Merce Cunningham's Modern Dance Steps in Jeopardy With His Passing

Renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham dies at 90.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

As of exactly two weeks ago, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company could still drive audiences to a near-revolt, with a performance at Wolf Trap leading to cheering, a few boos and a shouting match between two men with incompatible reactions.

If you can't appreciate it, just leave! bellowed one to the other.

But with the death of the 90-year-old Cunningham on Sunday, his work -- as revolutionary and provocative as it is -- may be swiftly reduced to a memory.

Cunningham, a gentle man, was a great roaring lion of a choreographer. His boundary-busting helped forge modern dance into a vital and exportable American art form. Give him a tradition and he torched it: He ripped music and dance apart -- his dancers didn't know what music they'd be dancing to until opening night. Even the sets, costumes and lighting for his works were often created independently of one another. He had a gambler's lust for Lady Luck, using "chance operations" -- tossing dice or a coin -- to set the order of sections of a dance, or to determine which piece of music would be played first.

He also brought computer software (choreographing with a program he helped design), motion-capture technology and even the iPod into live performance -- in a 2006 work called "eyeSpace," Cunningham lent out pre-loaded iPod Shuffles, for the audience to shuffle at will during the dancing. Innovative rock groups Radiohead and Sigur Ros turned themselves into pit bands for him, and in creating sets for him, giants such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns eagerly relegated themselves to the background.

One of the great artists of the 20th century, Cunningham was as experimental and globally influential in his world as James Joyce, Stravinsky and Picasso were in theirs. But unlike books, music and paintings, Cunningham's nearly 200 dances are at risk of extinction.

It's a problem unique to the dance world. As mourned as he is, Michael Jackson didn't leave this kind of heartache to his fans: Coming generations will still be singing "Billie Jean" and watching the "Thriller" video. But concert dance such as Cunningham created needs to be seen live to be experienced.

The problem is, the company Cunningham founded in 1953 does not plan to go on without him. If it can raise enough money, the troupe will embark on a final two-year international tour and then fold. As of Monday, a little more than $2.5 million of a needed $8 million had been raised for the tour, archiving efforts and other expenses, according to Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation.

Without his dancers, Cunningham's work is all too likely to succumb to modern dance's tragedy of evanescence.

The only museum dance has for displaying its creations is the stage. And the best curators are ballet companies, which essentially stockpile works by different choreographers -- performing "The Nutcracker" as well as ballets by, say, Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins -- and readily absorb older dances into their repertoires. But the much younger field of modern dance, barely a century old, has grown up around cult figures. These rebels and individualists -- Martha Graham, Cunningham, Paul Taylor, among others -- wanted little to do with one another. Like fashion houses, the choreographers launched their companies as vehicles for their own work. Christian Dior didn't display Ralph Lauren in his shop, nor did Graham want a Taylor piece taking up her time in the spotlight.

The largest exception to this is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which has become a thriving, internationally touring repertory company for works by mostly African American artists. But it didn't have to drastically retool itself after Ailey died in 1989. He hadn't had a problem with sharing while he was alive -- his troupe frequently danced other works besides his own.

All too often, modern-dance choreography becomes orphaned once its creator dies because the field does not have a catchall, a repository for its lost children. The idea of a national modern-dance repertory company has come and gone over the years -- raised most recently by New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins, who tried to get one started in 2004 -- but has never taken hold.

"Financing is the biggest problem," says Douglas Sonntag, dance director for the National Endowment for the Arts. Even without a recession, modern dance has historically been underfunded. "And there are the artistic fights, the people who adore Merce and despise Paul Taylor, for instance."

Then there is the artistic promiscuity built into the field. Modern dance has a disastrously roving eye -- it's always after a hot new premiere. Because of its hunger for the next rebel with the next radical statement, the field of modern dance is more likely to abandon established works such as Cunningham's than, say, the ballet world is with its choreographers. (Cunningham did create work for a few ballet companies, and they are the best hope for carrying on some of his gentler pieces -- say, 1958's "Summerspace," with its meditative piano score and feeling of quiet attentiveness.)

But these aren't the only strikes against the longevity of Cunningham's art.

All dance is, uniquely and sadly, an ephemeral art form. It lacks a good system of self-preservation other than continuous performance, with one generation of dancers teaching the steps to the next. Even though videotaping and written notation methods are now commonly used to record some productions -- what if the dancers made a mistake? What if the camera angle misses the dancers in the back row? No technology tops the labor-intensive oral tradition as the best means for capturing a choreographer's intentions, use of music and so many other details that go into the live art and are kept in dancers' memories, rather than in reference material. Under Cunningham's Living Legacy Plan, rights to his works will be made available. But with no group of professional dancers charged with performing them, the most likely to seek these rights are college dance departments looking for a teaching exercise.

"Why do we have to throw away the old stuff? No other art form does it," says Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company. "If Merce's works are truly relegated to historic reproductions at the university level, and are not danced with the full-on professional power of people who have been trained in that genre, they won't really exist in their full artistic power. And I think that's depressing."

The reality is that Cunningham's death and the eventual self-destruction of his company may be as good as consigning his works to the dustbin. Fans might as well envision black edges all around Cunningham's works now -- the glorious creation myth that is "Sounddance," with its fierce, cyclonic score; "XOVER," a final collaboration with painter Rauschenberg, and a meditation on eternity. Cunningham loved the randomness of life that he represented in his work with the toss of a coin. But in a field ill-suited to keeping its history alive, too much is now being left up to chance.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company