Cunningham Technique teachers ensure a lasting legacy
by Joseph Carman
At New York City Center’s fifth floor studio in midtown Manhattan, former Merce Cunningham Dance Company member Jennifer Goggans leads 25 students through the rhythms and intricacies of technique that she learned firsthand from Cunningham himself. A pianist sets the tempo, punctuating it with occasional drumbeats. After opening pliés, the soft-spoken Goggans guides the class through tendus, sometimes with the focus on the ceiling. The dancers—some barefoot, some in socks or ballet shoes—are mostly college-aged, both professional dance company members and pre-professional students.
To one newer student, she says, “There is no use of épaulement,” emphasizing that the head always takes its cue from the spine. To emphasize a stronger sense of gravity through the movement, Goggans gives the class chaînés across the floor, telling students to keep the arms alongside the torso. “The arms are at a natural state of rest,” she explains. “You allow space for the arms but with a sense of weight in the hands.” Even though Cunningham is no longer here physically, his technique is a vigorous presence in the classroom.
After Cunningham’s death in 2009, the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation stunned the dance world by announcing the planned disbandment of the 58-year-old Merce Cunningham Dance company as of 2011. The decision, as laid out in the foundation’s Legacy Plan, followed Cunningham’s stated wish not to turn the troupe into a museum. The foundation closed in 2012 and yielded the legacy to the Merce Cunningham Trust, which established headquarters at City Center in 2012 and handles the teaching and dissemination of Cunningham’s work.
“Merce was one of the greatest choreographers of his time, of our time,” says Goggans, who danced with MCDC from 2000 to 2011 and is now the program coordinator for the Cunningham Trust. “He was so ahead of his time that I feel his work can speak to generations beyond his death.”
“People are interested in teaching it and finding places where they can practice.” —Patricia Lent
Among the concepts that Cunningham championed are the independence of music and dance; the use of chance in choreography; the centrality of the torso in propelling movement; the establishment of internal rhythms for choreography; the use of computer imagery in expanding choreographic language; the collaboration with other contemporary creative minds in art, music, and other performing arts; and the inherent nature of dance to establish its own theatrical impact without a literal narrative.
Cunningham Technique is now trademarked and can only be taught by authorized Cunningham teachers. “The people who are teaching Cunningham Technique danced in the Cunningham company, studied at the iconic Cunningham studio at Westbeth, or are the new group of dancers who have encountered the work since the company closed and who are developing an expertise in the technique and are eager to teach it,” says Patricia Lent, an MCDC dancer from 1984 to 1993 and the current director of licensing for the Merce Cunningham Trust. “It’s not a curriculum or a syllabus. But it is a way of training.”
A growing number of international colleges and universities now offer Cunningham Technique, including the State University of New York at Purchase, the Juilliard School, New York University Tisch School of the Arts, The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, The Conservatoire de Paris, Ohio State University, Hunter College, Sarah Lawrence College, Barnard College, and Rutgers University. And the technique has been used in London for years as foundational training for the Rambert Dance Company (the company has licensed 12 pieces from the trust), Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and the Michael Clark Company.
The technique continues
How instrumental, though, is the instruction of Cunningham Technique to the continuation of the legacy? “It’s the window into the work,” says Goggans. “It gives you all the basic elements that he then created his movement from.” The rigorous classes (at City Center there is one open-level class daily Monday through Friday) establish the strength, precision, and stamina to dance Cunningham’s work. “The use of the back on top of the legwork in all its intricacies is introduced into class,” she adds. “What we have discovered is that you can take this training and do anything with it, unlike some of the other techniques that have so much more stylistic undertone and dramatic content within the class. The technique is a very neutral technique, so it’s devoid of any emotional context layered on top of it.”
Lent also stresses the way the technique is tightly bound to the Cunningham works: “There was a kind of loop that got going where the technique would enable you to do the work and the work would be added to the technique, which would enhance other things that could happen in the work.”
