Yes, Merce Cunningham is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Yes, he infamously separated dance from music, democratized stage space, and utilized new technologies and chance procedures as methodologies for creative production. And yes, the Cunningham Trust is celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday this year, with performances, talks, film screenings, and intimate social events around the globe. Many have expressed enthusiasm and excitement, but sentiments like, “my community won’t understand why I’m engaging with the work of a dead white man,” or “hasn’t he gotten enough attention?” are also valid and worth acknowledging. But this program is not exactly about Merce Cunningham. It focuses on a newer generation of artists and their ties, thorny or otherwise, to this complex figure of modern and post-modern dance. In Conversation with Merce is about legacy, where it lives boldly, where it lurks secretly, and where it lies dormant and unknown, like some long forgotten rune or talisman of purpose.
As an ex-Cunningham dancer, independent choreographer, dance educator and Cunningham Trustee, my perspective on him as an artist is subjective, deeply personal, idolizing and also critical. The privilege I feel as an artist living and working presently is that I can mine the past for treasures, rebalancing the components for a new socio-political landscape. I’ve chosen three female artists from my generation to tackle the stickiness or slipperiness of history, on their own terms.
Netta Yerushalmy has spent the last couple of years with her Paramodernities project engaging with the idea that modernist lineages can be borrowed or claimed from far afield. Her kinetically rich movement funnels many historical influences towards a very contemporary, urgent aesthetic. Moriah Evans’ exacting physical and theoretical practices extend collaborative traditions of scoring and systems building. Her choreography operates in a similar nexus of conceptual and physical virtuosity previously inhabited by Merce. But she brings a decidedly feminist use of form and structure that gives way to an affective and relational sensibility. Mina Nishimura was once an international student in the professional training program at the old Cunningham studio in the west village. The influence is not immediately apparent but seems to reside quietly in her sense of time, weight and curiosity. She creates sublime dances, drawings and texts – forms that articulated Merce’s ideas as well – but the content and stylistic choices could not be further apart.
So how long are the shadows cast by our predecessors? What lineages do we claim and which do we deny? Although dance is a form that defies complete preservation, it offers a ritual site for conjuring past spirits and collective memory. Will these three artists stay loyal to their previous trajectories or will they abandon them inside of this responsive framework? Does it matter? Or is it more important that they DO something? It’s tempting to quote Merce here but I think he would prefer for these artists’ works to speak for themselves. Maybe that is his greatest contribution to the field: setting an example for the possibility and autonomy of the present moment.
Rashaun Mitchell is an Assistant Arts Professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Dance Program. A celebrated performer and choreographer, he is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Bessie awards, and is a licensed stager of the repertory of Merce Cunningham.