Simon G

Merce Cunningham Living Legacy Plan

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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.

That's an understatement. 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.

You might find Robert Johnson's review of the final Park Avenue Armory performances interesting in this context. It isn't the first time he's expressed his anger about the plan to disband the company:

Merce Cunningham died in 2009, but the young members of his dance company never looked fleeter or more alive than they did on New Year’s Eve, 2011, when the legendary troupe gave its farewell performance at the Park Avenue Armory. Paradoxically this leave-taking took place amid throngs of well-wishers. Although Cunningham was never commercial, there is no lack of interest in his work. So while the choreographer died of natural causes, age 90, his company had to be garroted.

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I'm sure I'll be a minority of one with this opinion but here goes: As regrettable as Cunningham's decision was and is . . . I still believe -- vehemently -- that it was his decision to make. I've always hated what happened with the Graham company. Martha Graham may have been feckless in the extreme to turn everything over to Protas but . . . that's what she wanted. It galled me to no end to have her former dancers go against her wishes by taking Protas to court. (Even worse was having one of her former dancers actually say to the press, "Who cares what Martha wanted" in the aftermath of the court case stripping Protas of the works.) And, based on what I've seen of the Graham company since Protas was booted, it is no less of a travesty under the new regime than it was under the old one -- just a different kind of travesty.

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And, based on what I've seen of the Graham company since Protas was booted, it is no less of a travesty under the new regime than it was under the old one -- just a different kind of travesty.

But the Graham company had a long layoff related to those legal issues, didn't it? Isn't that a major reason why the performances are relatively weak now, that lapse in time when class wasn't being given and the dances weren't being rehearsed? Once broken, it's difficult to reforge the link. If the company hadn't been disbanded, it wouldn't have faced that problem, and the quality of its performances wouldn't have dropped off so precipitously.

I didn't see ABT in "Duets" last year, but I've seen the PBS program in which they did it in the 80's, and while I enjoy it, the dancers don't look like Cunningham's own. How could they?

I also wonder how many ballet companies are going to be willing to do Cunningham, and how often. How much of a draw will his work be? Even here on this site full of serious ballet fans, relatively few people participate on this or other modern dance threads. Perhaps the best we can hope - can "dream the impossible dream" of - is that a new or relatively unknown modern dance troupe will specialize in Cunningham, surviving on the attendance and support of Cunningham fans, and giving dancers the chance to immerse themselves in the technique.

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Cunningham had ample opportunity to observe what happened to other dance companies once their founding choreographers died, and also what happened to the rep those choreographers. That includes modern and, for example, NYCB and Joffrey Ballet. Perhaps he didn't want to see the same happen to his work, frustrating that it is.

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Cunningham had ample opportunity to observe what happened to other dance companies once their founding choreographers died, and also what happened to the rep those choreographers. That includes modern and, for example, NYCB and Joffrey Ballet. Perhaps he didn't want to see the same happen to his work, frustrating that it is.

And if so his attitude wasn't entirely different from Balanchine's, was it? Balanchine didn't put much faith in his dances surviving in forms he'd call his own. Reading the Time Out interviews, I'm struck too with Cunningham's lack of interest in revivals. It seems he only really took an interest when he found something he wanted to change, and if memory serves, Balanchine is also said to have been indifferent sometimes. For both men, the main thing was the new work, was in the process of creation much more than the finished product.

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But the Graham company had a long layoff related to those legal issues, didn't it? Isn't that a major reason why the performances are relatively weak now, that lapse in time when class wasn't being given and the dances weren't being rehearsed? Once broken, it's difficult to reforge the link. If the company hadn't been disbanded, it wouldn't have faced that problem, and the quality of its performances wouldn't have dropped off so precipitously.

True. In addition,Cunningham was ninety, and like Balanchine he probably had difficulty going gently into that good night. It's a very human thing to believe (and perhaps even to hope) that your work can't survive your own extinction. And of course Balanchine gave mixed signals - sometimes he would say his works wouldn't survive, but he also took steps to preserve them. Sometimes his ballets are not well danced, but often as not they are. The closing of the Cunningham company and the school was surely precipitate. The company might have failed. It might have survived. The point is that it never had the chance.

