Point of View

We Remember Merce
August 5, 2009, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Performing Arts News

With the recent passing of legendary modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham, leaders in the Miami arts community remember the man, his legacy and his time here in 2007 for the groundbreaking event Merce in Miami.

Photo by Annie Liebovitz

Photo by Annie Liebovitz

Adrienne Arsht Center’s Director of Education, Deanna Costa, gives us her Point of View:

The passing of modern dance great Merce Cunningham brings a flood of memories to my mind. As a dancer, I mourn the loss of a living link to the history of modern dance as Mr. Cunningham was part of a group of dancers and choreographers that helped shaped what we know as contemporary dance today. I recall the hours I spent in the dance studios of my undergraduate years being trained by teachers who had studied with him; how watching his choreography on stage can still prompt a physical reaction in me, taking me back to those warm up exercises and movement qualities that have been engrained in my muscles. As an arts administrator, I reflect on his work and contributions to the arts from an “insider’s point of view” having had the pleasure and honor of working with the Cunningham company during the two week Merce in Miami project that the Center produced in February of 2007. The commitment of each member of the Cunningham staff and cast, the professional approach to education and outreach, and the high quality of presentation and performance are clear indicators of how the company has thrived for 50 years. I am proud to say I played a small part in Merce in Miami and I am grateful for having been able to do the work while Mr. Cunningham was at the helm. I can’t help but feel fortunate to have been here – in the right place, at the right time, so to speak – to see the Center and various arts partners around Miami-Dade County put together and host such an important and extensive exploration of the works of a man who, at the time, was a living legend.

Museum of Contemporary Art Executive Director and Chief Curator, Bonnie Clearwater gives us her Point of View:

It was a great joy and privilege working with Merce Cunningham on MOCA’s 2007 exhibition exploring his collaborations with visual artists as part of the Merce in Miami celebration. He was a pioneer in the truest sense who recognized the remarkable possibilities that emerge when art, dance, and music intersect. Artists who collaborated with him were transformed by the experience and vice versa. Miami’s overwhelming embrace of Merce Cunningham and his work was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and served as an opportunity to introduce his legacy to new generations. He spent a memorable afternoon at MOCA, recalling his experiences and meeting with members that ranged from our high school Junior Docents to MOCA Trustees. His genius and his kindness left an impression that we will carry with us always. We will truly miss him.

Visual Artists and collaborator of Merce Cunningham, Daniel Arsham, gives us his Point of View:

I was introduced to Merce in his apartment on 18th street in October of 2006. Merce was 86 then, I was 25, and had just been commissioned by him to create the Decor for his new work eyeSpace. We talked about a lot of things that evening, none of them had to do with the new piece. 

When Bonnie Clearwater told me that Merce was looking at my work in anticipation of working with me I had to jog my memory of who he was. I knew his name from my studies on Duchamp but my knowledge of dance didn’t extend much past knowing the names of him, Martha Graham, and a vague recollection of what happened at the Judson Church. I became a student again. I went to see Merce’s company four times that fall at the Joyce Theater, and watched as much video of his company as I could. Had I been asked by another choreographer to make a set a would have been in trouble as I had no experience whatsoever with the stage, in fact the first time I was ever on a “stage” was two days before the premiere of “eyeSpace” at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Merce worked with chance and thought of an evening of dance as three separate arts coming together for the convenience of the audience. The Dance, the Music and the Decor were all created independently of each other without the collaborators knowing what the other is doing. When these three are brought together the outcome can be remarkably congruous. About working this way he told me ” I want to open the possibilities to various results and no /one/ is particularly better”. What a miraculous vision to believe in me at that age and that point in my career. I wouldn’t have trusted me to do it! He had a remarkable ability to trust, and I believe had had no fear of failure.

I never really knew what Merce thought of my design, we never spoke directly about it. The piece did become part of his company’s repertoire which was his way of voicing approval. We did talk about a great many other things usually having to do with animals. After I recalled to him my experience fly fishing in North Carolina, we talked for an hour or so about how chance plays a role in the action of casting the line upstream and letting it float downstream.

My chance meeting with Merce has profoundly shaped both my life and my practice. He was a remarkable person and was unlike anyone I have met in my life. His courage and penchant for risk and experimentation is an inspiration to me. Meeting Merce has led to other collaborations and introduced me to an entire new world of people who have become very important in my life. If there is one thing that I have learned from him it is that anything has the “possibility” to work, It may not always be successful but the only way to do it, is to do it.

Dean of Dance for New World School of the Arts, Daniel Lewis, gives us his Point of View:

Although I never danced for Merce Cunningham he has been a part of my life since 1949. One of his dancers at this time, Judith Dunn, had a father who was my doctor. He recommended tap dancing to correct a club foot I was born with, and thus my career started to develop at age five. Merce had a second major effect on my life in the 60’s when I saw him perform Collage III, at Connecticut College during the American Dance Festival; he was powerful, majestic and arresting on stage. When the company was scheduled to perform in Miami in February 2007, I was so pleased to be part of the productions and there I found a third major effect of Merce on my life: The students from the college of the New World School of the Arts performed in the lobby before each performance in both theaters. They did two works, one by Dale Andree, faculty at New World School of the Arts, in the Ziff Ballet Opera House and one by Mr. Cunningham in the Knight Concert Hall performed before “Oceans.” The work the students performed was staged by Robert Swinston. Robert was my student at Juilliard, and in the company was Melissa Toogood, a graduate of the college dance program of New World School of the Arts. I’ve had many other encounters with Mr. Cunningham, the Cunningham School and Company over the years, from seeing the performance of “Oceans” in a Quarry in Minneapolis to doing a site visit of the Cunningham school for their accreditation. Having the Cunningham Company in Miami was so special for me. Although I never danced for Merce I now feel I was part of his work in a very small but special way. I am thankful to the Adrienne Arsht Center for giving Miami and me the opportunity to see and be part of a great artist at work.



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