Merce Cunningham Trust



Throughout Merce’s lifetime, as so richly testified in this book, the ending of one dance was usually a gateway to the next. He often spoke of continuing, something he did at times against formidable financial and circumstantial odds. No matter what impediments ensued, he always returned to the studio and continued the movement explorations that captivated him for close to seven decades. He created at least one new work, often more, nearly every year between 1942 and 2009. The full opus comes to 185 dances, plus over 800 Events for which he developed occasional new material that never existed within the repertory. In the nearly six decades of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s existence, over 150 dancers were members of the ensemble. The teaching, the training, the touring, the seasons at home and abroad, all circled back to Merce’s love of dancing and his ever constant curiosity about what the human body could do in a theatrical or theatricalized space. “The possibilities,” he would say, “are endless.”

Now the original body of work is complete. The company disbanded at the end of the Legacy Tour, and the foundation that supported Merce’s work for fifty-eight years will soon be dissolved. The mission of the Cunningham Dance Foundation was twofold: to support the development and dissemination of the new and existing work of Merce Cunningham. With his passing, half of the foundation’s purpose ceased to be possible. The responsibility of preserving Merce’s legacy, and seeing to it that his work continues to be seen, explored, and considered, transfers in 2012 to the Merce Cunningham Trust. The decision to take an alternative route, rather than trying to sustain the company in the form it kept during Merce’s lifetime, is yet another testimony to Cunningham’s unconventional spirit. 

With Merce Cunningham: 65 Years, David Vaughan has created one of the most comprehensive compendiums ever assembled on a choreographer’s complete œuvre. Associated directly with the company for over fifty years, Vaughan collected, documented, and recorded programs and notes of performances, Events, venues, master classes and workshops and seminars and talks that Merce and the company undertook during their many years of performing domestically, abroad, and at home in New York. He also tracked exhibitions, university projects, publications, and film/video creations and screenings that had content related to Cunningham and his collaborators. Only a fraction of this last set of categories is captured in this book, testimony to both the volume and the lasting impact of the Cunningham/Cage presence in and influence on the evolution of live and visual arts in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. 

With frequent access to Merce, Vaughan was further able to secure some of the choreographer’s observations about new dances when they were made. As the company’s archivist (and also at various times its manager and booking agent, and for decades a frequent speaker, writer, and guest lecturer for Cunningham audiences during company tours), he played a role in historicizing the details of Merce’s activities as dancer, choreographer, and artistic director that is singular in the history of American modern dance. The final product, the ePub we now view, represents the summation (though not the comprehensive product—that would be the Cunningham Company Archive, which will soon be handed in its entirety over to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center) of his half-century of endeavor. Along the way we learn something of Merce’s many artistic and administrative collaborators, the men and women who contributed to and facilitated the decades-long labor of sustaining the work of Merce and his dance company.

The next chapter of the story is as yet unwritten. How the narrative unfolds lies not solely with the trustees of the Merce Cunningham Trust but also with everyone who studied with Merce, with everyone who danced and studied and wrote about, or will write about, his dances and his theories about choreography and dance training, with everyone who was in one way or another awakened by his and Cage’s departures from the known and agreed-upon artistic conventions of the times in which they made choreography and sound. The world has begun to catch up to them in the early twenty-first century, where the acceleration of information flow throws the open mind akimbo, the commonality of multitasking reinforces Einstein’s famous dictum that “there are no fixed points in space,” and the cacophony of ear-budded pop music meeting street noise goes along, unquestioned, with the experience of urban living. Sound, visual information, and movement roil together in what might puckishly be considered life imitating art at last.

Thanks to the Cunningham Dance Foundation’s Legacy Plan and the work that lies ahead for the Trust, Merce’s work will continue to be available, in a variety of forms, to those who are drawn to or interested by it or who wish to study it or do it. In the process, yet new methods of communicating and preserving source materials will be deployed (including the digital Dance Capsules), making many of these resources available through a virtual platform. One could imagine a scenario wherein this ePub would require periodic addenda tracking and documenting where and how Merce’s dance works, technique, and legacy proceed to generate thought, artistic product, and action far beyond his lifetime. Continuing.

Bonnie Brooks
January 2012