Parsing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Plan: A Special Report

By Karyn D. Collins

Former Merce Cunningham Dance Company members Andrea Weber, Melissa Toogood, Marcie Munnerlyn at Park Avenue Armory, December 2011. Photo by Stephanie Berger. Courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation.On December 31, 2011, the Park Armory in New York was filled with a wet-eyed crowd of modern dance lovers bidding farewell to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Never before had a legacy company, one that made its mark over 58 years and changed the way we understood and created dances, shut its doors in such an abrupt but planned manner. Cunningham was an iconoclast from beginning to end.

Earlier this month the Merce Cunningham Trust released a case study detailing the extensive Legacy Plan crafted by the Cunningham Dance Foundation. The 88-page report provides details on the planning and processes behind the controversial arrangement that resulted in the establishment of the Cunningham Trust in 2000 to oversee Cunningham’s works; the dismantling of the Cunningham Dance Company after its final performance on New Year’s Eve in 2011, and six months later the shutdown of the umbrella organization, the Cunningham Dance Foundation on June 30, 2012; as well as the 2012 closing of the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York City.

Never before had a legacy company, one that made its mark over 58 years
and changed the way we understood and created dances, shut its doors in
such an abrupt but planned manner.
Allan Sperling, a longtime Cunningham board member who has been instrumental in developing the Legacy Plan from its inception, said the report was something the company and its funders felt was important to produce to serve as a guide for others in the dance community, especially in light of past challenges and controversies involving the works and companies founded by well-known choreographers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine. “The history of dance companies and single-choreographer or single-founder groups has not been very encouraging in the past,” Sperling said referring to what happens – or doesn’t – when a founder or choreographer dies. “Many of them have just closed their doors, gone bankrupt, let people go.”

Sperling was one of four trustees Cunningham designated to run the Cunningham Trust (a fifth was added later), which holds and administers the rights to the choreographer’s works in perpetuity. “We proposed what we felt was an appropriate approach to the situation and [funders] supported that,” he said. Sperling, who has been on the Cunningham board since 1985, previously as its chairman, was instrumental in developing the Cunningham organization’s Legacy Plan. As a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP in New York. The firm has for years contributed pro bono work for the Cunningham organization.

The report, which includes separate sections covering the historical context, planning, execution, and financial details of the Legacy Plan, reveals information about aspects of the Legacy Plan that have rarely if ever been discussed before in public. These details include:

  • Discussions about the Cunningham company’s future actually began back in 1990 as a small part of a grant that urged the Cunningham organization to begin planning for a time after Cunningham’s death.
  • Information on a  board retreat in 1991 that focused on the future of the organization after Cunningham’s passing. The board used the transitions of dance companies led by Alvin Ailey, Jose Limon, Martha Graham, and George Balanchine (New York City Ballet) as a basis for comparison.
  • Revelations from a 1991 retreat during which Cunningham told the board that he wanted the rights for his works to be held by a trust. However, Sperling said the choreographer’s lack of real interest in the subject meant there were no further discussions on the subject until 2000. “[Merce] wasn’t focused on or interested in [the details of future planning]. Merce was always focused on creating. What kept him going was creating new work,” Sperling said. “It was really the staff, in particular [executive director] Trevor Carlson, who got things going, really saying, ‘Hey, we have a situation here we have to address.’”
  • Information that Carlson, who had joined the organization in 1998 and became executive director in 2005, was unaware of the earlier board discussions about the future of the organization.
  • Disclosures that in addition to Cunningham’s primary concern about how his works would be maintained, Cunningham also was adamant that the plan should encompass only one organization – the Merce Cunningham Trust. As was well reported in the press, he also insisted that the final world tour end with a performance in New York City with all tickets priced at $10.
  • Revelations that widespread doubts about the company’s viability artistically and financially after Cunningham’s death led the board to look at shutting down the company after Cunningham’s death.
  • Information that the economic recession hit just as fundraising had quietly begun, not just for the Legacy Plan but for the current operating budget. Funders refused to release funds unless significant cuts were made to both the Legacy Plan and the current budget. The result: the 2009 budget was slashed by 23 percent including layoffs and mandatory furloughs of both dancers and staff while the Legacy Plan was cut from the initial $12 million down to $8.3 million. Although some Legacy Plan cuts were later restored, the cuts instituted included a reduction to funds to support revivals of seminal works and cuts to preservation projects, including slashing digital preservation Dance Capsules from 50 works to five. The company was actually able to complete 86 capsules before the project was transferred to the new trust.
  • Details that Cunningham deliberately left the bulk of his estate to the trust, including valuable artwork he and his partner John Cage had amassed over the years. The proceeds from the sales to Christies auction house provided an endowment to support the trust. The Christie’s collection alone brought in $8.9 million. But the auction created some confusion because some donors didn’t understand that the proceeds from the auction could only be used as capital for the trust.
  • Explanations that the resulting Legacy Plan is, at present, unusual, but not unique, among major American dance companies: with a single choreographer-led company being dissolved and the organization transitioning into a trust that oversees the rights to a choreographer’s works, is actually very similar to the structure already employed by the Bella Lewitsky company, a troupe not studied by the Cunningham company.
  • Revelations that the Cunningham Studio’s closure was not part of the Legacy Plan. But since fundraising was not part of the Trust’s role, the school had to be self sustaining. Since the school was incurring a net loss of $200,000 per year, the decision was made to close the school; the last open classes were held March 31, 2012. The trust reinstated some classes and repertory workshops on April 1, 2012, at New York’s City Center.

Dance writer, educator, and administrator Bonnie Brooks chronicled the final tour for the Cunningham organization and wrote the bulk of the Legacy Plan report. She said one thing the report doesn’t capture is the human side of the Cunningham story, including the intense emotions behind the scenes.

“It was terribly sad at times. There were many, many tears,” Brooks said. “This is a venerable old company that had survived change for decades. The people that worked there I think were profoundly dedicated to the work of the company and to Merce. The concept of starting something new was exciting. But closing the company was heartbreaking. It was terrible. And even though everyone committed themselves to the plan, there were those who still wondered if this was really the best thing to do. It was very hard.”

Brooks also said it was important to remember that every dance company and choreographer’s situation was different. Finding a one-size-fits-all solution in the wake of the death of a founding choreographer is nearly impossible, said writer and dance educator Bonnie Brooks. Finding a one-size-fits-all solution in the wake of the death of a founding choreographer would be impossible, she said. “Every organization’s story is going to be different. This is not supposed to be a how-to manual. It’s truly a case study of aspects of what they did,” she said. “The best thing that could happen is that people read it and take from it what is most useful to them. “I think that is [the Cunningham organization’s] primary hope and it’s certainly the spirit in which all of us embarked on this project.”

Karyn D. CollinsKaryn D. Collins has been a professional journalist since 1984. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in features writing including dance, fashion, beauty, and entertainment. Her work has been published by numerous publications including the Associated Press, Essence Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, InJersey Magazine, Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, Dance Teacher Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Charlotte Observer, the Newark Star-Ledger and the Asbury Park Press. In addition to her work as a journalist, she is an educator and serves as an adjunct professor at Bloomfield College in Bloomfield, N.J. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writers’ task force.


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