(I would say it's possible that Graham truly didn't care - that once she ceased to dance her works ceased to have real value for her. But her dances are part of our collective cultural heritage and they were worth fighting for. It's a difficult issue, because the rights of the artist also deserve respect.)

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Balanchine also felt a moral obligation to support Tanaquil Leclerq until her death through royalties on a number of his ballets.

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I also wonder how many ballet companies are going to be willing to do Cunningham, and how often. How much of a draw will his work be? Even here on this site full of serious ballet fans, relatively few people participate on this or other modern dance threads. Perhaps the best we can hope - can "dream the impossible dream" of - is that a new or relatively unknown modern dance troupe will specialize in Cunningham, surviving on the attendance and support of Cunningham fans, and giving dancers the chance to immerse themselves in the technique.

I doubt very many ballet companies will program Cunningham. The music alone will be off-putting for most of them. The truth of the matter is that Cunningham, despite his stature within critical and intellectual circles, was never a big draw. In my opinion, the farewell tour distorted the true size of his audience. A lot of people went to the shows because it was the end, much like a lot of lapsed fans tune in to the last week of a soap opera before it goes off the air.

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But the Graham company had a long layoff related to those legal issues, didn't it? Isn't that a major reason why the performances are relatively weak now, that lapse in time when class wasn't being given and the dances weren't being rehearsed? Once broken, it's difficult to reforge the link. If the company hadn't been disbanded, it wouldn't have faced that problem, and the quality of its performances wouldn't have dropped off so precipitously.

True. In addition,Cunningham was ninety, and like Balanchine he probably had difficulty going gently into that good night. It's a very human thing to believe (and perhaps even to hope) that your work can't survive your own extinction. And of course Balanchine gave mixed signals - sometimes he would say his works wouldn't survive, but he also took steps to preserve them. Sometimes his ballets are not well danced, but often as not they are. The closing of the Cunningham company and the school was surely precipitate. The company might have failed. It might have survived. The point is that it never had the chance.

I disagree that the Graham company's problems stem from technical issues related to the layoff. If nothing else, the Graham dancers looked well-trained at the performances I've seen (although the current cross-disciplinary way of training modern dancers probably distorts the Graham repertory more than any other heritage repertory.) No, my issue with the Graham company as it exists today stems from what I see as an obvious lack of belief in the works. The dancers can't truly commit to that grand world Graham created and, so, the works never come to life (except possibly as camp.)

(I would say it's possible that Graham truly didn't care - that once she ceased to dance her works ceased to have real value for her. But her dances are part of our collective cultural heritage and they were worth fighting for. It's a difficult issue, because the rights of the artist also deserve respect.)

I would absolutely say that Graham didn't care. I'm convinced she thought the works were nothing without her so who cares what becomes of them? Her tragedy was in not pulling the plug when she "retired" in 1969 and "killing" the works then.

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my issue with the Graham company as it exists today stems from what I see as an obvious lack of belief in the works. The dancers can't truly commit to that grand world Graham created and, so, the works never come to life (except possibly as camp.)

That's interesting. I'm veering off%20topic.gif , but I wonder if what you see has to do with all the irony in today's culture, and even more to do with the fact that the current company lacks the benefit of Graham's presence, lacks someone with her strong imagination and concomitant ability to inspire their own imaginations, so that they can really inhabit those characters.

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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.
thanks for posting that link, Sandi -- GREAT stuff there, a treasury.

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Graham's life and her ending did indeed contain elements of tragedy, but I would hesitate to include failure to destroy her works thoroughly enough as one of them......

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Graham's life and her ending did indeed contain elements of tragedy, but I would hesitate to include failure to destroy her works thoroughly enough as one of them......

