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Merce Cunningham's Legacy: The Dance Goes On

Performers in Merce Cunningham's 1958 dance piece Antic Meet. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Legacy Plan is working to preserve the work of Cunningham, who died in 2009. (Courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company)

Modern dance is an art focused on the idea of the new. With that focus comes a struggle with the past: when its creators pass on, how do you preserve their legacy?

That issue has been at the forefront of an effort by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company since its founder, died two years ago at the age of 90. With the company in the midst of a final worldwide tour, many of Cunningham's admirers are wondering if his work will survive. For all the physicality in this art, it can easily disappear.

When the company performed at Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center in December, music echoed around the cavernous stage as dancers leapt and panted, limbs spiraling through the air. The dancers stopped in Miami on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour, which began in February 2010. Over a 60-year career as a dancer and choreographer, Cunningham transformed modern dance, but once the Legacy Tour ends, so will the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Says dancer Andrea Weber, for now, Cunningham is still here, "Because we carry him with us when we do his work. He even said that to us, you know, towards the end. And I think that obviously we know he's gone and it's been a while now. But we really, really carry him close."

Though Cunningham focused on the here and now, he wanted his dances to live on. Making sure they don't disappear is an enormous challenge.

"You don't have this thing that you can hang on a wall or put on your desk. It's not a solid object. You don't have a script," says dance historian and Florida State University professor Sally Sommer. "You are passing on this ephemeral and fragile thing that is an idea that lives only at the moment that it is performed and then it's gone. It's like you're passing on air."

Passing on Cunningham's legacy is crucial to more than just the world of dance. In the 1950s, Cunningham broke with the basic notion of dance being inspired by drama and emotion, as he and his partner, the composer John Cage, moved dance into a new era of abstraction. Their work was a key part of the art world's seismic shift to post-modernism; Cunningham is now seen as one of the 20th century's most influential artists, on a par with Picasso and Stravinsky.

By the end of his 90 years, Cunningham was in a wheelchair, and instead of creating new dances, he finally began to think about saving the ones he had already made. His longtime friend Laura Kuhn says she urged him to plan for his legacy before it was too late.

"He was making new work up until the end of his life," Kuhn says. "But the making of new work was less possible — it became less and less possible for him. So I think it became clear to him that in order for his work to survive, someone was going to have to step in."

So Kuhn and others close to Cunningham helped him set up the Merce Cunningham Trust, which will maintain an archive of his work and license his pieces, and employ former dancers, like longtime Cunningham dancer Rob Swinston, to teach them to other troupes.

Though Cunningham was very precise about how his pieces were done — he would even use a stopwatch to time them — in many ways his work was difficult to define, or to reproduce. "It doesn't have to do with exactitude," Laura Kuhn says. "It doesn't have to do with replication, but rather with capturing a kind of spirit in the movement. A kind of precision, a kind of discipline, a kind of fullness."

Those qualities give life to a dance, and make it more than a collection of steps. You can't learn them from a video, or from notes; you have to learn them from someone who has actually done the dance.

"Ballet is body to body and mind to mind," says Miami City Ballet director Edward Villella, who is passing on to his dancers what the great choreographer George Balanchine taught him. "So it's a continuity. It goes on and on and on."

Will Cunningham's dances live on after his company's Legacy Tour ends on Dec. 31 in New York City? Losing Cunningham's work would be losing part of dance history, a history that can be as hard to hold onto as air.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Modern dance is still a young art form. But as it matures and its original creators pass on, the dance world struggles with how to preserve their legacy. Now, the issue has come to the fore since Merce Cunningham, the ground-breaking choreographer, died a couple of years ago. His company's final tour ends this year. And his many admirers wonder how his work will survive. Miami Herald critic, dance critic, Jordan Levin looks at the challenge of holding onto an art form that, for all its physicality, can easily disappear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JORDAN LEVIN: This is a dance that will never be done again.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE MOVEMENT)

LEVIN: The dancers leap and pant, limbs spiraling through the air. Music echoes around the cavernous stage of Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center. It's one stop on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Legacy Tour. Cunningham died two years ago. He transformed modern dance in 66 years of choreographing. Before he passed away, he set his company on a final, worldwide tour. For dancer Andrea Weber, Cunningham is still here.

ANDREA WEBER: You know, we carry him with us we do his work. He even said that to us towards the end. And obviously we know he's gone and it's been a while now. But we really, really carry him close.

LEVIN: Close, but not forever. Though Cunningham focused on the here and now, he wanted his dances to live on. His company, however, will end with this last tour. Making sure his dances don't also disappear is an enormous challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SALLY SOMMER: You don't have this thing that you can hang on a wall, put on your desk. It's not a solid object. You don't have a script.

LEVIN: Dance historian and Florida State University professor Sally Sommer.

SOMMER: You are passing on this very, very ephemeral and fragile thing that is an idea that lives only at the moment that it is being performed and then psssh, it's gone. It's like you're passing on air.

LEVIN: Passing on Cunningham's legacy is not just crucial to the dance world. In the '50s, Cunningham broke with the basic notion of dance being inspired by drama and emotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEVIN: He and his partner, the composer John Cage, moved dance into a new era of abstraction. Their work was a key part of the art world's seismic shift to post-modernism. Now Cunningham is now seen as one of the 20th century's most influential artists, on a par with Picasso and Stravinsky.

By the end of his 90 years, Cunningham was in a wheelchair, and he finally began to think about saving the dances he had made instead of creating new ones. His longtime friend Laura Kuhn urged him to plan for his legacy before it was too late. He was making new work up until the end of his life. But the making of new work was less, less possible. It became less and less possible for him. So I think it became clear to him that in order for his work to survive, someone was going to have to step in.

ROB SWINSTON: All right, stop.

LEVIN: Kuhn and others close to Cunningham helped him set up the Merce Cunningham Trust. The trust will maintain an archive of his work and license his pieces, and it will employ former dancers to teach them to other troupes.

SWINSTON: Okay, let's just go through that again.

LEVIN: Longtime Cunningham dancer Rob Swinston will be one of those teachers.

SWINSTON: All of them. One more time. Melissa, after the, after the...

LEVIN: He directs 12 other dancers through a quick changing collage of Cunningham pieces. It's like watching 60 years of dance history whirl by in a few minutes.

SWINSTON: You start the dance. Okay.

LEVIN: Swinston has been dancing and staging Cunningham's pieces for 31 years. You need that kind of deep physical experience to teach a dance - to pass on the intangible qualities, the spirit, the feeling that make it more than collection of steps.

EDWARD VILLELLA: Ballet is body to body and mind to mind.

LEVIN: Miami City Ballet director Edward Villella.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VILLELLA: All the focus now, on the poet. Very mysterious.

LEVIN: Villella is passing on to his dancers what the great choreographer George Balanchine taught him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VILLELLA: Think in those terms. So it's a continuity. It goes on and on and on.

LEVIN: Will Cunningham's dance live on? The Legacy Tour ends on Dec. 31st in New York City. Losing Cunningham's work would be losing part of dance history, a history that can be as hard to hold onto as air.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE MOVEMENTS)

LEVIN: For NPR News, I'm Jordan Levin in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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