Preserving a legacy, without a company and without notation

The news that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the Merce Cunningham Foundation and the Merce Cunningham Trust (so many entities! though the first two will apparently wither away) have sorted out their future was interesting to me on two counts, one obvious and one less obvious.

The obvious one is the mess Martha Graham made of her own legacy: turning over the leadership to a person incapable of winning the confidence of all the people he needed to carry on, with the result that the company was tied up in court for years, lost invaluable fund-raising momentum and is still deprived of several Graham classics, above all "Seraphic Dialogue." But Graham can at least be credited for terrifying still-active choreographers into taking their own legacies more seriously. Cunningham -- the sad Graham history was cited in the news release about his legacy arrangement -- is just the first; others, like Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown and even the younger Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, will presumably follow suit, one way or another.

The boldest, bravest step the Cunningham entities have taken is to agree to disband the company. This will only occur when Cunningham, now 90, is no longer capable of leading it, which will first trigger a two-year world farewell tour. But after that, nada. No attempt to keep an active company going. No watching the purity of the chorographer-overseen style and technique erode (which has been the problem with the Balanchine legacy, however well you feel that one company or another has kept it alive). No awkward decisions about whether to bring in younger choregraphers to freshen the repertory, in the spirit of the departed master or not.

In Cunningham's case, there will be what they call "dance capsules" -- preserved records of every accountable aspect of a given dance's parameters and details -- plus, of course, trust-overseen coaching from former dancers, as well as an as yet ill-defined shadow cadre of apprentice dancers still under the Cunningham banner, all to help other companies receate the work. So Cunningham's masterpieces will be reborn as accurately as possible, but without a full-scale Cunningham company as model -- or target for disgruntled nostalgists.

The less obvious point of interest for me in this announcement came in conversation with a senior Cunningham staff member, who flatly dismissed any element of dance notation in the legacy project. His position was that Labanotation had been tried once on a Cunningham dance and it hadn't worked satisfactorily. "In the age of video," he added, or words to this effect, "there's no need for notation."

That will offend the dance notation community, but it is perfectly in accord with Cunningham's long-standing fascination with contemporary technology. The dance notation specialists with whom I have talked over the years have discounted video for its two-dimensionality. Yet multiple cameras and the brain's ability to imagine three dimensions from two-dimensional information might seem to compensate for that. Of course, a film is not the same as a live performance, let alone the mind and muscle memory from actually dancing the dance. But if the Cunningham precedent prevails, it will strike a blow against the perhaps quixotic efforts of the dance notationalists to preserve their craft. Whether you see this as a sad mistake or the inevitable march of progress depends on you.  

June 18, 2009 4:37 PM | | Comments (1)


Hi John,
I really enjoyed reading this post and encourage you to write about this topic of video versus labanotation for preserving choreography in this other blog:)
HASTAC stands for "Humanities, Arts, Science & Technology Advanced Collaboratory" but don't feel intimidated by the long title.:) We are just a bunch of scholars interested in digital media use in the Arts and Humanities. The term of preservation has come up more than once in that forum.

The sad death of Cunningham gave me another opportunity to bring this topic up through his Trust's Dance Capsules. That led me to this very interesting post of yours. Would you like to join us in our discussion 'there' (by commenting that post I indicate above) namely to expand on the shortcomings of labanotation (and video?) for a description of something happening in a 3 dimensional space? We - and I for sure- would really appreciate if you do.

Thank you for a great post!
Ana Boa-Ventura
HASTAC scholar


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