What can I say? Tragedy, like art, is in the eye of the beholder . . . wink1.gif

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I remember some years ago a critic commenting that it seemed to take about two years for new members of MCDC to look fully at home in the work. ( This was before the establishment of the repertoire understudy group but new members would have come from the advanced class at the studio which was primarily taught by Merce himself at the time.) I think the chances of rep. companies doing justice to the work are slim to none. I am dreaming thata couple of MC veterans will form a co. with dancers they train to do their own work and also some of Merce's.

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article00.jpg

Review in Artforum on the last Cunningham performances by David Velasco: "End Days"

After fifty minutes, the fourteen dancers, all dancing across the platforms, simply walked off those black Marley stages with the same quiet authority with which they’d mounted them. The lights and music quit, and that was it.

“Well, so what do you do after you’ve witnessed the end of modern dance?” a friend asked, without a trace of irony. Someone raised a glass. And suddenly it was a new year.

http://www.artforum.com/diary/

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Thanks for this wonderful discussion. The always excellent Marina Harss, dance critic for The Nation, has a new piece which addresses many of the issues raised here. Harss interviewed a number of people involved -- including Edward Swinton -- and appears to be quite familiar with Cunningham's work and the dance scene he worked in and left behind.

Life After Merce

I like the way she addresses both (or all) sides of the discussion. For example:

Despite Cunningham’s recurring use of “chance techniques” such as rolling dice, flipping a coin or using the I Ching to shuffle his choices about a dance’s movement and sequences and to dispense with the overlay of narrative, the choreographer had, by all accounts, very clear ideas about the look and feel of his dances. At the same time, he was extremely reticent about communicating this underlying vision to the dancers, preferring instead to give intricate physical instructions that were painstakingly worked out and then seared into the dancers’ brains and bodies by sheer repetition. It follows, then, that not every choice made by a dancer in his absence would be equally sound and that, over time, the accumulation of such choices would erode a dance’s underlying logic, inscrutable as it might be. This erosion of clarity over time is an inescapable problem of dance. A symphony exists on paper, the composer’s intentions clearly noted and open for interpretation by each new performer, and for study by scholars and students.

And then, the inevitable "BUT"

But a dance is an organism that morphs and grows—or usually atrophies—over time. Details are lost, transitions forgotten, and the bodies of dancers change over time with changes in dance technique and the surrounding culture. Cunningham dancers today look nothing like they did in the 1950s. { ... ]

The Cunningham dancers, while conflicted, seem to support the trust’s decision. Silas Riener, who joined the company in 2007—and who danced electrifying solos at the Armory and during the company’s final run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music three weeks earlier—told me that since Merce’s death, he doesn’t “feel like it’s the same kind of pushing boundaries, the way Merce always wanted to move forward. If it went on any longer, I would be stuck. I feel we’re going towards the end.” Daniel Madoff, a dancer with an explosive jump and an intense, deeply innocent stage presence, stressed Cunningham’s tendency to make small adjustments to the dances, to tailor roles to a dancer, which breathed new life into the material. Over the past two years, as older works have been reconstructed for the tour by Swinston and others, the dancers have faced the difficult predicament of having to decide whether to be utterly faithful to past versions of dances—essentially freezing the choreography in time—or to make choices regarding the placement of an arm, the amount of space covered or the timing of a movement that risk obscuring the choreographer’s underlying intentions and thus the work’s integrity. As Madoff put it to me, “Every time I make a decision, I run the risk of maybe doing something Merce wouldn’t have liked.”

I first read about Cunningham (probably in the Voice) in the mid sixties, when I arrived in Manhattan to go to grad school. I saw the company for the first time in what I remember as a large (and mostly empty) armory. After that, I attended one or sometimes two performances a year until the mid-80s.

My love of dance is related intimately to the way it connects to music. That has always gotten in the way of appreciating Cunningham's work as much as others do, especially after Cunningham "sliced the connection" between composer and choreographer (Joan Acocella's phrase) in the 70s.

But you don't have to warm to a person's work to acknowledge his genius. What will happen to his company -- and to the arrangements that will be made to have his dancers set his works on other companies, or on their own companies -- when the last "Cunningham dancer" is no longer with us?

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