Merce Cunningham Trust

Merce Cunningham Trust

The Merce Cunningham Trust was established in 2000 to hold and administer the rights to the work of Merce Cunningham, which encompasses more than 150 dances and over 800 "Events" created over the course of his sixty-five year career. In 2002, the Trust was recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, with the mission to preserve, enhance and maintain the integrity of the choreographic and other artistic works of Merce Cunningham, and make such works available for the benefit of the public.

Based at New York City Center as of April, 2012, the Trust today offers a wide range of programs conceived to preserve and enhance Cunningham's legacy, including Cunningham Technique® classes at locations throughout New York City and the Cunningham Fellowship, which supports the restaging of Cunningham dances. The Trust also licenses Cunningham works to leading dance companies and educational institutions worldwide, supports scholarship on Cunningham and his work, and partners with cultural institutions to mount special exhibitions, performances, and projects that celebrate Cunningham's artistic achievements.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Born in Centralia, Washington on April 16, 1919, Merce Cunningham was a leader of the American avant-garde whose constant innovation and artistic collaborations expanded the frontiers not only of dance, but also of contemporary visual and performing arts. Cunningham began his professional modern dance career at 20 with a six-year tenure as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company. In 1944 he presented his first solo concert and in 1953 formed the legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) as a forum to explore his groundbreaking ideas. MCDC was formed at Black Mountain College, and included dancers Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Paul Taylor, and Remy Charlip, and musicians John Cage and David Tudor. In its early years MCDC famously toured in a Volkswagen bus driven by  John Cage with just enough room for six dancers, two musicians, and a stage manager, often visual artist Robert Rauschenberg. MCDC's first international tour, in 1964—which included performances in Western and Eastern Europe, India, Thailand, and Japan—marked a turning point for the Company and initiated a constant stream of national and international engagements.

MCDC cultivated a body of new music, commissioning more work from contemporary composers than any other dance company. Its repertory included works by musicians ranging from Cage and Christian Wolff to Gavin Bryars and Radiohead. Cage’s association with the Company as Musical Advisor since its inception continued until his death in 1992, when he was succeeded by David Tudor.  From 1995 to 2012, MCDC was under the music direction of Takehisa Kosugi.

Over the years the Company collaborated with an array of visual artists and designers. Rauschenberg, whose famous “Combines” reflect the approach he used to create décor for a number of MCDC’s early works, served as the Company’s resident designer from 1954 through 1964. Jasper Johns followed as Artistic Advisor from 1967 until 1980, and Mark Lancaster from 1980 through 1984. The last Advisors to be appointed were William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw in 1984. Other artists who have collaborated with MCDC include Daniel Arsham, Tacita Dean, Rei Kawakubo, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Ernesto Neto, Frank Stella, Benedetta Tagliabue, and Andy Warhol.

MCDC was featured extensively in film and video choreographed by Cunningham. Frequent collaborators Charles Atlas, Nom June Paik, and Elliot Caplan created historic dance films such as Life Time of Dance, Ocean, Split Sides,Beach Birds,,Cage/Cunningham, and  Points In Space.

Also in 1964, the Cunningham Dance Foundation was established to sustain the Company and advance Cunningham's creative work. In the decades that followed, the Foundation grew to support the Company's Repertory Understudy Group, the Merce Cunningham Archives, and the Merce Cunningham Studio. Located at Westbeth, the historic artists' housing complex in New York City's West Village, the Studio was a founding member of the National Association of Schools of Dance and served as a home to MCDC from 1971 through 2011, offered classes and professional training in Cunningham TechniqueTM, and oversaw the Studio Program for Young Artists, which provided affordable studio space and technical assistance to emerging artists.

Legacy Plan

The Cunningham Dance Foundation, together with Cunningham, developed the precedent-setting Legacy Plan to address how an arts organization established to fulfill a single artist's vision could transform itself for a post-founder existence and ensure the perpetuation of an enduring creative legacy.  Announced in June 2009, the three-year Plan included MCDC's farewell Legacy Tour, career transition for dancers, musicians, and staff who invested their time and creative efforts toward the realization of Cunningham's vision, the creation of digital "Dance Capsules" to bring Cunningham's work to life for future generations, and the closure of MCDC and the Foundation and transition to the Merce Cunningham Trust to serve as custodian for Cunningham's artistic legacy in perpetuity.

Cunningham passed away in his New York City home on July 26, 2009. MCDC launched its Legacy Tour in February, 2010, which visited nearly 50 cities around the world before culminating in its historic final performance at New York's Park Avenue Armory on December 31, 2011. As outlined by the Legacy Plan, following the end of the Tour and the closure of MCDC the Cunningham Dance Foundation concluded its operations in June 2012, and transferred its assets to the Merce Cunningham Trust.

Merce Cunningham Archive

TheJerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library acquired the Merce Cunningham Archives in 1999, including decades of Cunningham's records, manuscripts, and papers, 948 reels of film, and video for 528 titles. In 2012, as preparation for the closure of MCDC, the library received hundreds more boxes from the Foundation, including choreographic notes and thousands of films and videotapes. The new materials are being archived, and, like all materials in the Dance Division, they will be available to the public to view at the Library at Lincoln Center.

Manuscripts and papers from the Merce Cunningham Archive are accessible at A search for the "Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, Inc. 1938-2003" will lead to the list of all the Merce Cunningham Archive materials. Archival film and video can be found by searching the NYPL catalogue for Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation Collection.

The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library is the largest and most comprehensive archive in the world devoted to the documentation of dance. Chronicling the art of dance in all its manifestations—ballet, ethnic, modern, social, and folk—the Division is part museum, part film production center, and part consulting service to the professional dance community. The Division also provides reference help to a wide range of dance lovers, from serious scholars, to established choreographers and performers, to school children just beginning to explore an interest in dance.

Merce Cunningham Visual Arts Collection

In 2011 the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota culminated a long history of presenting the work of Merce Cunningham and his collaborators by acquiring the MCDC collection of costumes, theatrical objects and decor, thus securing a home for sixty years of collaborations with visual artists. The acquisition represents the single largest collection in the Walker's history. To date the Walker has mounted two major exhibitions, Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg and Dance Works II: Merce Cunningham/Ernesto Neto, with a third exhibition scheduled for May 2013, Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham/Rei Kawakubo. Information about current and future exhibitions can be obtained at