Pond Way

It is a piece of giant steps. It is a piece of reaching, running, and leaping. Like stones on water, we are skimming, floating, and flicking. Everything is involved, we use our fingers, toes, and our eyes. Our elbows are learning to lead, ruffling away from our bodies like feathers, and we are learning to soften our knees, to balance strongly, and peacefully.

This piece longs for sensitivity, and serenity, and yet it needs quickness and sharp jabs to survive. As the movements progress one to the next, the dancers are stretched.  Like water they must surge or drift freely, lest they undergo the trauma and strain of change.

Tomorrow we will perform Pond Way. Andrea Weber has done a fantastic job of facilitating the reconstruction of this piece, always driving us forward, energetically, with good humor and joy, and demonstrating each part, a hundred times, clearly and patiently. We would not have had this experience without her extraordinary teaching!

What else can be perceived from this piece? Tomorrow will reveal new things. We will rely heavily on our instincts. From the inside, and in learning, it has proved unique: Merce used computer technology to simulate some of the movement* and yet it feels exquisitely organic, like it was plucked out of nature and plopped into NYC.  Once again, Merce Cunningham created a moving depiction of life.

*By the time Pond Way was created, Merce was already in his 80’s. His love for technology proved very useful in continuing to create dances; with a software called DanceForms, he was able to manipulate computer bodies to move three-dimentionally.  What a perfect opportunity! His company was willing to transcribe these dances onto their own bodies, and for many people, how interesting!

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Kevin Carr films the Women’s Trio from Merce Cunningham’s Scramble, a dance from 1967. Scramble was one of the five pieces of repertory shared by past company members as part of the MC Trust’s Fellowship Program last summer. Each piece was restaged on two casts of dancers and performed at New York City Center. Congratulations to the dancers; from the experience they grew, and as they performed, every seat was filled. The program continues this November with Pond Way.

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City Center

Over a month has passed since the daily technique classes have relocated to New York City Center. On the 16th of April, after sweat began to appear on our foreheads, we were reminded of Merce’s 93rd birthday.

If there were any doubts about City Center being the “right” location for us to practice, these feelings have subsided. Classes are uplifting. Teachers are earnestly sharing fresh movement phrases. We laugh. The room is spacious and bright, inviting us to leap through it. People come motivated to work.

Soon the summer fellowships will begin, filling the afternoons with repertory. Stay tuned!

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2012 : We Begin Again

Hello! It’s a new year, and a new era for students in the Cunningham Technique. We will move to City Center in April, but in the meantime, work continues at Westbeth.

Please stay tuned as we undergo changes. Interested students –there will be a scholarship available, hopefully by the beginning of April, when we move. Contact Paige Fredlund, or studentsforcunningham@gmail.com, for more information.

Cunningham Patrons! Please consider giving a tax-deductible donation through New York Live Arts; dedicated students will be very grateful!

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Response to the Petition

Today we received this letter from the Merce Cunningham Trust, it is their response to our petiton. If you feel like responding to this letter please send your comments to: studentsforcunningham@gmail.com.

October 21, 2010

We very much appreciate the eloquently articulated petition written by Christiana Axelsen and signed by so many people committed to the furtherance of Merce Cunningham’s legacy.  As trustees of the Merce Cunningham Trust, we welcome the thoughts and suggestions of all who have been touched by his genius as we plan for the day, following the closure of the Cunningham Dance Foundation in the Summer of 2012, when the Trust moves from a concept reflected only in Merce’s mind and on paper to a fully active and dynamic entity.  This is both a formative and transitional period, and we have been and will continue to work closely with CDF as CDF itself diligently works to successfully complete its Legacy Plan.  We also look forward to maintaining a dialogue with the entire Cunningham community and to keeping everyone informed of the decisions we make that will shape the future of the Trust and impact the Cunningham world.

As trustees, we are not only bound by the terms of the legal document by which Cunningham created his Trust, but morally obligated to carry out, to the best of our abilities, the intentions he made clear upon its formation. The purpose of the Trust is clearly stated in the Trust Declaration: To preserve, enhance, and maintain the integrity of Merce Cunningham’s dances and other artistic works and to make such works publicly available.  To achieve this, the Declaration provides that the trustees shall control the licensing of Merce’s choreography and may, at its discretion, maintain a “Repertory Understudy Group” that will “…consist of professional dancers selected by the [trustees] to preserve, enhance and maintain the integrity of [Merce’s works] and to make such works available for the benefit of the public through the thorough study and continued teaching of such works to students and scholars in the field of dance.”

