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  • Inheriting the Avant-Garde:Merce Cunningham, Marcel Duchamp, and the “Legacy Plan”
  • Carrie Noland (bio)

“Repetition is a necessary and justified conduct only in relation to that which cannot be replaced.”

—Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

How does one create a dance legacy? Or, in the case of Merce Cunningham, how does one create an avant-garde dance legacy? Can a corpus of controversial works and ideas be preserved for posterity without betraying the fundamental impulse of an intentionally self-exceeding experimental art? What can be preserved, archived, and bequeathed of a choreographer’s work if that choreographer’s project was precisely to generate what he had not done before?

These are some of the questions that the Merce Cunningham Trust is confronting as it orchestrates the closure of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and plans for the reconstruction (and thus afterlife) of his choreographies. A few years before Cunningham died on July 26, 2009, members of the Cunningham Dance Foundation decided to set in place the “Legacy Plan,” which is a set of initiatives intended to preserve while making available to other companies over fifty years of choreographic production as well as a unique method of training dancers.1 Whereas the Martha Graham Company, composed of dancers she had trained (or those her dancers had trained), continues to teach and perform her repertory in reconstructed form, the Cunningham Dance Foundation, with the help of Executive Director Trevor Carlson, determined that Cunningham’s company should not exist in his absence, and thus it was decided that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company would cease to exist on January 1, 2012. In order to ensure that Cunningham’s dances would be properly memorialized and performed by other companies, the officers of the Foundation, under the guidance of the choreographer, devised an unprecedented Plan including the following: (1) the creation of “Dance Capsules,” employing state-of-the-art technologies to produce digital versions of Cunningham’s prolific choreographic notes, the costumes and sets he used, video and film registrations, photographs, and reviews for eighty-six out of approximately two hundred dances in the repertory;2 (2) a severance package for each of the remaining core dancers; and (3) the Legacy Tour, a two-year performance marathon showcasing eighteen works from throughout his entire career staged in fifty cities throughout the globe. Cunningham stipulated that the last [End Page 85] performance of his company should be in New York; that it should be an “Event”; and that it should cost $10. The Legacy Tour—composed of the last company of dancers Cunningham had personally trained—began in February 2010 and ended on December 31, 2011 (a year and a half after his death). Taking over the reins from the Foundation, the Merce Cunningham Trust, with a staff and board of trustees, now manages the licensing of choreographies, oversees the technique classes taught at City Center, and offers fellowships for the reconstruction of Cunningham’s works.3

The major thrust of this massive effort, and the problem it seeks to resolve, is how to keep alive—on stage and in the bodies of students in the classroom—Cunningham’s works as well as his unique way of moving and thinking about dance. The members of the Trust face a difficult and perhaps intractable contradiction, for they seek to marry the notion of legacy—and thus of tradition—with the ideals of a fundamentally unconventional approach to aesthetic production. To preserve a legacy is implicitly an attempt to perpetuate a certain look and a certain praxis from one generation to the next (and the next and the next and the next …). A “legacy” is not quite the same thing as an “influence,” for the word “legacy” implies something material that is left behind, something tangible deliberately bequeathed and deliberately assumed. The notion of “legacy” presupposes the perseverance of an essential core, and preserving this core requires technologies of storage, reproduction, and transmission as well as institutional support. The impulse to preserve, however, comes into conflict with the structure and ideology of the avant-garde itself, which demands the rejection of the recent in favor of the new, a fundamentally self-sacrificial and open attitude toward the...


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