Tour Itinerary, Thursday 21 September, Berlin, Germany
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s triumphant Legacy Tour is now in its final four months…hard to believe for the ensemble as the tour “continuum” which started at eight pages in length is now down to one page.
We are in Berlin, Germany right now. The production team arrived on Monday, the dancers and most musicians (David Berhman and Kosugi are here, along with sound engineer and musician Jesse Stiles) and admin staff on Tuesday, and Trevor Carlson, Executive Director as well as I your Legacy Plan Fellow Wednesday morning. Our “caboose” will be musician Christian Wolff, who arrived yesterday. I thought it might be interesting on this three-week tour (we continue on to London next week) to follow what is happening and give a sort of “inside view” on dance touring in general and this remarkable farewell tour of the Cunningham Company in particular.
Wednesday was a “free day” for the dancers, while the production crew loaded in to the Volksbuhn Theater (on the east side of the city), the first of two venues where the company performs during this week-long residency. At the end of the day a press conference was held at Akademie der Kunst, one of the presenting partners. Hosted by Nele Hertling, participants from MCDC included composer/musician David Behrman, MCDC Executive Director Trevor Carlson, Director of Choreography/dancer Robert Swinston and dancer Andrea Weber. It was attended by around 10 members of the press and lasted an hour, during which the speakers addressed various questions from Nele and various journalists. Nele presented a thorough overview of Merce and the company’s history in Berlin, and spoke with special affection of a visit in the late 1980s, “before the Wall went down,” to East Berlin. “There was a lot of apprehension about how East Berliners would respond to this kind of dance,” she said, “but it was triumphant, and deeply moving to Merce and to all of us.”
Press Conference, l-r David Behrman, Trevor Carlson, Nele Hertling, Robert Swinston, Andrea Weber
The discussion included questions about Nearly Ninety, Antic Meet and the challenge of staging Cunningham revivals, the Legacy Plan, and feelings amongst the company members as the closure of the company looms. Of NN, Andrea Weber remarked, “It took me a year to find some serenity in it, I had a hard time handling so much stillness.” She described the process of making the piece, noting that it took nine months and involved a great deal of work created by Merce with the RUGs (the internal moniker for the company’s Cunningham repertory understudy group) that was then transferred to the company dancers. “In that process he would play with and change the material based on who was doing the part,” she explained. “He might change tempos, or shift something based on individual dancers.” Trevor added that this work was the first since 1991 where Merce did not use the DanceForms software as a tool in creating the movement material then brought into the studio and given to the dancers. “He was having difficulty making the mouse work,” he commented. “So he returned to earlier forms of chance procedures in developing material.” Later on when asked whether Merce really threw dice, Robert said, “Merce worked on things months in advance. He threw the dice constantly, kept asking questions, yes or no questions, and once he got one answer he’d ask another question. Usually he had things planned out before he came into the room, every work had different principles.” Carlson added, “I would on the morning after the premiere of a new work on tour, go to Merce’s room to find that he was working at his computer, developing material for the next piece. He was constantly making movement.” Andrea added as well, saying that “His class was a canvas for his work. He taught until the very end.” Her statement was a reminder of the numerous times I watched Merce teach, giving the dancers utterly impossible phrases and watching to see how they would solve the dilemmas of movement and timing he was handing them. He told me once that it was an extreme challenge to describe what he wanted when his physical issues denied the ability to demonstrate what he was after. “So I try to describe it and then watch the dancers to see who is getting at what I mean.”
When questions arose about Antic Meet, Robert described the process of reconstructing a Cunningham work in general, and that work in particular. “Merce wasn’t interested in the revivals initially,” he stated. “He became interested. How it worked was, when we [the company] were off, I would go into the studio and work with the RUGs on something, perhaps to mine material for Events or just to bring back something from past repertory for the RUGs to perform. We would go into the studio in a workshop setting and try to reconstruct material. Merce would also be there, working on whatever the current work was. He was benevolent about it. He never looked very happy about it, it was so personal for him. He associated past works with the dancers who performed the various parts. He never said that, but it had to be part of what he was thinking about. Over time he became accustomed to what we were doing, and he would warm to it, and share his memories about the work with the younger dancers. He often said he was interested in having a living archive. Some material ended up in Events, other things eventually fully revived.” Swinston went on to say that for the Legacy Tour, seven works were brought back (there were twelve active works in the repertory when Merce died in July, 2009). “It gave us a wide array of things to make available on the tour, reaching from the 1950s through to Merce’s last work, completed in 2009.”
In discussing Antic Meet, David Behrman spoke about Cage’s score and the challenges of performing it. “It is broken into 30 second chunks,” he described. “Some of it, particularly the violin part, is very hard to play. The essence of the music is the unforeseen things that happen, where something in the sounds will coincide with something the dancers are doing that is completely unplanned. Then magic things happen.”
The question of what the dancers will do after the tour finishes arose, as it does everywhere that the company now appears. “It’s different for everyone,” Andrea replied. “There’s been a shift underway during the last six months, the ending is now apparent. Some of us are ready to go on to other things, for others it’s harder. It’s exciting to carry the work on, and very emotional. Every day is different.”
The press conference included Trevor Carlson’s thorough explanation of the three elements of the Legacy Plan (the celebratory world tour, assembly of the digital “dance capsules” containing detailed information and videos of approximately 80 of Cunningham’s works for future reference for scholars and reconstructions, and the closure of the company including career transition packages for the artistic, production and administrative staff — including 15 dancers) and thereafter the transition of all assets to The Merce Cunningham Trust effective July 1, 2012. He added that the Merce Cunningham Archive has already been acquired by the Performing Arts Division of the New York Public Library, and that the decor and costumes of Cunningham’s works were acquired by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “It meant that everything could stay together,” he said, “rather than, for instance, Rauschenberg’s costumes for Summerspace being separated from the decor he designed.”
Though unusual for the dance world, the press conference format was stimulating and informative owing to the mix of speakers and the questions generated by the journalists who attended. After it finished, the Akademie der Kunst hosted a reception to celebrate the launch of the residency. And last night, a sold-out house attended the third-to-last performance of Nearly Ninety2 at the Volksbuhn, on the east side of Berlin. We all took the train to get to the theater (as opposed to the usual bus, van or cab ride) because the Pope (yes, THE Pope) is in Berlin for a three-day State Visit to his homeland. Street closures and traffic jams abound. And the Berlin Marathon is this weekend. Thankfully our hotel is in walking distance (without having to cross runners’ paths) for the next round of performances at Akademie der Kunst.