Arts - Winter 2018

Step by Step

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Keeping the work of legendary choreographers alive depends on a cadre of experts

By Julia Lichtblau | December 4, 2017
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Sounddance in 2011, the year the company closed and two years after the choreographer’s death. (Stephanie Berger)

On a late June afternoon, a small, eager crowd gathered at the New York City Center for a workshop reconstruction of choreographer Merce Cunningham’s 1975 work Sounddance. A short, dark-haired man entered the room, spinning toward the audience, with David Tudor’s recorded electronic score sounding variously like midtown traffic, dental drilling, and an MRI machine. In a theater, dancers make their entrances and exits from the wings. In the studio, they pretend. The rest of the dancers entered, grouping and regrouping in couples, trios, larger clusters. The performance was full of funny footwork, hip bumps, cocked heads. One dancer left, and eventually they all did, the first man out the last to leave. Like all of Cunningham’s works, Sounddance is abstract, but fresh, full of feeling, revealing new ideas with each viewing. Both the audience and the dancers seemed to relish the occasion. After all, performances of Cunningham’s works, though not exactly rare, have become less frequent since his death in 2009 and the closure of his company two years later.

Cunningham was one of an extraordinary generation of 20th-century American choreographers including George Balanchine, Martha Graham, José Limón, Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, and Paul Taylor. (Only Taylor, 87, survives of that cohort. Murray Louis, an important midcentury choreographer, died in February 2016, and postmodernist Trisha Brown died in March 2017.) Collectively, they’ve left massive bodies of work. Balanchine made 425 dance works, roughly 200 of them ballets. Cunningham created around 200, Graham 181. Yet of all the modes of art, dances are the most vulnerable to neglect. Few have mass-market value. Films notwithstanding, a dance exists primarily in performance. There is no universal notation system comparable to music. So living choreographers rely on notes, videos, and dancers’ memories. It’s hard to imagine a dance world without Cunningham or Balanchine dances, yet once the choreographers and those who studied with them are gone, who keeps their work alive? Even seminal 20th-century choreographers rarely have more than one or two of their dances performed. By comparison, consider how many painters, writers, and composers dating back centuries remain part of our cultural conversation.

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