Merce Cunningham Trust: Barbara Ensley Award


The Merce Cunningham Trust’s Barbara Ensley Award provides support for young BIPOC dance artists making the transition from school training programs to professional dance careers. The award aims to expand opportunities for BIPOC dance artists to engage with and benefit from the legacy of Merce Cunningham, and to provide the resources and stability to explore and participate in the broader New York City dance community.

The award is named in honor of Barbara Ensley (1936-2021), a longtime faculty member of the Merce Cunningham Studio. Ensley, who was selected by Cunningham to teach at his studio, was the only Black woman on the faculty. As the primary teacher of the Fundamentals Class, Ensley was the first teacher for countless newcomers to the studio. She is remembered for welcoming and encouraging new students, and for providing a thorough and insightful introduction to Cunningham Technique. This award honors Barbara Ensley’s contribution to the Cunningham legacy, and advances the Trust’s commitment to create and sustain an environment of belonging and inclusion.

The award will be given annually and will run for a six-month period. Candidates will submit an application for review by a selection committee coordinated by the Trust.

At the outset of the program, the awardee will meet with a Trust advisor to identify areas of special interest, to learn about relevant resources and activities, and to be paired with a mentor from the professional dance community. In collaboration with the advisor and mentor, the awardee will design a plan for pursuit of professional interests and goals. At the conclusion of the program, the awardee will submit a written reflection and sit for a final interview.

The Barbara Ensley Award has multiple components including:

  1. Financial support. The awardee will receive a grant of $10,000 to support improving or enhancing their artistic capacity and skills as they transition into a professional dance career. In their final report, the awardee will be asked to describe how they used the grant money and its impact on their artistic development.
  1. Mentorship by a professional dance artist. The awardee will be paired with a mentor for periodic discussion and reflection. This mentorship is intended to provide a venue for inquiry and self-evaluation, and a bridge to the professional dance community. The mentor will receive an honorarium from the Trust.
  1. Ongoing training. The awardee will have unlimited free access to the Trust’s daily Cunningham Technique classes. To help cultivate a consistent physical practice and provide a “home base,” a target number of Cunningham classes per week will be established. However, the awardee will be encouraged to broaden their training and exposure by attending classes at other studios and venues.


The awardee may also incorporate into their program any or all of the following:

  1. Cunningham workshops. The awardee will be invited to participate free of charge in periodic Cunningham repertory and chance operations workshops both to deepen their understanding of Cunningham’s work, and to develop their professional skills. The awardee will also be encouraged to participate in other workshops in the city.
  1. Access to archival materials. The awardee will be given access to Cunningham archival materials (video, choreographic notes, photographs, performance records, etc.). Guidance in studying and analyzing these materials will be offered, including introductions to individuals with expertise in particular areas of interest.
  1. License to perform a solo. The awardee will have the opportunity to work with an authorized MCT stager to learn a Cunningham solo. The solo may be publicly performed and/or used for audition purposes.
  1. Investigation of a solo. The awardee will have the opportunity to work with an authorized MCT stager to study a Cunningham solo as a tool for developing choreographic skills and/or creating original choreography.
  1. Independent study. The awardee will have the opportunity to pursue areas of special interest that emerge over the course of the program.


Eligibility requirements:

  • Applicants must be dance artists who self-identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color)
  • Applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.
  • Applicants must reside in the New York City area during the six-month term of the award.
  • Applicants must have completed or expect to complete a college-level training program or the equivalent between January 2020 and June 2022.

Applicants should articulate clear artistic goals and a vision for how this award will advance those goals. Previous experience with Merce Cunningham’s work is not required.

For information about applying for the Barbara Ensley Award, click here