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Flash Dialogue, 10-31: The Cunningham Conundrum
Lee Shapley: Don't Believe the Hype
Paul Ben-Itzak: Hype Merce!

Lee Shapley writes:

On October 17, I attended the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I was sorely disappointed. I am well aware of the important place in history that Cunningham occupies, but this concert's relevance today, in 2003, escaped me.

Cunningham has always been famous for his dealings in chance procedures (an idea borrowed from the Dadaists at the beginning of the last century) and how this changed the landscape of modern dance. I would argue that Cunningham's approach to these ideas has remained the same or so close to the same over the years that they really aren't very relevant anymore. Furthermore, some of his chance procedures involve such a limited number of possible prepared and rehearsed outcomes (i.e., choosing either the black and white costumes or the colorful costumes or choosing lighting grid #1 or lighting grid #2 that is almost identical to #1) that it is almost a joke to call them "chance procedures."

The look of his pieces has changed over time, but is this mainly just a result of the artists his management and funders seek out to juxtapose with his dances? How different is one Cunningham piece to the next once you remove these collaborators?

My main concern is that this performance has been highly promoted and now reviewed throughout the NYC area and all of the press that I have seen so far (the New York Times and Village Voice) surrounding this show has been highly positive. This performance has been called "A brave new vista," "fresh," and "avant-garde." This bothers me. Cunningham is simply not making fresh, new, exciting work. Just as Jackson Pollock or the cubists were revolutionary and exciting during their time, it would be wrong to call any of their work presented today new, fresh or avant-garde. They were artists of their time. For me, watching this performance was like taking a trip to a large institutional museum, as opposed a trip to the exciting galleries in Williamsburg or Chelsea where I can expect to find work that is truly fresh and new.

Cunningham must be one of the most highly funded companies in all of NYC, however, watching this concert made me feel like that was money wasted. Most companies here are struggling on tiny annual budgets to just break even and dancers must work other jobs and forego health care. At the same time, the Cunningham Foundation is receiving grants of up to $1 million. I feel like it is time for the money to be distributed more evenly. More funding should be going to choreographers and dance companies with new ideas who are expanding on the possibilities of contemporary dance and who are contributing to the present, rather than repeating themselves over and over again. Cunningham may represent cutting edge art to the Altrias of the world, but in reality this was only really true (or was it?) back in 1953. When an artist is presented by the mayor of New York City, can that artist be considered revolutionary, or merely a new part of the establishment?

I feel like Cunningham's relevance in the current artistic climate must be addressed. There is a great deal of amazing work that is being made today by a myriad of new artists whose shows are under-funded and under-attended, at least partially as a result of so much money, publicity and attention being directed towards dance from two or three generations ago.

Even if you wholeheartedly disagree with me, I feel that someone should express this point of view and start a discussion.

Lee Shapley is a dance artist and Alexander technique teacher living in New York City. He is a founding member of De Facto Dance. (Organization listed for identification purposes only.)

Paul Ben-Itzak responds:

Hey, can I give a positive review to a work I haven't seen yet? For the moment, I think I'll leave it to my colleague Robin Hoffman to review "Split Sides," the latest work from Merce Cunningham, which I may review later in Paris. (To read Robin's review, please click here.) But I'd like to address Mr. Shapley's concerns -- in which he is not alone among some in the younger generation of choreographers and dancers -- on a broader level.

First, I don't accept the artistic premise of Mr. Shapley's argument. Granted there are seasoned choreographers who seem to be regurgitating their past successes; Merce Cunningham is not one of them.

Far from being calcified, Cunngham's NEW work is more inventive and his way of working more innovative than 90 percent of what I see from the younger generation of choreographers.

But even if Cunningham's oeuvre was entirely constituted of works from 50 years ago, I don't see a problem in funding and otherwise supporting dance's version of the 'institutional museum.' I'd take the most obscure artist from the halls of the Met Museum over most of what I saw the last time I toured the Chelsea galleries. With Merce, we're talking Picasso, and seeing a new piece by this master is like it would be if Picasso were still alive and we got to walk into the Met or the MOMA and see new work by him every year. Even better to see a new piece in a mode in which he'd been working for 50 years. The analogy is not universal; oh that Paul Taylor's older works were respected like museum masterpieces, or even Balanchine's, and that Taylor wouldn't have to trot out a new one every year regardless of whether the muse is with him.

The muse is always with Merce.

But Mr. Shapley's complaint is not just aesthetic. Running through it is envy -- this is money that could be going to his contemporaries, instead of that old fogey -- and underlying that is the same ol' "poor dance" lack of esteem for the field that says, there's not enough to go around.

Looking at the big picture requires that instead of sitting in the audience, folding our arms and harumphing when the mayor of New York City doesn't just send a proclamation but makes time to introduce an artist who, let's face it, as establishment as he may seem to us, is still pretty out there, we should be standing up and applauding, or even shouting, "About time, Mr. Mayor."

When the mayor goes to a dance concert, it focuses the spotlight not just on Merce, but on dance. When the local New York media hype Merce, they are hyping dance -- as opposed to, say, movies. That's ink that didn't go to movies, but to our art. Rather than begrudging Merce the deserved attention accorded to his choreography and his company, we should be thanking him for the attention he brings to dance.

(PS: The headlines for this article are mine.)

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