Transport: Farewell Merce Cunningham Dance Studio by Anita Cheng

Anita Cheng reflects on the final month of classes at the Cunningham Dance Studio at Westbeth, home to generations of dancers and dance-makers. Writes Cheng: “Merce’s choreography capitalizes on the dancer’s innate love of specificity. It is a great romance: the right time in the right place, facing the right direction.”

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Thumbnail photo: Westbeth building circa 1967. Courtesy of

It is March 2012. 32 months after Merce Cunningham’s death, three months from the last performance of the Merce Cunningham Company and one month until the closure of the Cunningham School. Soon, all will be a radiant speck in the city’s rear-view mirror. Dancer and choreographer Robert Kovitch taught my first class in Cunningham Technique in 1987 at the Colorado Dance Festival. Eventually, after graduate school and seeing the world some, I finished the Professional Training Program at the Merce Cunningham Studio. Since then, I’ve developed own work of performances, installations and multi-media projects. I continue to take classes as life permits. During this last month at the Cunningham Dance Studio, I record thoughts and impressions, disjointed as they come.

Last day of class at Westbeth. In foreground: Banu Ogan. Photo by Anita Cheng.

For nearly forty years, Merce’s school held classes for levels ranging from very good to professional as well as rehearsals and performances, approximately 12 hours a day for 50 weeks a year. In this room, thousands of dancers achieved a virtuosity of physicality, time and space. By the time I took my turn as the swivel-headed beginner at Westbeth, looking around to follow the other dancers to be sure what to do, the company’s days touring on the VW bus with John Cage (along with sets and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) were already oral history, and the archival material collected by David Vaughan already considered remarkable. Artistic accomplishment had crowned the company for several dance generations. However, Merce’s innovations continued to unfold.

In addition to technique and training, there was education through the example of Merce’s life and the overlapping generations of artists congruent to his work. The culturally permeating collaboration between John Cage and Merce championed the idea of chance. However, I always thought of it as nature. All of nature, from the subatomic to the cosmic is continuously generating spontaneous co-incidences beyond our understanding or imagination. As artists, any filter of judgment can bias us towards seeing the world through what we know. By embracing what actually happens, the fortuitous random, our reach expands. Order is beautiful, essential, temporary and arbitrary. It’s curated chaos. Such is choreography.

The aged Westbeth 11th– floor dance studio has everything that matters, generous space and light—the voluminous air indulging our waves of activity. The triple-height vaulted ceiling wears rococo peels of abdicating paint. The iron theatrical lighting grid hangs just below with circles of light bulbs set in decorative square tufts of plaster curls. A horizontal band of mirror opens the plane of the north wall. South-side, the raised, black-painted steps define a seating area for audiences. The back wall sports a formally banded rectangle, like a rented prom tuxedo, marking the frame for movie projection. The big room started as a theater, but I always thought of it as an aquarium.

The expansive, central wooden platform raises us three inches off of the concrete floor with a gray, slightly glossy vinyl surface. The wide strips of marley bordered by tape are our tidal flats. The dance teacher and accompanist lead the swim.  We luxuriate and struggle in turn. Always, at some point, we enjoy—splashing in the music happy as fish. Entering onto the platform is as exhilarating as diving into a clear ocean. Learning the choreography is the wondrous exploration of a coral reef—discovering new formations and beautiful life forms. In every class and rehearsal dancers are explorers, and also their own software and hardware engineers—programming themselves to learn movement quickly—full mind and body integration.

In class, we attend to every cardinal orientation. At some point, every international student could transmit heartfelt messages straight in the direction of their native countries. (They represented every continent save Antarctica.) The main studio is flanked by ten-foot arched windows overlooking the West Village. Reflections off of the city buildings, traffic and streets, the sparkling Hudson River, and the expansive sunset form our scenography. New Jersey is seductive on another side, a serene gateway to continental vistas. The Empire State Building squats in its stone jacket on the other. At night, while we wait for performances to begin we can check the Empire’s color as it is framed in the north-east-most window.

Last day of class at Westbeth. Photo by Anita Cheng.

Throughout my years at the studio, I contributed my gaze as one of the many, converging perspective lines orienting towards the center of attention: formerly Merce and now the teachers and the dancers who carry the legacy in their muscles. I’ve been within flying-sweat-distance of amazing feats: moments of magnificent simplicity achieved through complex processes. At the end of class, movement phrases sweep the dancers across the floor from one side of the wooden platform to another, a herd of Vladimir Horowitzs and Glenn Goulds eager for Merce’s eye. As a school for the gifted, so many beauties have studied here through the years that any incomplete list would be criminal. As a choreographer, I have found many dancers to work with in creative partnership here. They value physical acuity and mental flexibility. Dancers are the chess players of the performing arts: the practice is a split between study, patience, an instinct for patterns, psychological robustness, a depth of experience (often built from age three or four) and brilliance wrung out of the air. Committed motion grants an instant of mortality exemption. It’s remarkable how our chassis is the strongest, most resilient, eager-for-challenge vehicle we will ever drive. Until it’s not.

