Membership sale! Use promo code JOIN35 and save $7 (reg. $42). Sign up today! See if you qualify to join TDF.

An online theatre magazine

Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists

Translate Page

Merce Cunningham Dances Return to New York

Date: Feb 20, 2015

Modern dance icon Merce Cunningham was an innovator not only in angular shapes etched in otherwise flowing movement, but also in choreographic structure: Among other variables, he used chance to determine which sections of choreography were to be performed---and in what order--- creating what was called an Event. As Cunningham's right-hand man for 32 years (both as a dancer and an assistant), lithe, twinkly-eyed Robert Swinston participated in and helped manifest many of these Events, proving him more than qualified to carry on Cunningham's legacy after the modern master's death in 2009.

Swinston took on the task immediately after Cunningham's passing with the Legacy Tour of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and now he's carrying on the heritage in another way: From March 10-15, Swinston will bring the French-based troupe Compagnie CNDC-Angers to the Joyce. The company will perform Cunningham choreography in the homage Event, with live music by John King and Gelsey Bell and whimsical, painted silk décor by Jackie Matisse. Though the order and pieces in this particular program are pre-determined (unlike the roulette version of days past), Swinston is looking forward to bringing Cunningham's artistic hometown another taste of the maestro's work.

This iteration has been a few years in the making: After the final performance of the Legacy Tour in 2011, Swinston made his home in Anger, France, as the artistic director of Le Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, a branch of the country's choreographic and artistic hubs. It was there he felt he could find much more support than in America, where "financing a company to continue is very complicated, and heavily relies on private support," he explains. "Without Merce's presence, it was rationally decided it was in the best interest of his legacy not to continue in that climate. In Anger, in the Loire River Valley, I can continue with Cunningham work---and my own creations, too---in a space that is artistically supportive, offering residences for artists, public dance programing, and a school. It's a rich atmosphere."

From this environment he sourced a troupe of eight French dancers in the fall of 2013. Casting the group proved fascinating for Swinston, who had grown accustomed to Cunningham-familiar dancers. "I didn't know what to expect," he says. "Besides their physical abilities, I was looking for the dancers' humanity. It's complicated because Cunningham work is quite specialized, and some of the auditioning dancers had a bit of training and others didn't. But, for example, there was a hip-hop dancer who brought something of a presence, a humanity, to what he did, and I selected him. Now, throughout the months since, it's a process for them to gain an understanding of the Cunningham work, and that's been a new challenge for me."

In "assembling" the selections of Cunningham's choreography in the Joyce show, Swinston turned to his simple appreciation of the work to help him chose snippets. "When I first went to a Cunningham performance in 1972, I didn't understand anything," he recalls. "I went back many times throughout the '70s, and then I started to observe more aspects that created more possibilities. I'm always discovering new things, even now. There's always a surprise in there. And I stayed so long because of the man, Merce. He was a powerful individual with an intensity that was inspiring to each and every body. Although he had a modest presence, he had a very strong way of asking the most out of you. He was a very special master."

Now at the Joyce, performances will showcase work from this early period, much of which hasn't been seen in decades, including Variations V from 1964, <em>Rebus</em> from 1975, and Fractions I from 1978. To maintain some amount of Cunningham-esque chance, Swinston has prepared his dancers with three different versions of the program. A 70-minute version will show on evenings and the Sunday matinee, a Saturday family matinee will run 60 minutes, and there will also be a 45-minute educational program.

While some of the work has been tweaked to accommodate the smaller eight-person cast, the core of Cunningham's choreography remains, just as Swinston hoped. "Merce's work hit the center of a lot of things," he says. "It has a neutrality and an integrity in principle that will survive. Coming back to New York City after that great history with Merce, it feels like putting my head into lion's mouth. But it's important that Cunningham's work continue: He wanted it to. I'm fortunate to have his blessings to make that happen."


Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York

Photo by Patrick Andre