Remembering Merce Cunningham

As the Merce Cunningham Dance Company approaches it’s final days, questions arise as to what will happen to the choreography of its founder, who died two years ago.

This weekend on NPR, Miami Herald Dance Critic Jordan Levin looked at the challenges facing the company as it attempts to preserve Cunningham’s legacy:

Though Cunningham focused on the here and now, he wanted his dances to live on. Making sure they don’t disappear is an enormous challenge.

“You don’t have this thing that you can hang on a wall or put on your desk. It’s not a solid object. You don’t have a script,” says dance historian and Florida State University professor Sally Sommer. “You are passing on this ephemeral and fragile thing that is an idea that lives only at the moment that it is performed and then it’s gone. It’s like you’re passing on air.”

So how do you pass it on? Levin goes on to report:

Though Cunningham was very precise about how his pieces were done — he would even use a stopwatch to time them — in many ways his work was difficult to define, or to reproduce. “It doesn’t have to do with exactitude,” [longtime friend] Laura Kuhn says. “It doesn’t have to do with replication, but rather with capturing a kind of spirit in the movement. A kind of precision, a kind of discipline, a kind of fullness.”

Those qualities give life to a dance, and make it more than a collection of steps. You can’t learn them from a video, or from notes; you have to learn them from someone who has actually done the dance.

“Ballet is body to body and mind to mind,” says Miami City Ballet director Edward Villella, who is passing on to his dancers what the great choreographer George Balanchine taught him. “So it’s a continuity. It goes on and on and on.”

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is travelling the world in what it’s calling its “legacy tour” in an effort to raise money for preserving Cunningham’s work through “comprehensive documentation and digitizing efforts.”

The final performance will take place in New York City on New Year’s Eve. In early November the MCDC will perform at the Walker Art Center, which has acquired more than 150 items – including sets, props, costumes, and selected documentation of MCDC – for its contemporary art collection.

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