Merce Cunningham: A legacy

Categories: Art, Dance
From "Minutiae"
While the likes of Emily Dickinson, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and other artists throughout the course of time didn't achieve notoriety until after their deaths, there have been some lucky few who have gotten the recognition and esteem that their works merit while still living. That certainly can be said of Merce Cunningham, the prominent, avant-garde choreographer who went from a dancer in Martha Graham's company to founder and choreographer of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), a troupe who took modernist dance to new and exciting levels. Cunningham, who died in 2009, left behind a legacy of innovative movement with collaborations with the likes of other prominent artists such as his partner, John Cage, Abstract Expressionist Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and many others. 

Cunningham had seen the turmoil that ensued after the death of Martha Graham, who bequeathed her dances to her friend Ronald Protas. A legal battle was fought between Protas and the Martha Graham Center, which argued that the dances were not Graham's to give, as they were created as "works for hire" for them.
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From "Antic Meet"
But it was Cunningham's involvement with his partner John Cage's legacy that ultimately propelled him to take action for what would happen to his own works, according to Trevor Carlson, the Executive Director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and also a trustee of the Cunningham trust. According to Carlson, Cunningham didn't want another choreographer making dances for his company, and came to the conclusion that the Merce Cunningham Foundation and the Merce Cunningham trust didn't need to exist at the same time. 

He therefore developed a three-prong legacy plan, including a final tour of the dance company, a preservation initiative, and ultimate closure of the foundation, at which point the trust would be enlisted to handle the ongoing legacy of Cunningham's work. 
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Trophy II (for Teeny and Marcel Duchamp)

The final legacy tour includes career transition packages for all those involved, "to secure everyone's time" during the tour. But it also gives them a salary for a year beyond the foundation's dissolution. 

In addition, once the tour is complete and the foundation discontinued, the trust will maintain a fellowship program, which will allow former company members, along with Robert Swinston, current resident choreographer of MCDC who will become the Director of Licensing for the trust, to be in charge of bringing Cunningham's work back into communities. The fellowships will take place at the new studios of the trust, where Cunningham technique courses will be taught, but also could occur elsewhere, for fellows that might be based at a university or other setting outside of New York City. Initially there will be one fellow, with a plan to offer five fellowships a year. 

The preservation initiative includes "dance capsules", which include photographs, videos of performances and rehearsals, lighting plots, clippings, notes, and so forth. The dance capsules will be digital, and housed among Cunningham's archives at the New York Library. The Cunningham trust will administer the capsules, which will require a license to access them digitally. If a dance company would like to do a performance of a Cunningham work, they purchase the license which will include the dance capsule and a stager would would go and teach the work to enrich that production. 
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Of course, part of the preservation includes the many costumes and set pieces that were used in Cunningham's dances over the years. Philip Bither, the Performing Arts Curator at the Walker, says that the museum had thought that the Walker's commission of Cunningham's "Ocean," which took place in a quarry in outside of St. Cloud in 2008, would be the final embrace between the choreographer and the museum, which had a collaboration spanning over 40 years dating back to a performance at the Women's Club in 1963. However, Bither says that they "soon realized that there would be no better home" than the Walker for the many art objects that were a part of Cunningham's many collaborative creations. 

Initially, they had estimated the museum would acquire around 150 pieces, but in the preceding months the number escalated to a total between 1,000-2,000 pieces, the largest single acquisition in the Walker's history. 
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The Walker is celebrating its newly acquired acquisition with an exhibition called "Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham Robert Rauschenberg," which runs through August 5. The show features Cunningham and Rauschenberg's works, from when they first began collaborating as students at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, through Rauschenberg's tenure as resident designer for MCDC from 1954-1964, and later collaborations. Then, beginning December 15, the Walker will open "Dance Works II: Merce Cunninham/Ernesto Neto," which explores Cunningham's collaboration with the Brazilian contemporary artist. 

But the not-to-be-missed event happens this weekend, when MCDC performs for the final time at the McGuire Theater. Bither said there are still a few tickets available. "The Farewell Legacy Tour" performs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Walker. 

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