham technique survive when there is no longer a company producing dancers who can perpetuate it in the future???

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I'm fine with the ongoing discussion, especially since most of what I've read has addressed some of the difficult choices the community has been facing as they work out what the right thing to do might be, and then how to do it.

Perhaps because I've been following along in the conversation about teaching dance history to young dancers (in the thread about Apollo's Angels) that I was re-struck by this comment, that we've heard over and over again from many different dance sources:

"“All the movements I give are from Merce’s classes, collected over the years,” he explained. “He’s not here, but he’s in the steps.” "

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Perhaps because I've been following along in the conversation about teaching dance history to young dancers (in the thread about Apollo's Angels) that I was re-struck by this comment, that we've heard over and over again from many different dance sources:

"“All the movements I give are from Merce’s classes, collected over the years,” he explained. “He’s not here, but he’s in the steps.” "

That's exactly what dancers said about Balanchine!

And what dancers Cunningham formed out of those classes and those steps :flowers:

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That's exactly what dancers said about Balanchine!

And what dancers Cunningham formed out of those classes and those steps :flowers:

Indeed, but it does make me wonder what would happen to the Cunningham rep if they were to follow the NYCB model of keeping the company doors open long past the death of the founder.

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That's exactly what dancers said about Balanchine!

And what dancers Cunningham formed out of those classes and those steps :flowers:

Indeed, but it does make me wonder what would happen to the Cunningham rep if they were to follow the NYCB model of keeping the company doors open long past the death of the founder.

That's an easy one to answer, look to the remnants of the Martha Graham Company. That's where they'd be in five years tops.

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That's exactly what dancers said about Balanchine!

And what dancers Cunningham formed out of those classes and those steps :flowers:

Indeed, but it does make me wonder what would happen to the Cunningham rep if they were to follow the NYCB model of keeping the company doors open long past the death of the founder.

That's an easy one to answer, look to the remnants of the Martha Graham Company. That's where they'd be in five years tops.

Well, not necessarily. The Graham company went through hell and back with the whole Protas debacle -- I'm not surprised that they didn't come through unscathed.

I'm afraid that a lot of the Cunningham rep will be lost forever without a company dedicated to its preservation. I was in tears when I saw them perform CRDSPCR at the Joyce knowing I'd probably never see that wonderful work ever again.

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I'm afraid that a lot of the Cunningham rep will be lost forever without a company dedicated to its preservation. I was in tears when I saw them perform CRDSPCR at the Joyce knowing I'd probably never see that wonderful work ever again.

At least that one is recorded, although it's currently not for sale, and neither is Beach Birds. I don't know just how many dances Charles Atlas filmed before they couldn't afford him any more, but they must have scads of stuff in the vault. They'll be showing films of Duets and Squaregame at the Lincoln Center Festival's Merce Fair in a couple of weeks, and they showed more there in 2007. Pond Way is on Google video. I can only assume they'll start selling DVDs of these works eventually. That won't keep the company alive, but it will keep it in our minds as we watch dances we never saw live, or only dimly remember.

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I can only assume they'll start selling DVDs of these works eventually.

Your lips to the gods' ears.

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A piece by Alma Guillermoprieto in The New York Review of Books' blog. Mostly a reminiscence and appreciation, but raising questions similar to those of Simon in the first post in this thread.

Whether he should have been allowed by his board to torch everything he worked so killingly hard to create will be debated for a long time, along with the question of why he did it. "I never saw Merce express an emotion," one of his dancers said last summer at a commemorative event at Lincoln Center, but watching him on stage it always seemed to me that he was a man capable of great fury, an emotion he used to marvelous theatrical effect but perhaps less fruitfully offstage. There were reasons to consider closing down the Merce Cunningham Dance Company following his death, to be sure: it faced a devastating economic crisis following the 2008 recession, and without the constant production of new works once Merce was gone it would have been increasingly difficult to fill a theater or get bookings. But mostly, the man who always loved challenges and difficulties was too old and frail to take charge of this new crisis himself.....

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A farewell to the company by Robert Greskovic in The Wall Street Journal.

If, in the wake of MCDC's departure, companies with other backgrounds choose to acquire Cunningham's dances, they'll have a fighting chance at success if they can commit to the quiet concentration and rehearsal time suited to putting the chosen dance on stage. If not, they'll find themselves confounded by these works widely known for their presentation of independently-arrived-at movement, sound and design aspects. Ghosts of these final performances at the Armory, so pristine, alert and full of fine detail, will rise up and doom halfhearted efforts to inconsequence, a fate worse than death.

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A farewell to the company by Robert Greskovic in The Wall Street Journal.

If, in the wake of MCDC's departure, companies with other backgrounds choose to acquire Cunningham's dances, they'll have a fighting chance at success if they can commit to the quiet concentration and rehearsal time suited to putting the chosen dance on stage. If not, they'll find themselves confounded by these works widely known for their presentation of independently-arrived-at movement, sound and design aspects. Ghosts of these final performances at the Armory, so pristine, alert and full of fine detail, will rise up and doom halfhearted efforts to inconsequence, a fate worse than death.

Greskovic isolates -- correctly, in my opinion -- the problem other dance companies will have with reviving Cunningham pieces. How many companies can, "commit to the quiet concentration and rehearsal time suited to putting the chosen dance on stage?" The Cunningham technique and style is a very particular thing. Like the repertory of Antony Tudor, the repertory may require more time and singular focus than most companies are prepared to invest.

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That's an understatement. It makes me very sad that no one--not even in the press, really (those who had the space to write about it, of course)--challenged this final wish in a significant way. In my opinion, it's a case of devoted followers not stepping back and looking at the bigger artistic costs to our culture. If we're lucky, some of the works will be performed by a handful of excellent modern-dance schools like Julliard (who will make the time as part of their pedagogy); but I fear that will be it--at least for those of us in the US.

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...It makes me very sad that no one--not even in the press, really (those who had the space, of course)--challenged this final wish in a significant way. In my opinion, it's a case of devoted followers not stepping back and looking at the bigger artistic costs to our culture. If we're lucky, some of the works will be performed by a handful of excellent modern-dance schools like Julliard (who will make the time as part of their pedagogy); but I fear that will be it--at least for those of us in the US.

I appreciate your concern, and although I hope you're wrong, and we'll see the work performed more widely than you predict, I'm not putting any money down on this. As a tiny part of the press, I was downhearted to learn the details about Cunningham's plans, but didn't get a chance to discuss it anywhere public before it was a done deal. The more we learn about the changes in contemporary productions of historic rep (as in Doug Fullington's lectures on Petipa and Balanchine, then and now) the more the questions about identity and authenticity pile up, like airplanes over a busy terminal. Re-reading the Cunningham tributes in the Brooklyn Rail http://www.brooklynrail.org/2011/12/dance/ reinforced for me how distinct his work has been, and how removed from the general dance world some of his performers seem to feel. It feels like a letter from another time and another culture -- fascinating to us, but hard to integrate into our own world.

I've worked on several reconstructions in the past, when I was more of a dancer and stager and less of a critic, and I treasure every chance we have to bring some part of the past back to the stage today, but I think this work has made me more pragmatic. I don't expect that it will be a perfectly preserved artifact, but it will, if it's done right, still have enough of its fundamental identity to help us understand what things used to be like, and by extension, how things got to be what they are today. I know I will never see Cunningham's rep again in the same way I did during his life, but I still want to see what I can.

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