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Lenora St. Blog

Exploring the Creative Legacy of Merce Cunningham

This blog was originally published in the spring of 2019: 

As part of the international Merce Cunningham Centennial, and in collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Trust, Cornish Dance, and University of Washington Dance Department present the fruits of a two-week immersion in Cunningham’s innovative and influential practices in chance operations in April.


 The Legacy of Merce Cunningham

A black and white photo of two dancers.Merce Cunningham Dance Company alumnae Douglas Dunn and Holley Farmer (also a UW and Cornish alum) and dance students will present an informal performance of works-in-progress generated using Cunningham’s tools of chance procedures and indeterminacy. This new generation of dancers will present their own creative work developed in response to the legendary choreographer’s groundbreaking contributions to the field, revealing the possibilities that emerge through his experiments. This showing culminates Riener and Farmer’s two-week teaching residency in the Cornish and UW dance departments.

This residency acknowledges Merce Cunningham’s formative training at Cornish, where he met composer John Cage and formed a partnership that has influenced countless artists in various disciplines.

In addition, audiences are invited to the Seattle premiere of “If the Dancer Dances” (2018), a documentary by former MCDC company member Lise Friedman and Maia Wechsler about the re-staging of Cunningham’s iconic RainForest (1968) on the Stephen Petronio Company. With limited distribution, this will be one of only a few chances to see this film on the big screen.


Exploring the Creative Legacy of Merce Cunningham

Informal performance: April 13, 2019, 2:00 p.m., Henry Art Gallery, Free

“The beauty and tender and amazing thing about dance is that it gets passed from one body and one soul to another.” —Stephen Petronio

The two-week Cornish/UW residency and culminating informal performance look to the future, with young artists from across creative disciplines experimenting with Cunningham’s formulation of chance operations as a tool for creating art grounded in their own experiences. Students from Cornish and UW’s dance composition courses will collaborate for the first time since the 2004 setting of Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest (1970) at the Henry.

The informal performance will demonstrate how Cunningham’s brilliant processes have the potential for creating surprising and engaging dance works. Traditional residencies usually involve company members setting already-created dance works on students—unique to this residency is that students will be exploring some of Cunningham’s most innovative and famous dance-making structures, investigating first-hand his genius in devising methods that generate compelling and unexpected dances in the moment. Far beyond just offering dance technique classes, the residency includes workshops on Cunningham’s legacy in costume design, choreographer/composer collaboration, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Chance operations workshops will also be offered to students in Cornish’s Visual Arts, Interior Architecture, Film, and Performance Production departments.

The informal performance will demonstrate how Cunningham’s brilliant processes have the potential for creating surprising and engaging dance works. Traditional residencies usually involve company members setting already-created dance works on students—unique to this residency is that students will be exploring some of Cunningham’s most innovative and famous dance-making structures, investigating first-hand his genius in devising methods that generate compelling and unexpected dances in the moment. Far beyond just offering dance technique classes, the residency includes workshops on Cunningham’s legacy in costume design, choreographer/composer collaboration, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Chance operations workshops will also be offered to students in Cornish’s Visual Arts, Interior Architecture, Film, and Performance Production departments.

If a dance is not danced, it vanishes. “If the Dancer Dances,” a new documentary by former MCDC members Lise Friedman and Maia Wechsler, confronts one of the most urgent issues facing the dance world today: how do we prevent the loss of masterworks to time? The film invites viewers into the intimate world of the dance studio. Stephen Petronio, one of today’s leading dance-makers, is determined to help his dancers breathe new life into Cunningham’s iconic RainForest (1968). With help from former MCDC members, the film tracks Petronio’s dancers as they strive to re-stage this great work, revealing what it takes to keep a dance—and a legacy—alive. “If the Dancer Dances” is the first documentary on Cunningham’s work since his passing in 2009.

This residency is part of the Cunningham Centennial Community Programs, which are supported by a major grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. It is also supported by the Bossak Heilbron Foundation and the Floyd and Dolores Jones Endowed Chair in the Arts. For more information about the Centennial, please visit https://www.mercecunningham.org/activities/centennial/.


History of a Photo

A black and white photo of dancers on a stage.

​For more on the history of the Dance Department, and the earliest collaborations of Merce Cunningham and John Cage at Cornish, check out this article about the 1938 Phyllis Dearborn photo shown above.


Thank you to the Bonnie Bird Collection at Trinity Laban Conservatoire for the copy of the Dearborn photo from their collection.

Photo: Courtesy of filmmakers. “If the Dancer Dances” film still.

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