The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is hitting the road one last time, going round the world for its Legacy Tour before disbanding. The final engagement will be at the Park Avenue Armory on New Year’s Eve, 2011. All tickets will be $10, honoring Cunningham’s wishes for his hometown. After that, the company dissolves.
And then what? It’s mind-boggling to think of a world (or a New York) without the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
But Cunningham was a singular artist, and the Cunningham Dance Foundation has come up with a singular plan to keep the work—not the company—alive.
It’s a big gamble, and the stakes are high, especially given the importance of Cunningham’s work. But I think it’s a smart one, considering how other modern dance companies have limped painfully along after their founders’ deaths.
The Cunningham Dance Foundation is enabling the Cunningham Trust to hold the rights to the choreography. Fifty dances have been identified for immediate preservation through “Dance Capsules,” which “will include performance videos, sound recordings, lighting plots, décor images, costume designs, and production notes from rehearsal and performance periods, as well as information drawn from interviews with dancers and artistic staff.” The hope is that these capsules will serve as blueprints for future presentations of the work, with the variety of viewpoints and information sources. This, in theory, would make for vibrant reconstructions that remain faithful to the originals.
The Cunningham school, according to the company’s director, Trevor Carlson, will likely continue, to allow the crucial body-to-body transmission of the work, as it is licensed to other companies and institutions. Still, it’s unclear just how well the works will survive in the coming years; movement techniques and memories corrode, or at least change, with the passing years, making dance a particularly unsuitable art for time capsules. Choreography exists in performance, not in storage.
“It’s scary. And I for one had a hard time stomaching the fact that I was essentially dissolving my own position as well as everyone else who works under me,” Carlson said, adding that the sheer diversity of Cunningham’s output meant there could be no cookie-cutter approach to preserving the work. “He kept us on our toes in his lifetime, and is doing so after.”