With Founder Gone, What’s the Future of Merce Cunningham’s Studio?

A meeting of Students for Cunningham in the studio (photos by author)

A small group of dance students recently gathered on the floor of the Cunningham Studio to try to save their dance program from an early death. “There’s no way the studio won’t make it,” Suzanne Thomas, a French student, said. She is passionate about preserving it for a reason: “Pure Cunningham doesn’t really exist anywhere else.”

The community revolving around choreographer Merce Cunningham, a giant of modern dance, has been in a state of flux since his passing in 2009. Although the choreographer himself and the Cunningham Trust meticulously outlined a plan for both the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which would come to an end after a final farewell tour, and the Cunningham Foundation for after Cunningham was gone, the fate of the Cunningham Studio’s educational program was not so clear cut.

With the death of Cunningham, the last of modern dance’s three greats is gone: Martha Graham, José Limón and Merce Cunningham, all now passed, changed the world of modern dance. The dance community left behind struggles to find a way to stay relevant to the heritage of modern dance while also finding  a way forward. Alan Danielson, school director at the Limón Institute, believes that this struggle touches everyone in modern dance.

Danielson questions if today’s dance and choreography students should learn so completely from the past. “What’s the point of learning how to dance” like Limón, Cunningham, Graham or Alvin Ailey, he asks. “The idea of contemporary dance is that each generation finds its own way of expression… because the world changes for each generation, how can it be valid for this generation to learn how to move like that [older] generation?” Danielson doubts if Cunningham’s legacy needs be preserved in such a literal fashion. Yet the closing of the Cunningham studio would have far-reaching consequences outside the abstract realm of dance theory.

Uncertainty over the Cunningham Studio’s future and the reality of classes being cut has led to confusion among students, especially those in the international program who depend on the studio for their United States visas. Christiana Axelsen called her fellow students together in September to figure out a way to keep the studio alive. They launched Students for Cunningham, an initiative that has been gaining momentum for the preservation of the Cunningham Studio’s educational programming. “We found it necessary to speak up in order to survive,” Paige Fredlund, a 24-year-old student, said in an e-mail.

Students for Cunningham’s first act was to create and distribute a petition asking the Cunningham Trust to consider forming a new Merce Cunningham Center, “as the premier center for the study of Cunningham Technique and Repertory.” The new center would then expand upon the education and outreach of the current Studio, and would offer space to young choreographers to develop their ideas.

“I wanted the discussion to change from ‘Did Merce want the studio to stay open?’ to ‘How can we keep the studio open in a way that Merce would want?’” Axelsen said. Almost 4,000 people from all over the world signed the petition in only a few weeks, just in time for a formal meeting of the Cunningham Trust on October 18. Supporters included not only dance students and teachers, but famous dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov as well.

Members of Students for Cunningham (photo by author)

Robert Swinston, director of choreography and a trustee of the Cunningham Trust, believes that the initiative of the students and the outpouring of support in response to the petition has truly made a change. It “has convinced those on the Merce Cunningham Trust that there is sufficient interest in the world to maintain a home for Merce’s school,” Swinston writes in an e-mail. The number of signatures on the petition plays testament to the fact that Cunningham and his studio have touched lives throughout the dance community. In fact, Cunningham has a long history in New York City as a local presence.

New York City is home to modern dance and home to the legacies of Cunningham, Graham, and Limón. “It is the only place in the world where you can study the roots of these things,” says Danielson at the Limón Institute. Even the Cunningham Studio’s location is historic: the Westbeth Center for the Arts building that it makes its home in is host to one of the only major dance spaces left in New York. Mark Morris, a renowned dancer and choreographer, staged his first performance at the Cunningham Studio in the Westbeth Center, while dancer Baryshnikov worked with Merce Cunningham, and continues to work with the Cunningham foundation.

The Merce Cunningham Studio opened in December 1959, but at the beginning the studio still had a lot to learn about professional operation. As Cunningham archivist David Vaughan wrote in his 1997 book on Cunningham, “Isabelle Fisher, Cunningham’s personal manager, gave the studio’s secretary instructions on how to enroll students, which began: ‘1. Greet the student.’” But over the past 50 years of its history, the Cunningham Studio has become one of the most famous institutions in dance education the world over. It offers not just repertory-style dance training but also a specific technique pioneered by Cunningham that works with the human physique and develops the body’s possibilities through the aesthetic of modern dance.

