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Merce Cunningham: Creator of chance dance

Photo by Annie Leibovitz, courtesy of The Merce Cunningham Trust

Merce Cunningham was an American choreographer known for his avant-garde approach to composition and the music-dance relationship. He let chance dictate many of his choreographic decisions and believed the music should be created separately from the movement.


Mercier Philip Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington. As a preteen, he took dance classes at a local studio. In 1937, he enrolled at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where former Graham dancer Bonnie Bird was his teacher. When she hired a young musician named John Cage as her chief accompanist, Cunningham found his aesthetic soulmate. He and Cage would go on to become artistic partners and, later, romantic ones, as well.

In 1939, at Bennington School of the Dance's first West Coast session, Martha Graham offered Cunningham a spot in her company. During his six years dancing with her—as only the second man in the troupe's history—Graham sent him to the School of American Ballet to supplement his training.

When Cage arrived in NYC three years later, he encouraged Cunningham to choreograph. The two began to develop the then-radical idea that dance and music could be created separately but performed together. In 1944, Cunningham presented his first evening of six solos to Cage's music. The work included elements of both Graham (the use of the back) and ballet (busy legs and feet against a steely torso) in his work.

In 1953, Cunningham gathered four other dancers and formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Chance became an integral part of his work. He frequently used cards, dice and the I Ching (an ancient Chinese text, also known as The Book of Changes) to decide compositional elements like body part, direction and number of dancers. The dancers themselves rarely knew what the costumes, decor and music would be until dress rehearsal or opening night. Audiences and critics considered his work revolutionary, because he offered movement without a narrative or even a discernible cause-and-effect relationship.

As his career progressed, Cunningham continued to experiment, first with film and later with computer software to compose his dances. Despite limited mobility in his later years, he taught class and choreographed until his death—which occurred just three months after the premiere of his final work, Nearly Ninety.

Cunningham and dancer Carolyn Brownin Suite for Five. Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Fun Fact

Few knew Cunningham taught himself Russian. When he invited Baryshnikov to perform a duet with him in 1999, he wrote him a letter in perfect Cyrillic script.

The Work

Cunningham is known for four primary influences: the separation of music and dance, the use of chance, computer software and film/video. Often, he would combine and scramble older and new sections of his works for “Events": A solo from 1982 might be paired with a duet from 1997, performed with scenic design from 1953 and in new costumes.

Torse (1976) For this work, named for its frequent use of the torso, Cunningham used the numbers 1 through 64 to create a spatial plan (a square 8 by 8 feet) and phrasework.

CRWDSPCR (1993) Created with DanceForms software, a computer program that allowed him to devise movement. Nonstop, frenetic activity recalls Grand Central Terminal at rush hour.

BIPED (1999) Cunningham transposed 70 phrases to computer-generated images of dancing bodies that appeared alongside the dancers.

Technique

Combining a pronounced use of the legs from ballet with modern's strong emphasis on the torso, Cunningham named five positions of the back: upright, curve, arch, twist, tilt. His codified, repetitive warm-up exercises and quick direction changes help develop coordination, strength and flexibility, particularly in the spine.

The Legacy Lives On

Cunningham's work exists in the repertory of many companies, including the Paris Opéra Ballet, Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Notable alumni include original company members Paul Taylor and the late Viola Farber, postmodern choreographers Douglas Dunn and Gus Solomons jr, Karole Armitage (known as the “punk ballerina") and of the most recent company, contemporary collaborators Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Cunningham stipulated that after his death his company would perform an extended world tour and then dissolve. Today, the Merce Cunningham Trust serves as the custodian of his work. Weekday classes take place at New York City Center Studios.

Photos (clockwise from top): courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; by Douglas H. Jeffrey, courtesy of The Merce Cunningham Trust; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; by Jayme Thornton, courtesy of Dance Magazine (2); by Paul Palmaro, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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