A last dance with Merce?

The dance company founded by the renowned Merce Cunningham, who died last year, is touring one last time before disbanding. If arts supporters don't step up, Seattle might miss its last chance to celebrate the Centralia native's remarkable career.
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Merce Cunningham

The dance company founded by the renowned Merce Cunningham, who died last year, is touring one last time before disbanding. If arts supporters don't step up, Seattle might miss its last chance to celebrate the Centralia native's remarkable career.

The celebrated American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, born in Centralia and a former student at Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts), died last July at age 90. He stands tall in the pantheon of performing artists who helped define 20th-century modernism, and even near the end of his life was still creating and directing work that explored new terrain. Seattle has one last chance to bring his magnificent dance company here before it disbands forever at the end of 2011. Unfortunately, that may not happen.

Those who attended the company'ꀙs most recent Seattle performance, in 2001 at UW'ꀙs Meany Hall, will not soon forget seeing two of Cunningham'ꀙs masterpieces, 1968'ꀙs 'ꀜRain Forest,'ꀝ with sets by Andy Warhol, and 'ꀜBIPED'ꀝ from 1999, an epic statement of the choreographer'ꀙs interest in collaborating with cutting edge technology.

A three-minute segment of BIPED:

Cunningham asked that his troupe, which he founded in 1953, offer final touring programs in the United States and overseas after his death. Now called the Cunningham Legacy Tour, it began in February 2010, and will end on New Year'ꀙs Eve 2011, in New York City, the choreographer'ꀙs longtime home. After that final performance the company will cease to exist, and Cunningham'ꀙs dances will be seen in the future only in the repertoires of selected dance troupes.

The World Series at Meany presented the Cunningham company several times over the last four decades, and would have been the natural venue to do so again for this last engagement. Efforts have been made to bring the company to Meany, but a financial agreement between the two parties has so far not worked out.

Enter Donald Byrd, artistic director of Seattle'ꀙs Spectrum Dance Theater, a longtime admirer of Cunningham'ꀙs work, along with a distinguished group of colleagues: Lane Czaplinski of On the Boards; Peter Boal from Pacific Northwest Ballet; Seattle Art Museum'ꀙs Sandra Jackson-Dumont; and Sergei P. Tschernisch from Cornish. Led by Byrd, they have been working to salvage a week-long Cunningham company residency in Seattle in October, 2011.

Recently Byrd and his colleagues convened a meeting at SAM for members of the arts community as an opportunity to hear Trevor Carlson, the executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, talk about what the residency in Seattle might entail. Also in attendance were members of the Cunningham family who still reside in our area.

A week'ꀙs visit to Seattle by the company might include not only one or two major performances, but also a variety of community events that could involve local performing and visual artists, dance, music, visual arts and new-media students, technology buffs, filmmakers, historians, school children, and general audiences.

Carlson showed a brief film chronicling Cunningham'ꀙs career that reminded those in attendance not only of the choreographer'ꀙs prolific output of notable dance works (his first New York solo concert was with composer John Cage in 1944), but of his extraordinary set of artistic collaborators, who included many famed contemporary painters, designers, and composers as well as the hundreds of dancers who performed in his company. Cunningham himself was a superb dancer, and even when seen live on stage in his 70s and hobbled by arthritis, he remained a vivid and compelling presence.

The company needs a fairly large stage so viewers can see the architecture of the work, and it prefers a theater with 800 to 1,200 seats. In Seattle, this means only Meany Hall. However, The Paramount and McCaw Hall, each with far larger audience capacities, also offer the needed stage space and technical facilities the company requires.

Josh LaBelle, executive director of Seattle Theater Group, the operator of The Paramount, expressed excitement about the possibility of having the company in Seattle, whether at The Paramount or one of the other theaters. The attraction for him is the artistic quality of Cunningham'ꀙs work, the relationship he had to our region, and the opportunity the residency would offer to Seattle Theater Group and others to build collaborative partnerships.

What will it take to have the company here for a week? Byrd estimates the entire project would cost $200,000 including artist fees, housing, publicity, and production.

According to Byrd, some local funders have shown interest in supporting a consortium of arts groups that might undertake this project. However, those groups would have to be guaranteed that the funders' support for the Cunningham residency would not impact contributions they usually give the groups.

Not all the money needs to be raised from foundations and businesses. Hopefully individual donors can be found, and ticket sales would help pay for the one or two major performances.

The pressure is on Byrd and his collaborators to make something happen fairly quickly. The Cunningham Company has only one week available for the Seattle project and is willing to hold that October 2011 time slot only until the end of this August.

Byrd and his colleagues well understand the difficulties they are up against, and they hope others, particularly in the funding community, will come forward to help make the residency happen. Seattle has this chance to recognize a great son of the Northwest and a giant of American art. The company he created will cease to exist relatively soon, and we should not lose the opportunity to have its extraordinary presence in our community one last time.

Here's an interview with Merce Cunningham at age 90:


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