Cunningham’s swan song

With less than a year to its disbandment, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform in Israel as one of its last stops.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company 521 (photo credit: Tony Doughert)
Merce Cunningham Dance Company 521
(photo credit: Tony Doughert)
Two years ago, Merce Cunningham joined the list of dance pillars who are no longer among us. Cunningham was a brilliant performer, a true revolutionary and a fearless leader for more than half a century. At the age of 90, he left behind an ensemble of superbly trained professionals, a school dedicated to conveying his movement technique, and a long list of truly inspired repertory. In 58 years, Cunningham created more than 150 dances.
Following his wishes as detailed in his will, on January 1, 2012, the internationally celebrated Merce Cunningham Dance Company will disband. Luckily, the Israel Festival will host one of the stops on its final world tour, entitled the Legacy Tour.
The first week of June will bring the company’s “swan song” to Jerusalem. Lucky viewers present at its singular performance at the Jerusalem Theater will be treated to excerpts from such works as Split Sides and Sound Dance. In addition, the company will perform six “events” at the Israel Museum.
“Events” is a term Cunningham coined to refer to the site-specific performances for which he became known. Part of his boundary-breaking approach to dance included a departure from preconceived performance spaces. A fervent collaborator, he enjoyed presenting his company alongside stunning works of visual art.
Always one to think ahead, prior to his death in 2009, Cunningham devised a carefully plotted road map for the future of his life’s work, the Cunningham Dance Foundation. As was laid out in his Legacy Plan, MCDC embarked on the Legacy Tour in February 2010. This world tour, conducted over two years, will culminate in a final performance on New Year’s Eve in New York City, the company’s home since its inception in 1953. Tickets are priced at $10 per seat for the final show.
MCDC last visited Israel in 1992, when it performed a series of events. Robert Swinston, long-time dancer and director of choreography for the troupe, remembers that tour with great fondness. In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Swinston expressed excitement about returning to Israel after a long absence.
“Visiting Jerusalem was the highlight of that year,” he said.
Swinston arranged the five events set to take place in Israel.
“This tour is like the greatest hits of Merce,” Swinston explained. “We have reconstructed seven dances that haven’t been seen in 30 to 40 years for these performances.”
The Legacy Tour is both an opportunity to witness classic works of Cunningham’s for the last time and a chance to participate in a historical moment for the dance world.
Speaking from his home, Swinston commented on the factors contributing to Cunningham’s unprecedented decisions.
“The bottom line is finances. I don’t think it [the Legacy Plan] is an artistic statement,” said Swinston. “In America everything is based around new work. We knew that if there were no new work, it would change the face of the company. If there is no Merce, there is no new work, and then there is a fall in income. In terms of closing the company, I have my ideas about it, but I understand why it’s being done.”
Transitioning into this new phase, in which the Cunningham Trust, established in 2000, will take over the task of guarding and preserving the dance icon’s work from the Cunningham Foundation, is difficult for many. With every new step taken toward fulfilling Cunningham’s wishes, there is an underlying feeling of loss. Many of MCDC’s employees will be left without jobs come January. In the coming year, the company’s gorgeous studio/ performance space in Manhattan’s Westbeth building will be abandoned.
The historic building has been a beacon for dancers from all over the world for years; however, the hard truth is that financial realities trump all.
WHETHER IT was deliberate or not, there does indeed seem to be an artistic statement inherent in the Legacy Plan. Other companies, such as those of Martha Graham and Lester Horton, met crippling hurdles once their leaders were gone.
Aside from the obvious financial ramifications involved in losing a figurehead, a dance company without an artistic director is at risk for serious compromises in the quality of its work. No one is sure, but this may have been one of the forces at play behind Cunningham’s choice.
“If you’ve read any criticism of our company, you can see that there is no drop in our artistic work,” said Swinston. “I believe that our work, personally, is fresh and vital – even the work that is 40 and 50 years old. When it is seen, it will seem as fresh as it ever was.”
Swinston is perhaps Cunningham’s most devoted disciple.
His relationship with Cunningham spanned three decades, during which time Swinston was a dancer in the company and Cunningham’s choreographic assistant.
It was with great nostalgia that Swinston spoke of the almost magnetic force that had propelled him into the world of Cunningham.
“I was a dancer in New York for 10 years before I joined the company,” he said.
When a colleague of Swinston’s joined the troupe, he felt compelled to attend a performance. “He invited me to the concerts, eight years before I joined. I didn’t quite understand what I saw, but I continued to go to the performances. Each time I saw something new. It got my interest, my curiosity.”
“I came to the studio and started studying.
I was taken with the process and classes with Merce. I wanted to join. The process of studying the technique with a strong leader, creating new work, traveling, all these things were exciting to me. I was interested in doing things in a new way. I was trained at Juilliard, so I had studied Graham and Limon techniques. It was very interesting to me to work where the movement was the primary means of expression, and I was very interested in the work of [composer] John Cage.”
Cunningham’s long-standing artistic and personal relationship with Cage was a defining element of much of his creative life. Together with Cage, he forged a new, radical relationship between dance and music, one that was based largely on the independence of each element.
The dancers executed their movements as they were instructed, often motivated by their own instincts, while musicians played their music. The two coexisted but were not dependent upon one another.
Cunningham would go on to explore such relationships with contemporary musicians such as Radiohead and Sigur Ros, with whom the company performed live. Then, in 2008, staying abreast with Apple’s universal conquest, he presented Eyespace, a 20-minute piece for which each member of the audience was issued a personal iPod Shuffle programmed with 10 original tracks by Mikel Rouse. Once again, Cunningham broadened the range of the music-dance connection, affording every man or woman in the crowd a new perspective on his work.
This kind of experiential freedom was the kingpin for Cunningham’s compositions.
He distinguished himself from his peers by giving dancers the liberty to make their own decisions, allowing for socalled “chance operations” both in the studio and on stage.
“We were treated like adults,” said Swinston, “not like many situations, where dancers were treated differently. I had done some opera work, and the dancers were always the lowest rung on the totem pole. They were treated like children.
With Merce... he wasn’t telling you how to do the movement; he was giving the movement to you. You had to figure out how to do it. There was a lot of individuality because of that.”
Unlike many of his peers, Cunningham managed to stay on top of the technological and cultural wave. In the 1970s, he was one of the first dance practitioners to explore the film media. Recognizing the dawn of a digital era, he developed the “Mondays with Merce” series, an online log of the doings of his team, including footage from classes and rehearsals.
Though the company will soon vanish, Cunningham’s work will be well preserved using digital means. A major chapter of the Legacy Plan was the development of “dance capsules,” which will chart as many of the artist’s works, in as great detail, as possible. Each “capsule” will contain performance videos, lighting charts, sound recordings, notes concerning each creation and interviews with dancers and artistic staff. In this way, the work will live on to be studied by future generations of dancers.
Regardless of what the future holds, Cunningham will always be remembered as one of the most inspiring – and inspired – choreographers of all time.
“Merce was a force of nature,” declared Swinston. “His intensity was palpable. He was a great leader, and we were eager and willing followers. He told us what to do, and we would do our very best. He said jump, we would fly. He said fall, we would hit the dirt.”
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on June 6. For tickets, visit

The events at the Israel Museum will take place from June 9 through June 11.