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Merce Cunningham dance troupe announces plan for future

June 9, 2009 |  4:56 pm

Merce Master choreographer Merce Cunningham, who turned 90 in April, is taking steps to see that his dance will go on.

Today at his troupe's studio in New York, the Cunningham Dance Foundation announced its Living Legacy Plan, which confronts the prospect of a future without its founder. The plan, developed by Cunningham and the foundation’s board, addresses key artistic, preservation and administrative issues — including a world tour, the troupe’s eventual dissolution and digital preservation of choreography.

“This plan represents our continued effort to be leaders in the arts, and our continued support of Merce’s 70-plus years of dance-making,” said Executive Director Trevor Carlson.

In 2000, prompted by a bitter legal struggle that followed Martha Graham’s 1991 death over the rights to her repertory, Cunningham created the Merce Cunningham Trust, which holds the rights to all his choreography. Under the plan announced today, upon the choreographer’s death (or in the event of any incapacity that prevents him from directing his troupe), the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will celebrate his legacy with a two-year world tour, after which the foundation will close and its assets will transfer to the trust.

This would be followed by the formal closure of the foundation and all its activities — the company, studio and archives (with transitional compensation for all dancers and staff). The repertory is to be sustained through the creation of digital packages, called “dance capsules,” containing complete documentation of designated dances. “A dance capsule will allow for easier restaging for major dances, as well as scholarly study of works,” Carlson said.

In addition, the foundation said it was starting an $8-million fundraising campaign to support the plan.

“We believe the Living Legacy Plan to be a first in our field,” Carlson added. “We recognize the challenges in maintaining a company like ours, and the importance of our director’s legacy.”

Carlson said he felt others in the field could learn and benefit from Cunningham’s proactive approach. “We want people to understand that there is a plan in place, and we want to have an open communication with our peers. It feels to us like something that everyone should consider, regardless of age. So we’re hoping that by opening the door, that we’re creating an opportunity for dialogue.”

“It deeply saddens us to think about a future without Merce,” said Daniel Madoff, a company member since 2007, speaking for his fellow dancers. “Conversely, we are glad to do away with the speculation, thanks to this new insight into the future of Merce’s work. Even more so, with this plan we are optimistic that Merce’s body of work will be well taken care of.”

In April, Cunningham celebrated his birthday with considerable panache, unveiling an expansive, full-evening work cheekily titled “Nearly Ninety.” Though he has been using a wheelchair in recent years, he appeared onstage to grin broadly though enthusiastic curtain calls.

“My idea has always been to explore human physical movement,” Cunningham said in a statement today. (He was not present at the news conference, officials said, because he found it difficult to speak about the matter in public.) “I attempt to teach students and dancers about my technique, but in a way that allows room for individuality. I would like the trust to continue doing this, because dancing is a process that never stops, and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh.”

The company currently has touring engagements booked into 2011. Upcoming California performances include “Nearly Ninety” at Cal Performances, Berkeley, March 26-27, and “Events” at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, June 3-5, 2010.

Noting Cunningham’s longstanding incorporation of chance operations into his innovative choreographic process, board Chairwoman Judith R. Fishman said, “Merce and the foundation agree that the future of his life’s work cannot be left to chance."

-- Susan Reiter

Photo: Merce Cunningham, earlier this year. Credit: Mark Seliger.

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