When Merce established the Trust he saw it as organizationally quite distinct from the Cunningham Dance Foundation.  As many of you well know, year in and year out, CDF has had to struggle to raise the funds required to support the Dance Company and the Studio.  Success was never assured.  Merce recognized that, with his departure, fundraising would become even more difficult, if not impossible. By establishing a separate Trust that would be unencumbered by the heavy obligations CDF has faced, and by funding it with the bulk of his estate, Merce felt confident that the Trust would be able, on its own, to generate enough income to operate in perpetuity.  Merce also was influenced by the great success of the John Cage Trust, which he served as President of its Board of Trustees from its formation until his death.  Without fundraising, and without lavish start-up funds, the John Cage Trust has been able to nurture and support countless new and creative ways of furthering Cage’s legacy brought to it by others, most of which were unforeseeable at the time of its creation.

In this light, and given the ample yet finite resources of the Merce Cunningham Trust, the challenge for the Trust is to determine which of the many meritorious possibilities that will nurture Cunningham’s legacy are feasible and thus should be given priority.  Certainly, a Merce Cunningham Center, located at Westbeth and operated by the Trust, that not only continued the current programs of the Studio but expanded them to include “a full schedule of technique classes, professional training programs, teacher training, educational outreach, a repertory ensemble, exhibition gallery, and research institute” is appealing.  Unfortunately, it is clear that the Trust does not have the financial wherewithal to undertake such an expansive endeavor.  And, further, given Merce’s expectations with respect to licensing and the maintenance of a repertory ensemble, those activities must be given the highest priority. [1]

At the same time, we also completely understand that if those activities are to continue over the long-term, Cunningham technique must continue to be taught.

With this aim in mind, we have been exploring whether an arrangement can be entered into with one or more other institutions that would preserve the Westbeth Studio in its current form.  To date, the prospects for that do not look especially promising, but there are other possibilities for affiliations to be explored.  It has also been suggested that a new organization might be formed, distinct from the Trust, with the express purpose of funding and operating a school in the Westbeth Studio.  Although the Trust does not have the financial resources to underwrite such an organization, we would welcome such an effort by others.  In any case, rest assured that Cunningham technique will continue to be taught.

As Ms. Axelsen writes, using Merce’s own words, it’s time to start building something else.  We could not agree more.  We are determined to build something new that will honor Merce’s legacy both by managing his Trust in compliance with his specifically stated wishes and by making the most creative use of the resources left in our care.



Laura Kuhn
Patricia Lent
Allan Sperling
Robert Swinston

[1] The Trust is already actively pursuing the licensing of Cunningham works jointly with CDF.  Patricia Lent is serving as Director of Licensing for both the Trust and CDF with the financial support of the Trust.  In the past year alone, over a dozen staging projects have been undertaken, making it possible for former and current members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to teach and coach masterworks from the repertory, including Septet, Cross Currents, Summerspace, RainForest, Scramble, and Landrover.


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Online Petition


There has been much international dialogue concerning the future of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. We, the current students at the Merce Cunningham Studio, are interested in extending this discussion to include the future of our school and the preservation of Cunningham Technique.

We began our research by accessing online documents that were made public by the Cunningham Dance Foundation when they announced the Legacy Plan. From these sources we have determined that the fate of the Studio will be decided by the Merce Cunningham Trust. Over the past year, 25% of Cunningham Technique classes have been cut from the school schedule. We have been told that we may not have the opportunity to finish our professional training programs and earn certificates celebrating our years of study. This has given us strong reason to believe that the Studio will close after the Cunningham Dance Foundation closes. From discussions between students, we came to realize that there is something larger at stake then just the fate of our classes and that is the artistic legacy of Merce Cunningham.

We wrote this petition to articulate our dream of a Merce Cunningham Center that would continue our programs and preserve the full artistic legacy of Mr. Cunningham in the studio where he created over eighty works. As a group of students, we do not have the organizational capacity to fundraise. We hope this petition will show that there is overwhelming public support for a center and inspire the Trust to take immediate action to fundraise, organize, and create this important cultural institution. We would enthusiastically support the Trust in all efforts to realize these plans.

