Remembering Merce

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” —Merce Cunningham

When modern dance legend Merce Cunningham died in 2009, a few months after his 90th birthday, the dance world was forever changed. Two years later, we’re about to feel another major shift: Respecting Cunningham’s wishes, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will officially disband this month, with the final performance of the company’s 40-city Legacy Tour falling on New Year’s Eve in NYC.

Cunningham was a pioneer in dance, digital media and art. His professional dance career began when he joined Martha Graham’s company in 1939, and in 1953 he formed MCDC, for which he went on to choreograph more than 130 works. Cunningham collaborated with numerous artists, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and his longtime companion, John Cage. Dance luminaries like Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Karole Armitage and Jonah Bokaer trained with him.

In addition to the company’s final tour, the Legacy Plan includes extensive documentation of Cunningham’s works, so that other companies can continue to learn and perform them. Daily classes in Cunningham Technique will also be held at New York City Center beginning in April 2012. A chapter in dance history might be ending, but the legacy of Merce Cunningham will live on.

DS asked Cunningham’s dancers and friends to share their Merce memories.

Andrea Weber, current MCDC member

“I loved getting rehearsal notes from Merce. His feedback was subtle—he would give one line, maybe a month into the process. He left you a lot of space. I’ve been performing RainForest, one of the pieces we brought back for the Legacy Tour, and I can’t help wondering what advice he would’ve had for me. Lisa Boudreau, who has danced the role, mentioned that he once said, ‘No stillness exists without movement, and no movement is fully expressed without stillness.’ I’ve been so charged by that statement.”

David Vaughan, MCDC archivist

“I’m very moved by the company’s spirit of camaraderie right now. Everyone is working to show Merce’s work at its best wherever we go on this Legacy Tour, and the performances are wonderful because of it.”

Julie Cunningham, current MCDC member

“Working for Merce taught me more than I could ever have imagined. He would ask us to do incredibly difficult movements, and we would try them without doubt, because he made you feel you could achieve anything. Now whenever I face challenges, I remember that I have accomplished the impossible.”

Kimberly Bartosik, MCDC member from 1987–1996, now artistic director of daela 

“One of the most memorable moments during my time dancing with Merce was the day after John Cage’s sudden death. At that time, Merce was creating Enter, and he was working on a solo for me. I remember him calling me into the studio, and feeling the air thick and empty with loss, and thinking how much I wanted to say I was sorry. But that wasn’t what he wanted or needed. He needed me to dance. It was through movement, then and always, that we communicated.”

Robert Swinston, MCDC Director of Choreography

“As a young man Merce was known for his jump—you can see that in photos, a still point in the air. When I joined the company, Merce was 60 and didn’t have that jump anymore, but he still had an animal alertness and a great intensity. Taking class with him was exhilarating. He always found a way to push you beyond your limits. One of his favorite lines was, ‘Clearly it’s impossible, but we’ll do it anyway.’ ”

Silas Riener, current MCDC member

Split Sides is probably my favorite piece to dance, and the one I worked the most on with Merce. One time Merce was working on a solo I do in Split Sides, and he was trying to get me to do something I didn’t fully understand. He ended up saying that I should dance like I was swatting at mosquitoes. It was a hilarious, illuminating moment—I didn’t know he would use language like that, but it was exactly right.”

Carol Teitelbaum, Faculty Chair of the Merce Cunningham Studio

“I always enjoyed watching Merce’s dances from the wings. One in particular sticks in my mind: Pictures. There’s a section about two-thirds of the way in when the stage comes alive, with one duet here, another there and individuals following solo trajectories in the thick of things. I would tear up each time seeing the dancers I knew and loved transformed into a moving image of humankind going about the activities of everyday life: the teeming richness of life made manifest.”

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