Q&A

Merce Cunningham Trust's Trevor Carlson on the Choreographer's Legacy

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Merce Cunningham Trust's Trevor Carlson on the Choreographer's Legacy

Photo by Mark Seliger

On December 31, 2011, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company held a performance at New York's Park Avenue Armory that capped off the legendary artistic organization's two-year farewell tour. Now, on June 30, the company—which Cunningham, who passed away in 2009, founded in 1953 with John Cage writing the music and Robert Rauschenberg in charge of décor—is set to dissolve, morphing into its posthumous incarnation as the Merce Cunningham Trust. To mark Artspace's historic partnership with the trust to sell work that a sweeping range of artists had donated to the dance company over the years, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Merce Cunningham Dance Company executive director Trevor Carlson about the great modern choreographer's enthusiasm for working with artists, his impact on contemporary dance, and the future of the company.

To read about the stories behind the artworks in the Merce Cunningham Collection, click here.

Cunningham's involvement with contemporary art produced one of the high points of 21st-century American culture. Why did Merce find it so important to collaborate with visual artists?

Mostly I think it was because he steered away from narrative from the beginning. He first studied theater when he went to college at Cornish College of the Arts, and the school's founder, Nellie Cornish, said that if you're gonna study one of the arts you should study them all equally, and that's how he came across dance. That's also how he met John Cage, who was the accompanist for the dance classes with a small percussion group, and John invited Merce to be part of the percussion ensemble. Over time, Merce became introduced through different teachers to Martha Graham and then went to work with her in New York. And all of her work was very dramatic—she based many of her works off of Greek tragedy. I think it got to a point for him where he wanted to get away from that, and his experience observing Cage's experimentation with sound gave him the open perspective to consider how movement might be developed to be just for the sake of movement. He said that the only limitation with movement is that you have two arms and two legs, but beyond that you can come up with anything—it's limitless. And removing narrative meant that there wasn't a stage to set as there would be if a dance or scene was happening in a field or in a brothel or in a home, so that stripping of narrative allowed an opportunity to collaborate and experiment with artists who were working in the time he was working who happened to also be working in an abstract arena.

Was he the first to adopt this abstract approach to dance?

Yes. What he discovered in working with Cage, or what they discovered together, was that they were both working with time-based art forms, so if they settled on a time, they didn't actually have to make one's work dependent on the other-so Merce didn't have to dance to John's music and John don't have make the score to Merce's movement, but they just had to set time as the framework for what they were doing together. And in doing that they actually came up with things that they wouldn't have expected, like a downbeat occurring in music while in fact Merce was soaring through the air, which wasn't something that was kinetic but was interesting to see. And the inclusion of the artist expanded that experience so that if you invite three people working in three mediums to each work independently of one another with the only common tie being that they're working in the same timeframe and the same space, then you could get something greater than if one person were in charge directing a concept or idea.

So there didn't have to be any thematic link, even, aside from the space and the time that they shared?

No, and that added another element—that the viewer was liberated to have an experience of their own that could be different from one viewer to the next in the same performance, so that what you're getting through the color and space created by the visual artist and the way in which the color and space are placed and the way in which the movement is developed over time through the dancers' bodies and the sounds that enter the space—those could bring different feelings, ideas, even stories for some that were neither right nor wrong. It was one's own experience.

So that brings in Cage's famous element of chance.

Exactly.

There are a number of contemporary choreographers who are working with contemporary artists like Karole Armitage, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Michael Clark, and their work often seems to harken back to Cunningham.

They don't work exactly in the same way, but Karole Armitage was one of Merce's company members and certainly the way in which she makes work was influenced by her experience with Merce. Trisha Brown studied with Merce and her work references the experience that Merce created preceding her.

Picasso famously designed sets for the Ballet Russe, and other artists from Fernand Leger to Brice Marden and David Salle have designed sets for dances too. But I think it's interesting that the way that many contemporary artists are interacting with dance today is not in the framework of creating work for a dance context, but actually inviting dance into the art that they're making and reversing the polarity a bit work. You can see this in the work of people like Emily Roysdon, Elad Lassry, and Sarah Michelson, whose dance performance at Whitney Biennial won the Bucksbaum Award this year. What do you make of this development, and how does it link to what Merce was doing?

