As the Merce Cunningham Dance Company approaches the last weeks of their Legacy tour, they are turning the final pages of a volume of work that has been instrumental in the development of both classical and contemporary dance for over half a century.
Rarely has a choreographer been so prolific right up until their demise: his body of work is vast, revered and always distinctly Merce. Not only is his legacy this rich library of choreography, but a widely practiced dance technique. The Cunningham technique, a most classical contemporary dance language, is lauded for both its strength and poetry.
A dancer with the Martha Graham Company in his formative years as a dance-maker, his choreographic and technical lexicon spans the divide between the heritages of the classical and contemporary disciplines. To watch his work is to see a distillation of clean, classical line merged with a modern sensibility. It is this timelessness which has bolstered its longevity within the repertoire.
Merce’s long life gave all involved with the eponymous dance company the time to adequately organise what was going to happen on his passing. The Merce Cunningham Foundation would be replaced by the Merce Cunningham Trust, which would hold and look after the rights to his work and the Company would fold after a two year, 40 city Legacy tour.
The disbanding of the company seems unnecessary from one aspect, as the company could carry on performing his works indefinitely. However, his company was borne of a true vision, and carried on with purity of purpose – trained in his technique, the dancers danced his work, his way and constantly under his watchful eye – how could they possibly carry on without his leadership. From this viewpoint, it is the most respectful way for a company to behave. With other such companies, created from such a singular view, Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for example, this might, in retrospect, have been the most suitable option after the departure of their esteemed creators: companies who find themselves suddenly without omnipotent leadership can very often falter spectacularly.
Without a company to concern themselves with, the Trust is now in a perfect position to see the advancement of the Cunningham repertoire throughout companies worldwide. His work has informed so many choreographers in both classical and contemporary dance, and everything in between: as an shining star on the dance walk-of-fame, his legacy has a worth all of its own, so long may the Trust keep his vision and beauty alive.