Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) was a dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The Cunningham Dance Foundation (CDF) was established in 1964 to support the company and advance Cunningham's work. The Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, Inc. records additions hold administrative files, company management and technical files, development files, and repertory files, as well as publicity materials, programs, and photographs.
Biographical/historical: Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) was a dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He was born in Centralia, Washington and began his professional modern dance career at age 20, dancing as a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company for six years. Cunningham showed promise as a choreographer and presented his first solo show in 1944, acting as both dancer and choreographer.
In 1953 he formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at Black Mountain College. The company included dancers Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Paul Taylor, and Remy Charlip, and musicians John Cage and David Tudor.
The company provided a platform for collaboration with John Cage, who was the musical advisor until his death in 1992. Together, Cunningham and Cage proposed a number of innovations; the most famous of these concerned the relationship between dance and music. They believed the two should occur in the same time and space yet be created independently of one another. For Cunningham, the subject of his dances was always dance itself.
MCDC launched its first international tour in 1964, visiting Western and Eastern Europe, India, Thailand, and Japan. The positive reviews the company received on this tour increased the company's demand and popularity in the United States.
MCDC cultivated a body of new music, commissioning more work from contemporary composers than any other dance company. Its repertory included works artists ranging from Cage to bands such as Radiohead. Cage was succeeded by David Tudor, and the company's final musical advisor was Takehisa Kosugi (1995-2012).
Over the years the Company collaborated with many visual artists. Robert Rauschenberg served as the Company's resident designer from 1954 through 1964, followed by Jasper Johns (1967-1980) and Mark Lancaster (1980-1984). The last designers to be appointed were William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw in 1984. Other artists who have collaborated with MCDC include Daniel Arsham, Tacita Dean, Rei Kawakubo, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Ernesto Neto, Frank Stella, Benedetta Tagliabue, and Andy Warhol. Rauschenberg returned to contribute the costumes and set design for 1977's Travelogue.
During the 1970s, Cunningham began to explore filming dance, both for posterity and for use as art within his work. MCDC was featured extensively in film and video choreographed by Cunningham. Collaborators Charles Atlas, Nam June Paik, and Elliot Caplan created dance films such as Locale, Split Sides, Beach Birds for Camera, Cage/Cunningham, and Channels/Inserts. In 1989, Cunningham began experimenting with composing dances on the computer using Life Forms, a graphic animation program designed to assist choreographers in creating an initial sketch for their ideas. Trackers (1991) became his first piece composed using this technology.
Invention and reinvention were a hallmark of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and a new genre, the Event, arose from these experiments. Cunningham would piece together different elements from past compositions – solos, duets, costumes, décor, and music, giving new meaning to each piece as it was removed from its original context. Throughout his career he created over 150 individual works and more than 800 Events. Cunningham danced with the company as he aged, and continued to choreograph after he began to use a wheelchair.
CUNNINGHAM DANCE FOUNDATION
In response to the increased demand and a need for financial stability, the Cunningham Dance Foundation (CDF) was established in 1964 to support the company and advance Cunningham's work. CDF was guided by a board of directors made up of arts supporters, donors, and former dancers. Board members had the opportunity to sit on a smaller committee as well, such as the Executive Committee or Financial Committee. A chief concern of the board was maintaining a steady operating budget each year. In their earlier years of operation, large one-time gifts provided almost half of CDF's yearly income, and there was no way to predict the size or frequency of such gifts. Board members were also expected to raise a set sum of money for CDF each year, either from their own funds or through individual fundraising.
Appointed by the board, Art Becofsky (CDF's first executive director) and a staff of eleven managed the day-to-day business of running the dance company. The staff attended to such concerns as company management, marketing and surveys, fundraising, writing grant proposals, and development and long-range planning for the company and the foundation as a whole. Surveys conducted by CDF covered topics such as whether or not there were existing buildings in New York suitable for use as a year-round dance venue. These surveys could later be used by the staff to strenghten grant applications. The ample support provided by CDF allowed Cunningham to focus solely on dance.
CDF worked to secure development funding from grant-giving organizations as well as individual and corporate donors. Money was raised through benefits, art shows, and letter-writing campaigns. CDF also provided support for a Repertory Understudy Group, the Merce Cunningham Archive, and a studio space. The Repertory Understudy Group of the Cunningham Dance Foundation was a training ensemble for potential company members and a laboratory for revivals of Cunningham dances. The Merce Cunningham Studio was a founding member of the National Association of Schools of Dance and served as a home to MCDC from 1971 to 2011. The studio offered classes and professional training in the Cunningham Technique, and also offered affordable studio space to emerging artists.
The Merce Cunningham archive at CDF was maintained by former Cunningham student David Vaughan with the intent of recording the dances and retaining a historical picture of the company. He began collecting material for his own interest in 1959, then filled various managerial roles within CDF until his appointment as archivist in 1976. Working closely with the materials, he eventually authored the book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (2005).
THE LEGACY PLAN
CDF worked with Cunningham to develop the Legacy Plan in 2009 to address how the company could transition to a post-founder existence and ensure his creative legacy. The three-year Plan included MCDC's farewell Legacy Tour; career transitions for dancers, musicians, and staff; the creation of digital "Dance Capsules" to preserve Cunningham's work for future generations; and the closure of MCDC and the Foundation and transition to the Merce Cunningham Trust to serve as custodian for Cunningham's artistic legacy.
Cunningham passed away on July 26, 2009. MCDC launched its Legacy Tour in February 2010, which visited nearly 50 cities around the world before culminating in its final performance at New York's Park Avenue Armory on December 31, 2011. Following the end of the tour and the closure of MCDC, CDF ceased to exist in June 2012, and transferred its assets to the Merce Cunningham Trust.
Based at New York City Center, as of 2014 the Trust offers a wide range of programs conceived to preserve and enhance Cunningham's legacy, including Cunningham Technique classes and the Cunningham Fellowship, which supports the restaging of Cunningham dances. The Trust also licenses Cunningham works to dance companies and educational institutions worldwide, supports scholarship on Cunningham and his work, and partners with cultural institutions to mount special exhibitions, performances, and projects that celebrate Cunningham's artistic achievements.
Content: The Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, Inc. records, Additions hold administrative files, company management and technical files, development files, and repertory files, as well as press materials, programs, and photographs. Administrative files consist of Board of Directors material as well as financial ledgers, contracts, film and music documents, and the papers of CDF's archivist, David Vaughan. Company Management files document the technical logistics of touring a dance company. Development files hold grant applications, correspondence with individual donors, and materials related to galas and art sales which supported the company. Repertory files document the creation of individual dances. Press materials consist of clippings, flyers, newsletters, and press releases. Photographs include professional shots of dancers and individual dances, as well as slides and negatives documenting the company and CDF events.
Funding: Processed through a grant from the Merce Cunningham Trust.