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Flash Report, 6-7: Cunningham Donates Archives to Library
"It Goes from One Misadventure to Another"

SPECIAL! 2 Photographs, 252k each

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Merce Cunningham yesterday gave the New York Public Library his entire archives, a seven-decade chronicle encompassing everything from choreographic ideas written on the back of grocery lists to 6,000 hours of film and video footage.

"It goes from one misadventure to another," the 80-year-old art world giant told reporters and supporters at a news conference at the library's 42nd Street headquarters. The Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation Collection, currently housed in the foundation's Downtown headquarters at 55 Bethune Street, will eventually reside in the library's Dance Collection, at Lincoln Center.

The library's president, Paul LeClerc, called the gift "one of the most important acquisitions for the New York Public Library. This is a stunningly important archive that stands as one of the greatest acquisitions this library has ever made. Now, the work of one of America's extreme geniuses, one of the towering figures of the twentieth century and now the twenty-first century will be residing at the library and will be available for centuries to come."

And, LeClerc emphasized, it will be available to the public, six days per week. Theoretically, he mused, it would take a researcher two years working seven hours per day to see all the video and film footage in the collection, which has been doggedly and scrupulously built and maintained for more than forty years by Cunningham Dance Foundation archivist David Vaughan.

"It started in a cardboard box, into which in time-honored fashion Merce would toss programs and press clippings," said Vaughan, who met Cunningham in 1950 when he took the latter's class at the School of American Ballet. Of Vaughan's efforts, Cunningham stressed that "without his acquisitive sense, the archive would not exist," crediting him with "being able to in some mysterious way keep track of where things were."

In addition to the film and video footage, the collection also includes news clippings from the 1930s to the present, 4,000 sheets of notes, 1,000 photographic stills, 200 hours of sound recordings, and thousands of computer files. The notes, Cunningham said, include "hieroglyphics on the back of old sheet music and envelopes -- occasionally shaggy -- and even on the back of grocery lists." Starting with "brief notes from early solos," he said, the archive "grows in volume and hopefully in legibility."

The choreographer praised the Dance Collection as a "research Mecca," and its staff have clearly labored hard to make it so. The Cunningham acquisition was a five-year labor of "lust" spearheaded by dance division curator Madeleine Nichols, said William Walker, the library's Andrew W. Mellon director of research and its senior vice president.

The transfer of the archives from the foundation to the library will have its challenges, Walker acknowledged. "A lot of the computer work we have to migrate to ensure that the electronic archives are available to many generations to come."

Material from the archive will not be available on the library's web site because of "artistic considerations," Walker said, adding that the two parties had agreed to leave the subject open to negotiation in the future.

Asked by The Dance Insider if there was a common thread in the nearly seven decades of recorded Cunningham history, the master of chance choreography quipped: "It goes from one misadventure to another."

Asked by the DI what it felt like to see an art typically referred to as "ephemeral" preserved in the New York Public Library, Merce answered: "It still is ephemeral -- art like other things is. Now you can preserve dance images, and the digital thing opens new possibilities. I used to think that dance was ephemeral -- like water, it passes away. But now I think that, like music, there are ways to preserve it." Earlier, in prepared remarks, Cunningham noted, "Through the increase of graphic notation, video, and computer technology, dance archives have become a body of work to be reckoned with."

Cunningham, dapper in a dark gray suit, dark loafers, and decorously unruly silver mane, presented a contrasting figure of mental vigor and physical vulnerability, resting his hand on the shoulder of an assistant as he walked the few steps from his front-row seat to the podium. As always, his mere presence was commanding and stilled the room.

By residing in the library, Merce's archives will be kept in the same repository as the archives of his longtime companion, the late avant-garde composer John Cage. At yesterday's news conference, the buffet table featured what were described as "John Cage's favorite cookies," quarter-sized slightly bitter sugar concoctions, topped with zesty fruit jam.

Also on the menu, as a curtain-raiser for the announcement, were clips from Merce's 1958 "Night Wandering," featuring Cunningham and Carolyn Brown, the 1960 "Crises," in which he dances opposite Viola Farber (the latter displaying a mastery of isolation), and the 1978 "Exchange," featuring the choreographer and a regiment of his dancers.

In the first of these, Cunningham is heard commenting, "I have the idea that dance doesn't need something else in terms of performance -- it is what it is."

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