No more Cunningham dance Company- where do we go from here?

It is an old idea that the more pointedly and logically a theory or thesis is formulated, the more irresistibly it cries out for an antithesis.

I have studied Cunningham technique in modern dance classes; to me, it feels like ballet footwork done with Martha Graham’s use of contraction and spiral in the torso. Summed up for me: it feels like pure hate. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but I don’t want to do it. You have to combine the perfect strength and alignment of the legs and hips with a contorted, off-center back. Ouch. I’ve discovered I’m much better at dance forms like salsa or samba where the hips are allowed to move like crazy but the shoulders generally face a partner; or in my case, a mirror. I’m awesome at staring at myself.

I suppose it’s a big loss in the history sense for the passing of Merce Cunningham . Not only was he an innovator and a pioneer of modern dance and the arts in general- especially for his collaborative process with musicians, such as John Cage- but his company, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, is also on its’ way out. As reported by the New York Times, ”

He has decided that when he dies, or when the right time comes, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will embark on a final two-year international tour and then shut down.”

This is supposedly to help keep his legacy protected; his original works will still be liscensed out to other dance companies but his company itself will cease to be. In his own words, ”

“It’s really a concern about how do you preserve the elements of an art which is really evanescent, which is really like water,” Mr. Cunningham said in an interview last week. “It can disappear. This is a way of keeping it — at least with our experience here — of keeping it alive.”

The dance world is not really a place that upholds and venerates the idea of anonymity or the obliteration of individuality to allow for maximum integration into a hierarchy of companies and schools. Yet, to be a disciple is to be a devoted supporter and usually student of a specific scholar and to spread and continue their artistic vision and language. Disciples of Martha Graham, for instance, could possibly include many famous names in the dance world such as Paul Taylor, Pearl Lang, and Garth Fagan. Though Garth was a student of Graham, his own success came namely from his Tony award-winning choreography for Broadway’s ‘The Lion King’ and had no direct correlation to his work with Graham beyond a vague influence in the formation of his overall voice. Because Graham work is so specific in it’s language of movement, it can be limiting for disciples to use when they step into a new role as choreographer, and should they be true disciples and only use principles set down by Martha herself, they can do little more as a true disciple than restage her original works. This is more difficult to come by in a world of artists where the emphasis is on original creativity and personal expression. it extremely difficult to find information on a true disciple who serves these artists in exemplary fashion, perhaps even rare to determine names. A glance of the history of the development of modern dance shows that every stage of its early development, every extension, every change, every essential segment of history bears the plain imprint of the person who introduced the change. Each innovator is not necessarily the sole or actual ‘author’ in a sense, but is an instrument of transformation.

My guess is that Merce is afraid that the company will lose its original intent or focus without him at the helm of the ship. I wonder how Alvin Ailey would respond to the passing of his company into the capable hands of Judith Jamison, or as of last summer, the new director, Robert Battle (whom I’ve taken class from- and he is amazing!) Perhaps he is less afraid of the loss of his legacy than he is the corruption of it. I can’t think of many artists out there, even the ones that I love, whose company I could see myself one hundred percent sharing what seems to be their vision, and continue hiring the types of dancers they seemed to like, collaborating with the same people, or producing the same kinds of work.

That of course, doesn’t apply to London-based choreographer Matthew Bourne and his company ‘Adventures in Motion Pictures’. Reinventing classics and turning movies like Edward Scissorhands or amazing pieces of literature like “The Picture of Dorian Gray’ in to fantastic ballets? Sign me up. (If you are curious what movies I would dance-icize, check out my post ‘Blood Diamond- the Ballet’)

            Paul Taylor has been interviewed about his experiences in the Graham Company, and how that has affected him as a choreographer, in which he says, “Well, I’ve occasionally stolen things from her dances, and by looking closely at her work I could decide what I didn’t want to do. When you narrow things down, you see what you don’t want to do, and then you do what’s left”. This is a perfect example of new work from a disciple that draws on opposition from the original thesis, and probably a large part of the reason why Paul Taylor has been so successful in his own right and for his own creative voice. He says, “I think these are pretty uptight times. There is an awful lot of moralizing going on. I think it’s time someone said something”. As the choreographer, it is his voice and not Graham’s, doing the talking. When deviance occurs from the old company language and principle and the individual, it is a touchstone for the stature of a personality, and that in today’s dance world, is largely what gains the most fame and respect.

            Companies are not composed of lifeless units that make up a machine, but are rather a living body formed of various parts and organs that possess their own nature and freedom. Everyone one of them shares in the creation of dance, yet as true disciples, every nature contributes and molds to serve the authoritative voice. It is the personalities that deviate and branch out from the roots, that leave the position of disciple and go on to teacher that has kept dance progressing as it does. In these cases, issues such as background or influence is of little importance because the struggle is one of finding a unique point of view, as Taylor did from subtracting his contrasting views from Graham. The instruments of transformation and dance growth are those whose nature and expression render the artist able to let individuality serve a fresh impetus which make for the savor and worth of the particular. The true disciples continue on dedicating themselves to someone else’s original intentions which have made an impact on the dance world.

            However, it is impossible to detach a human being from all roots. It is entirely possible and likely probable that I, as someone with no desire to dance in the Graham company, has been greatly influenced by Graham; Graham who hired Taylor, both of whom hired Susan McGuire, who has been my teacher and mentor at Butler university and a great inspiration. These giant voices in the innovation and development of dance trickle down to unseen even unnoticed places without close inspection, places every dancer takes part in today. It is impossible to see our own role in the pattern, but it is likely that there is a small aspect of disciple of these major voices in all of us interested in modern or contemporary dance today. We have the options to devote ourselves to the preservation of these artist’s ideals but if dance is to continue to grow, choreographers must look to their roots and find the antithesis and deviations that make their own voices special to help the work transform. It is my guess that the Cunningham dancers will take his influence on with them to whatever their futures hold, and I wish them the best. if any of them are by chance reading this right now and want to start a company with  me, I’m all ears. At least, until my visa comes through to head to London to take over Matthew Bourne’s company. And as this autographed cd says, ‘Don’t let the Death Eaters spoil your summer”…maybe that joke is inappropriate….

Autographed 'Harry and The Potters' cd- I saw them live. At a library. I'm way cool

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