Merce had the philosophy that if you say no to something it's like simply closing a door, but if you try and say yes then you might encounter something that you hadn't yet experienced. So he opted to say yes whenever he could, and one of those occasions he said yes was in 1964 when he was invited to perform at Vienna's Museum of the 20th Century. He had been traveling the world with his dance company, performing works he had developed for the traditional proscenium stage, but he considered the space and considered what could be done and could be viewed by viewers in the space and created his first Museum Event, which was taking excerpts of movement from the work that the dancers had been doing for the proscenium and revising them for the space. Being free of narrative made that process easy, so he developed movement and shape and spaces over time and he continued to do that and allowed the space itself to become the decor, the environment in which the dance was performed in.

In the white-walled, bare setting of the museum gallery?

Well, actually the hope was that they weren't just white walls but rather that they would leave the displays of art as they were and then bring dance into it. So it was an opportunity to work in a variety of different types of spaces with different artists' works that weren't narrative in nature, but allowed the inclusion of another medium or two—or in this case three mediums if one considers the costume design—thereby creating something of an exchange between all of the artists participating.

Is there any specific kind of artist that Cunningham liked to work with?

Merce said it this way: he liked to work with people who were living and working in the time in which he was living and working. Now, Merce's idea of work was not to develop something that looked pretty and find as many ways to do that pretty thing time and again. Rather he worked on something that might be pretty or not, because he was pushing himself to experiment with moving bodies through space-creating movement with bodies. And when he would experiment and create and develop something and show it, he would then leave from that point and continue on with his experiment. So one could say that Merce's life's work—these dances that we have titles to, that run a certain length—are just a series of one long dance work that Merce made from the time he started until the time he died, because it was a constant exploration. It's very difficult to see from one decade to the next a very similar movement type, for instance in one of Merce's earlier works and a later one, because while they certainly informed each other, the experiment continued to grow for him. And with Cage, it's clear in what he was doing, certainly by the time he got into electronic music and developed the prepared piano, was that he was interested in finding new ways of making sound—not just producing sound, relying on what had been developed before and finding a new way to place it in time, but really pushing to find new ways. And it's clear in what Bob did with the White Paintings, the Black Paintings, and the combines that he was constantly pushing forward and finding different ways to do things. The common thread of these artists was that they each gave themselves the freedom to explore the medium they were working with, to do it differently. They weren't developing a technique that had already been developed, they were developing new techniques. And that I think was the attraction between this group of people. It's no surprise that Duchamp was so interesting to all of them and vice versa.

And how did Merce's collaboration with contemporary artists change over time?

I had the great fortune of coordinating many artists to collaborate with Merce's process, from Rauschenberg to Daniel Arsham, and in many of those years I developed this process whereby Merce would invite an artist to bring an existing artwork into the proscenium so that on each evening for a weeklong series of performances new artworks would be coming into the theater performance space and changing each day. During the ten-year period we did this we had collaboration with over 40 visual artists, which exceeded the number of visual artists who had worked with him over the preceding 40-year period.

These artists helped fund the dance company, isn't that right? How did that work?

Merce's work, being ephemeral, was not the same as Cage's, which is to say it couldn't be written into a score and performed by other composers. And it was not the same as the visual artist's that can be painted onto a canvas and put onto a wall and sold. So Merce's medium was a very poor medium, financially speaking. But visual artists were compelled by what he was doing with bodies and space and also that ephemerality—so you had to be there in order to have this experience. So when they saw that there was a need to help support the work that Merce was doing, John Cage and Jasper Johns developed this idea that they asked all of their artist friends to contribute a painting for the purpose of underwriting a season of dance for Merce in New York. The sale of the work actually exceeded the expenses for the season, and when John and Jasper asked Merce what he wanted to do with the additional money, Merce said, "Other dancers and choreographers need this, give it to them." And so they established an organization called the Foundation for Contemporary Arts with the funds with the idea in mind that they were going to continue to generate income with the support of visual artists who had many more resources than the artists' peers.

What happened to this foundation?