Our Request
We respectfully petition the Merce Cunningham Trust to establish the Merce Cunningham Center as the premier center for the study of Cunningham Technique and Repertory. The Center would be located on the 11th floor of Westbeth encompassing the studios in which Merce Cunningham created his work and the rooms in which the company has rehearsed for over forty years. The Center would be an expansion of the current Merce Cunningham Studio and offer the following programs:

1. Open Program – A full schedule of daily Cunningham Technique classes in all levels.
2. International Program and Professional Training Program – The Center would continue to offer professional programs for dancers from all over the country and the world to come and study Cunningham Technique and Repertory.
3. Teacher Training Program – Workshops and an intensive year-long program would offer certification to teach Cunningham Technique.
4. Educational Outreach Program – The Center would continue to offer classes and repertory showings for public school children to learn about Merce Cunningham and his work.
5. Repertory Ensemble – A small group of dancers would be dedicated to investigating and restaging Cunningham Repertory.
6. Research Institute and Exhibition Gallery – The Center would serve as a central location for scholars to come and study the life and work of Merce Cunningham. Gallery space could be created to show exhibitions on loan from the Cunningham Archives at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

According to its Annual Filing for Charitable Organizations with the NYS Office of the Attorney General, Charities Bureau, on May 8, 2009, the activities of the Merce Cunningham Trust are “to promote education and artistic development in the field of modern dance through instruction and performance of works choreographed by Merce Cunningham.” We ask the Trust to act now to make preparations for the Merce Cunningham Center as a way to fulfill this important part of their mission.

Our Vision: The Merce Cunningham Center
We believe the Cunningham Technique is one of the most important contributions Merce Cunningham made to the world of modern dance. Learning the fundamentals and specifics of the technique is an ongoing process that takes years of daily practice with qualified and experienced teachers. The Merce Cunningham Studio, as an accredited institutional member of the National Association of Schools of Dance, is currently recognized as the premier school for engaging in this demanding study. The faculty at the studio is comprised of some of the most celebrated dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and instructors personally trained by Merce in his teaching methodology. Students come from all over the world to study at the school and bring their knowledge and firsthand experience of Cunningham Technique back to their home countries. The studio space in Westbeth is a centerpiece of the training experience. The sheer size and expansive nature of the studio enable the dynamic use of space central to the technique. It is also an honor to study within the space that the company danced in for so many years. This historically invaluable institution needs to be continued so that future generations of dancers, choreographers, teachers, and community members can learn about and be transformed by Cunningham Technique.

Creating the Merce Cunningham Center would be an engaging way to re-envision the Studio to incorporate all aspects of Merce Cunningham’s legacy. Exhibitions on loan from the Cunningham Archives at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center could explore such topics as Merce Cunningham’s collaborations with visual artists or his groundbreaking use of various forms of technology. Books and research material about Merce Cunningham and his artistic collaborators could be available for students and visitors to access or purchase. Partnerships could be formed with major universities to sponsor academic residencies at the Center. Expanding the current teacher training programs and educational outreach programs would continue to ignite interest in Cunningham’s work beyond the range of the dance community and into a wider public sphere.

A Repertory Ensemble would be an essential part of the Merce Cunningham Center. The opportunity to learn and perform repertory is a strong incentive for highly talented students to enroll in the school and commit to the years of hard work it takes to achieve technical and artistic proficiency in the Cunningham Technique. Establishing a Repertory Ensemble is also necessary for the preservation of Cunningham’s work in its most authentic form. Such an ensemble would be the only group in the world comprised of dancers trained in the rigorous Cunningham training system regularly performing the repertory. Dance is an art form that survives best when passed from generation to generation via a direct line of contact with the creative source. Learning from video is a poor replacement for years of personal interaction with teachers and former company members. A Repertory Ensemble would be committed to learning Cunningham Technique and Repertory from the people closest to Merce Cunningham and to pass this legacy on to the next generation.

Merce Cunningham was quoted in the New York Times on June 11, 2009: Mr. Cunningham added that he can accept the company’s future closing. “So if it stops, then it stops,” he said. “I won’t be around. I’m not going to say yes or no.” Then he offered another possibility. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “if they close the present company down, they can start building something else.”

Its time to “start building something else.” The Merce Cunningham Center would be a fitting tribute to one of the greatest choreographers of all time. The Center would be the one place in the world welcoming all people to explore, experience, and celebrate the life and work of Merce Cunningham.

We, the undersigned, respectfully petition the Merce Cunningham Trust to establish the Merce Cunningham Center as the premier center for the study of the Technique and Repertory of Merce Cunningham.

We envision this Center as being an expansion of the Merce Cunningham Studio offering a full schedule of technique classes, professional training programs, teacher training, educational outreach, a repertory ensemble, exhibition gallery, and research institute. The Center would be located on the 11th floor of Westbeth encompassing the studios in which Merce Cunningham created over eighty works.

We ask the Trust to take the actions necessary to create this center in order to fulfill their important mission “to promote education and artistic development in the field of modern dance through instruction and performance of works choreographed by Merce Cunningham.”

Thank you for your time and consideration of our request.

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