More than 70 dancers participated in our day-long Merce Cunningham Workshop at The CityDance Conservatory at Strathmore Music Center on September 17th. All ages were welcome, from an aspiring three-year-old to a 87-year-old lifelong dancer. They ranged in ability from beginner to advanced, and all came to learn about the legacy of Merce Cunningham, an American dancer and innovative choreographer who was at the forefront of modern dance for nearly fifty years.
The day began with two master classes taught by former Cunningham company members. Patricia Lent, of the Merce Cunningham Trust, and who currently serves as director of licensing his dances, taught the basics of his technique to an intergenerational group. Daniel Madoff, now a film director, cinematographer, editor and producer, taught Conservatory dancers with the assistance of dancer, Chaery Moon.
After class, all dancers came together to watch a screening of Madoff’s documentary, August Pace: a film by Daniel Madoff which follows the transmissional process of reconstructing August Pace, first created in 1989 and considered one of Cunningham’s seminal dance pieces. In it thirteen of the original fifteen member cast are seen teaching and coaching a new generation of dancers, using memory, physical demonstrations, and at times, video. But as one of the young dancers said, one can only learn so much from watching a video. The magic is in having someone who danced the piece explain the how and why.
The film is filled with such moments: laughter, collaboration, the wisdom of learning to let go, as nothing is more ephemeral than a live performance. The older dancers’ generosity and camaraderie inspired the younger dancers to try movement in new ways, and we heard the reactions in what they said to one another…that it was a honor to be given something that lived inside them, that it’s not about getting it–you just try again and again and eventually it happens.
The audience clearly responded to this poignant interaction by their quiet and rapt attention, struck by the humility and devotion to ‘getting it right.’ One young Conservatory dancer put it beautifully: she was moved by the sense of community and mutual respect the former dancers had for their colleagues, and for the new generation of dancers they coached.
After the film, Madoff and Lent were joined for a panel discussion that included venerable dance historian Naima Prevots and CityDance Conservatory Founding Artistic DIrector, Lorraine Spiegler. Lent opened the discussion by asking the audience whether they noticed anything in the film that they’d been taught in the master classes that day, and voices chimed in with: bouncing, triplets, curves, twists and back isolation…terms that are unique to the Cunningham technique and second generation Modern dance.. Prevots asked about the challenge of preserving Cunningham’s legacy and even though both Madoff and Lent are committed to doing just that, each reminded the audience that Cunningham himself was not concerned about what would happen to his company after he no longer was in charge because it had always been a company geared towards his new work.
Still, both Madoff and Lent see the value in taking the essence of what they learned to create something new and the value of imparting Cunningham’s legacy and teaching today’s generation of dancers what they know in the best way they can: body to body, and mind to mind.