Fall Arts: The Merce Cunningham Company Dances to an End

A choreographer dies; the work lives on. Or does it? And if the artist in question has created and maintained a company devoted to the performance of his/her dances, what then? In the final decades of the 20th century, we lost José Limón, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Alwin Nikolais, and, in 2009, Merce Cunningham. A while before his death at 90, Cunningham made a sobering decision. On December 31, 2011, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company ends the second year of its Legacy Tour, gives its final performance, and ceases to exist.

Cunningham must have considered how his late contemporaries had handled their heritages and decided against following their examples. The Limón and Graham companies have soldiered on—keeping classics of the repertory polished, commissioning new works that, with luck, complement those of the master, and developing strategies to attract those too young to have seen the companies when their founders were alive. Nikolais's works have a home in Salt Lake City's Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, a separate adjunct to the organization's contemporary repertory.

Balanchine's New York City Ballet has always been to some degree a repertory company, although his work predominates. A large, well-supported establishment, NYCB commissions gifted choreographers who work with the classical vocabulary, but it too must come up with attention-getting projects (consider Peter Martins's Ocean's Kingdom to the first-ever ballet score by Sir Paul McCartney, premiering September 22).

It's not surprising that Merce Cunningham didn't envision a future for his company without him. As an artist, he appeared to think in the present tense, to live in the moment. Like the philosopher Heraclitus, he clearly believed that you couldn't step into the same stream twice. Along with his longtime musical director and partner, John Cage, he embraced the riskiness of chance procedures in composition, and unforeseen intersections of dance, music, and décor in performance. He wanted dancing to mean itself or to mean whatever the spectator wanted it to. He could be slightly entrancingly enigmatic—once writing, for instance, that "the body shooting into space is not an idea of man's freedom, but is the body shooting into space. And that very action ... is man's freedom." He referred to climaxes in choreography as "privileged moments" and did his best to avoid them.

Cunningham's dances will live on, licensed to other organizations and rehearsed by those well-versed in the repertory and the style. But as of January 1, 2012, we will not have the last group of superb dancers that he picked and groomed and built works on. It could break your heart. His decision, nonetheless, was a brave and understandable one. He leaves us with the memory of an ensemble at its peak, of his dances as he loved to see them.

The present company has been touring strenuously during its allotted two years. In 2011 alone, the 14 dancers have been applauded in London, Paris, Berlin, Jerusalem, Mexico City, and elsewhere abroad, as well as in American cities and university towns. They've gradually been saying goodbye to the repertory, even as they greet it in every theater with full fervor.

New York has two chances before the end of the year to feast on Cunningham's work: six dances and four performances during the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, and the final hurrah—six Events performed over three days on three stages at the Park Avenue Armory—ending on New Year's Eve. Tears for champagne.

December 7–10,
BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House,
30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org; December 29–31,
Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue,
armoryonpark.org

 
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6 comments
Boimystc
Boimystc

This company has stood strong for a generation of movement and inspiration. What an amazing legacy. I am sure we will discuss this more as time passes. Cunningham even in the end became again something unique.

oluyinka
oluyinka

I wish I could have seen them live, but I am happy the company finished strong.

Will Hermes
Will Hermes

Just saw them perform at Bard in upstate NY (on Sept. 11, no less). Inspired.

Amylee921
Amylee921

What a hard decision! I'm not sure where I would stand if I were in the same position. I would like to think that no matter what my work as an artist would be remembered even if the work did not continue!

Matthew Frazier-Smith
Matthew Frazier-Smith

I cannot agree more, Lelymari! Perhaps Cunningham acknowledged the need to build on his concepts rather than simply exhibiting them.

lelymari
lelymari

Brave decision!! I reflects the introspection of his work and the relationship established with his dancer. Working in collaboration we have to recognize the processes of a group dynamic and understand that forcing the continuity of a creative process without its pillar is actually denying the opportunity to other generations to establish their visions of dance in relation with new social relations. Everything changes, dance is ephemeral. We can document, we can write, we can talk, we can even try to reproduce, but it will never be the same. The pillars of Dance, or their loving followers, who insist in holding their actions, should let other creative minds come along the way. Dance Pillars will never die.

 

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