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Experience Merce Cunningham's Legacy Throughout NYC

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Mar 11, 2019

In honor of the late dance legend's 100th birthday, you can see his artistry and influence all over town


Merce Cunningham would have turned 100 on April 16 and several local institutions are celebrating the seminal choreographer's creativity, innovation and impact on generations of dance-makers. A native of Washington State, Cunningham was a notable dancer in Martha Graham's company from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s. He began choreographing his own works in 1944 and quickly moved away from her signature style. Graham's movement came from the gut and communicated intense drama. Cunningham's was spare, intricate, exacting and wide open to interpretation.

With his partner, the equally groundbreaking composer John Cage, Cunningham pioneered chance procedures in dance, creating choreography independent of the score and then bringing the two together in performance. Later in life, he even explored the use of computer programs in devising movement.

Although he died a decade ago, his legacy will feel vibrantly alive in NYC over the next two months. The Harkness Dance Festival at the 92nd Street Y is devoting its 25th anniversary to Cunningham's impact on dance, as former members of his company showcase their own world-premiere choreography inspired in various ways by their mentor. Dylan Crossman, who joined the troupe shortly before Cunningham's death in 2009, performs on March 15 and 16; Jonah Bokaer, who was with the company in the 2000s, presents on March 22 and 23; and Ellen Cornfield, a memorable Cunningham dancer from 1974 to 82, finishes up the series on March 29 and 30. (A concurrent exhibit of historical photographs of Cunningham and his dancers is on view in the 92Y's Weill Art Gallery.)

"I think all of our pieces are pretty different," admits Crossman. "But there is a formalism that seeps into all the works in very different ways, a reverence for virtuosity and a passion for movement. I have been greatly influenced by Merce, both as a dancer and a choreographer. There was a lot of room for me to be myself in Merce's work. That was very freeing for me, and I'm trying to push that further."


New York Theatre Ballet, an invaluable, chamber-size troupe, recently added several early Cunningham pieces to its repertory. The company will perform his rarely seen Scramble (1967) as part of its Danspace Project program at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery March 14-16.

Stephen Petronio Company's adventurous Bloodlines series mounts seminal postmodern dances, including works by Cunningham. For its performances at NYU Skirball April 11 - 13, the troupe will perform Tread (1970), which shows a lighter side of the master and features a set consisting of ten large industrial fans.

Back in 2009, Cunningham's final creation, Nearly Ninety, premiered on his 90th birthday at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. So it's fitting that same stage is hosting the NYC portion of Night of 100 Solos on April 16, his 100th birthday. Also taking place in Los Angeles and London, the evening features 25 dancers at each venue performing distinct, 75-minute compilations of his solos, curated by former Cunningham company members. BAM's lineup of performers includes Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet, choreographers Kyle Abraham and Vicky Shick, and members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Finally, at the Joyce Theater from April 17 to 21, three very different companies take on Cunningham masterworks. Compagnie CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston, a French troupe led by a longtime Cunningham dancer who also served as the choreographer's assistant, will perform Suite for Five (1956); Utah's Ballet West will offer Summerspace (1958) and the Washington Ballet will dance Duets (1980).

As executive director of the Merce Cunningham Trust, which licenses his dances to companies worldwide, Ken Tabachnick is overseeing the many anniversary events, but he's already looking beyond 2019. "Part of my goal, as we start to move forward and look past the centennial, is that we begin to expand into other ways of making the technique successful," he says. "For us, there is a constant questioning: How do we do this? What works and what doesn't work? How do we keep the legacy alive into the future?"


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top image: Merce Cunningham's Septet by New York Theatre Ballet. Photo by Richard Termine.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.