In addition to the accomplishment and pain, the life of a dancer is learning and taking correction. Always getting notes. One has to appreciate the daily practice of proprioceptive mindfulness. At any time, a teacher may walk by and say, “That’s not back,” usually meaning, “You thought you were raising your leg behind you, but it was actually slightly, diagonally out to the side.” So the internal feeling of “back” must be mentally and kinesthetically reprogrammed. It’s a constant process. Outside of class, I have always wished for such a vigilant habit of recalibration.

Dance offers liberty through discipline. I’ve always felt that the sensation of dance is a better analogy to calculus than even racing tortoise or archery. Through rubato, we have infinite freedom between the notes: reaching half of the count, half of that, half of that, etc. The paradox is that of always approaching and yet arriving. The infinitely smaller units of subdivided beat spiral around like a Fibonacci shell, yet we magically arrive on time. The repertoire we learn comes without the exoskeleton of a set musical score. Growing an endoskeleton—of duration, muscular feeling and spatial awareness for timing consistency—is a skill in itself. In this way, rhythmic incisiveness is one of the great pleasures of Cunningham Technique and the most enduring. In fact, it’s the only one I have left. I can’t lift my legs as if released by a spring from gravity or twist my torso with first-car-keys independence. But I can feel in rhythmic sync with my neighbors on the dance floor. The complete confidence of staying on top of the beat is like riding the winner of the race of the roses.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. The beats, subdivided time, contain all possibilities. For the dancer, a great pleasure is the sensation of an active construction of time and space. It’s like falling in love, when out of all the infinite potential partners we define one. Out of the crowd, a singularity. Merce’s choreography capitalizes on the dancer’s innate love of specificity. It is a great romance: the right time in the right place, facing the right direction. As company members, the dancers are professionally obliged to care about which foot steps first, the shape of the left arm, the right arm, the torso, the focus, the facing, and the novel co-ordination of rhythm and flow. It matters. Any celebration of Merce requires a celebration of these dancers. And of course, any celebration of the studio requires a celebration of the teachers. They gave us the gift of speech.

Dance is spoken in the mercurial language of performing arts—it’s over, just as it’s being written. But Merce’s work continues in memory and action. For decades, his dancers performed the never-before-seen movement with radiant intentionality, inviting us to value as human endeavor the unexpected. The audience, those sensitive to conversion, granted his work the highest honor to be bestowed on any art: to let it be what it is. A catalyst.

Merce himself worked through teaching, using class not only for training but also as R&D. Once in a rare while, I would stand in the back of his class. The dancers in front shared their interpretations and confidence. Individual corrections were rare. He laid out the map. I learned to search for the Goldilocks calibration of energy: not too much and not too little. Inertia, after all, is just another word for habit.

The last official day of the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio was March 30th. I took Robert Swinston’s class in the morning and returned to watch June Finch’s evening closing class, which was accompanied by the wonderful Pat Richter and followed by an after-party. Former company member Kimberly Bartosik danced while her young daughter added her dance on the sidelines. The floor was full. More people watched on the benches. After the warm up, June split the class and placed half standing in a circle just inside the edge of the floor. Her combination first defined an arc around the perimeter, the dancers jeté and land lightly on a bent leg with the body curved to the side. Then they jump toward the center converging towards each other, pivot and jump out—a leaping kaleidoscope. Every sixteen measures, the waiting group rushed in to replace the dancing group, with a lot of laughing. Suddenly, I felt as though the dancers in their angled trajectories, closing the circle and opening it back up, were like the aperture of a giant lens opening and closing. The center of the floor became a focusing pupil. Imagine, what dances this floor has seen!

Students bowing at the end of the last Cunningham Studio class on March 30, 2012. Photo by Anita Cheng.

June continued with her characteristic brisk pacing and packed itinerary. At the end of class, the dancers stood in line to cross the floor with a final movement sequence. Then they ran around to line up and dance across again, turning the room into a perpetual motion machine. It was as natural as evaporation, condensation, precipitation and runoff. We never wanted it to end, which was the same feeling as every class, only slightly augmented.

A few weeks before that last day, I was in class, looking forward to teacher Carol Teitelbaum’s thoughtful adagio. She showed us a rond de jamb exercise that combined leg circles with stepping and changes of direction. After doing it to the front, we had to reverse the sequence. With the turning and weight shift to the back, we knew we had to change an outside pirouette (en dehors) to an inside one (en dedans) but our translations were not simultaneous. As she repeated her demonstration for us, former company member Daniel Squire raised his hand. “Maybe we could do it either way and it doesn’t matter.”

I noticed in this last month of class that the door to the little back room that used to be Merce’s office is kept open more often now. For those of us so used to the slant of the light in all times of the day and all seasons, it is something new. Light from an unexpected direction. Something new in an old love. Farewell. I showed up. I was lucky. There was lots of dancing.

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