“One of the things that’s fascinating about the Cunningham Technique is that you’re really working with yourself and discovering where your limits are and going beyond them,” said Cori Kresge, member of the RUGs (Repertory Understudy Group). “There’s no extra dramatic layer that’s given to you. It’s really about discovering who you are as a dancer, and how that changes every day. That’s something that will stay fresh and can never become dated,” Kresge added.

The RUGs performing on the roof of Westbeth (photo by author)

Julia Foulkes, associate professor of history at the New School in New York and author of Modern Bodies, a book about the history of modern dance, believes that Cunningham changed the world of modern dance. Cunningham offered something new to dancers and choreographers, a “focus on movement for movement’s sake as opposed to furthering a story line or emotion,” she writes in an e-mail. He also put “movement on the same platform as other arts, particularly music and visual arts — interacting with them on an equal plane.”

Dance education is a side project to many choreographers and companies. If companies have a school or an educational program, often it is only a way to bring in a little extra money, not as a way to feed and inspire the company itself. “The only major modern dance institution that really incorporated their school into their foundation was [Alvin] Ailey’s. That synergy of school and company  they are built on each other,” Danielson said.

Likewise, the educational program at Cunningham was meant to be a source of potential new dancers. With the end of the company in sight, however, the role of the program is unclear. “I think the Studio was very much forgotten, or put aside for later,” Axelsen said. She believes that continuing the studio or creating an educational center is in line with what Cunningham himself would have wanted. The trust’s stated mission is, after all, “taking into account the best interest of the entire dance community.”

The Students for Cunningham group wants to show that students do not just come to the studio in the hope of becoming part of the Cunningham company, now an empty dream. They come to learn a technique that provides a unique foundation and perspective for a developing dancer. “Dance education is absolutely essential,” says director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center Stanford Makishi. “Just because one studies an historic aesthetic or technique, it doesn’t mean that the resulting work is necessarily old-fashioned, or even traditional.” Learning the ideas of Cunningham and modernist dance provides one way for students to find new possibilities for dance and choreography, the past showing a way forward.

Merce Cunningham in his studio, at left (photo by Mark Seliger via

Beyond fostering students, the studio also presents a vital part of Cunningham’s legacy and is elemental to its survival, Kresge believes. “There has to be a basic standard of Cunningham in its most distilled form, in a concentrated environment, where there is a faculty and a student body and a repertory group that maintain that.” Failing the preservation of an exact standard, how will Cunningham’s legacy stand the test of time?

The hard work of the Students for Cunningham seems to have had an effect. The trust’s response to their petition could not be described as delighted, but it certainly gives the students room to develop something new for the Cunningham Studio. Allan Sperling, lawyer and one of the four trustees, explains the Trust’s reservations to continuing the educational Studio in an e-mail, “Merce did not intend for the trust to risk its perpetual existence by undertaking the sort of activities that require continual fund-raising with the ever present risk of failure. Unfortunately, the Studio is such an activity.”

But despite the reluctance of the trust to get involved with the studio or a center, the trustees “would welcome such an effort by others,” as stated in their official response to the petition. Patricia Lent, director of repertory licensing and a Cunningham trustee, writes in an e-mail, “the importance of the studio has never been questioned, but the economics of the studio have necessitated careful consideration and creative thinking.” “At the most recent meeting of the Trust it was decided to shift our efforts toward creating a new, independent not-for-profit organization specifically dedicated to supporting and operating the studio as a school and performance space,” she said.

That new organization is currently in development, though Lent did not want to comment on its possible structure or goals just yet. “In the meantime, we are taking a series of steps at the studio to increase income and lower expenses. Our aim is to create a studio that will be self-sustaining, rather than one that is dependent on a large amount of annual fund-raising.”

“I hope that Students for Cunningham becomes a resource for the trust and this new organization to create something,” Axelsen says; a new studio or a new organization that continues to further contemporary dance, encourages dancers to keep investigating new creative avenues and making advances in choreography.

It seems like Merce Cunningham himself would appreciate these efforts to continue forging forward in the field of dance education. As Cunningham said in 1951: “The most essential thing in dance discipline is devotion… a devotion that allows the classroom discipline to be moments of dancing, too.” To allow the Cunningham studio to fade would be to give up on these classroom moments of dancing, to lose one of the intellectual foundations of modern dance, and to fail to provide for the future of dance and choreography.

Following this article, we will be publishing a post of infographics with more information about the heroes of New York City modern dance. Stay tuned for more!

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