It turns 50 this year, and they have annual fundraisers as well as annual grantees. They give money away to artists just for being artist—there's no application process, there's no outcome expected. And it's for artists who work with dance, with poetry, with film, and with composition, as well as for visual artists. So that's where many of these works come from—they were donations from the artists to support the company. They were given with the idea in mind that they were going to support Merce's work.

And the company held its final performance on New Year's Eve of this year, and it will officially cease its operations on June 30th. What is the next manifestation or incarnation of the company?

Merce established the Merce Cunningham Trust in 2002, and the trust owns the rights to all of Merce's choreographic works—it's the trust that will be the caretaker of his legacy, essentially. When an artist is no longer here making new work, the work has a life beyond that is much more fixed. For many other single-artist-driven dance companies, they choose to continue to present the work or to incorporate work by new artists, but this was not of interest to Merce. He wanted his work to have a constant heartbeat, to have another life after rather than mummifying it.

Will the trust have any continued interaction with contemporary artists? Will it continue to produce editions, or is this the last batch?

The options are totally open with regard to what the trust may or may not continue to do. What is clear is that it doesn't have to work the way that the dance company did, which was there to serve Merce's creative process. It allows the opportunity for change to happen. An organization like a dance company—and this dance company in particular—grew around itself, and without the activity of creating new work it seemed a lot to consider maintaining unless one was interested in maintaining a museum company, which, again, Merce didn't have an interest in doing.

Lately a number of artists have begun experimenting with the idea of performance notation, treating performance art as something that can be captured and passed down in the form of a score. Marina Abramovic did this when she used performers to reenact her famous performance art piece for her retrospective at MoMA in 2010, and Clifford Owens had a show at MoMA PS1 last year in which he enacted performances written for him by other artists. Is this something that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company would ever consider doing, passing on Cunningham's historical work in the form of a score and having it performed?

Before Merce died, we created what we call the legacy plan, and the legacy plan was a concept developed by us with Merce's constant input and approval that considered the future of the foundation, which oversees the dance company, the Merce Cunningham Archive, and the Merce Cunningham Studio, which is the school. We came up with a three-pronged plan: to embark on a final two-year world tour with the group of dancers trained and chosen by Merce; to create career transition packages for everyone involved in the organization—the artists and staff members—so that we could all see this through to the end without the real life concern of transitioning into another position; and to create the dance capsules, which are digitally preserved works by Merce with as many elements as we could gather in order to represent that work so they can be either studied by scholars or performed by other dance companies. So the capsule contains Merce's notes, notes by dancers, the lighting design, the lighting cue sheet for the different times they change, the costume design and instructions on how to reconstruct the costumes, the set design and how to reconstruct that, photographs of the work, film of the work in production as well in rehearsal, press reviews of the pieces—really, as much information as we can gather about an individual dance. It's something different from the archive, because the archive informed the dance capsules to a certain extent but doesn't contain what was required to reproduce the work. We built the dance capsules to allow one to reproduce a work in its entirety or in parts.

And it's something people can buy?

Yes. The trust will license the right to use the works. But people can study it online for free and look inside a dance capsule to see what the dance looked like and what Merce's notes looked like for that dance and information about costumes and so on. Then others can purchase the license to perform the work in the same way that someone pays for the rights to perform a score by Eric Satie.

And what happens to the archive and the rest of the foundation now that the company is closing?

Well, I wear two hats because I'm a trustee of the trust and the executive director of the foundation, and after the end of the legacy tour this last sixth-month period has really consisted of us closing everything down, transferring the archive to the New York Public Library and transferring all the sets and costumes to the Walker Art Center, which was really another aspect of the legacy plan. Our effort here was to respect all of the artists who contributed to Merce's work over time so that single works were not edified as more stellar than other and the works were kept together, so that costumes weren't sent to a museum that works with textiles while the set design were sent to museums that have works on walls. So everything is at the Walker, the sets and costumes in their entirety—all of the works by all of the artists—and they have a regular rotation of works from Merce's different dances, with a full exhibition planned for 2015. As for the artworks that were donated to support the company, there were given to the trust, and the trust has transferred the works to Artspace. So what Artspace will be doing by selling the works is supporting the Merce Cunningham Trust.

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