Students studying Cunningham’s methodology and its precepts quickly discover the emphasis on the torso and the spine, which bends, twists, flexes, and extends. “The torso work is quite specific and strong,” says Lent. “There are actions you make—not just shapes—so that the torso movement becomes really central to what you’re doing, and it initiates and motivates the physical action.” The upper body can move independently from the lower half, a coordination that takes significant core strength and crackerjack brain synapses. There are never merely decorative upper body movements added to the leg work. With a nod to ballet, the leg work is precise, but maintains a weight into the floor that’s more grounded than ballet.
The nimble transference of weight figures strongly in Cunningham Technique. “There is a weightiness to it and a largeness to it,” says Lent. “Sometimes I think there is no such thing as a preparation in Cunningham because everything is the whole thing. You have to learn to make each step as much as it can be, which means taking some physical risks.”
In class, the use of rhythmic accompaniment might seem counterintuitive to Cunningham’s boundaries between music and dance, but establishing internal physical rhythms is extremely significant to the choreographer’s work. “One of the things I try to emphasize when I’m teaching technique and repertory is that the dancer has to make the rhythm visible and readable,” says Lent. “You almost have to be a percussionist with your body and create that rhythm, or else it becomes quite flat.”
Amy Blumberg, who discovered Cunningham’s work as a student at Barnard College, started taking classes at the Westbeth studio in 2010, when the Cunningham troupe was on its two-year Legacy Tour prior to disbanding. Since then, she has regularly attended the City Center classes and has been entrusted to lead some repertory workshops. She loves the way Cunningham’s movement gives her the simultaneity of “living in one body of immense strength and lightness with the ability to really move anywhere from any point.” That, she says, “is immensely stable and yet because you are taking these crazy risks with movement, you have to be willing to fail.”
The benefit for dancers and teachers
More ballet and contemporary dance companies are adding Cunningham works to their repertories, especially in Europe. Ballet dancers can certainly enhance their dance intelligence by studying Cunningham technique. Classically trained dancers already have some familiarity with the leg work and the elongation of the spine that ballet shares with Cunningham movement. But adding a weightiness to their physicality, learning to move the spine in different ways, and challenging themselves with speedy footwork phrases can widen their contemporary dance vocabulary.
“What we have discovered is that you can take this training and do anything with it.” —Jennifer Goggans
“A lot of us were ballet dancers before we started dancing Merce’s work, and a lot of the people doing the work now are ballet dancers,” says Lent. Still, she says, “There is a largeness and derring-do [in Cunningham’s technique] to get the intention of the physicality of the torso and arms, so they are less of a frame and more of the actual movement.”
For ballet and contemporary dance teachers, a familiarization with Cunningham Technique can enable a keener sense of musicality. Through the technique, says Blumberg, there is “a sense of being able to feel tempo, of negotiating challenging rhythmic moments and being able to improvise.” Grasping the tools of Cunningham’s superb choreographic craftsmanship can help novice choreographers understand a different use of space, directional orientation, choreographic phrasing, anatomical range of motion, musical rhythms, and transitional movement flow, among many concepts.
Training the teachers
In the past, there weren’t restrictions about who could teach Cunningham technique. Weeklong teacher training sessions were sometimes held at the Westbeth studio, but with the advent of the Cunningham Trust, a need to protect the legacy has taken priority. There is currently no certification program for Cunningham Technique, although the Cunningham Trust has begun conversations around the best ways to instruct teachers. Questions have arisen about how it would work, what kind of training is needed, and whether a curriculum is necessary.
“If there are people who want to be trained, does the Cunningham Technique need to be more formalized than it is right now?” asks Lent. “Because right now there’s an openness. There’s a great deal of structure, but there’s openness. From my personal point of view, I’m delighted to hear that people are interested in teaching it and finding places where they can practice. I’ve been a teacher much of my adult life and I know one of the things you need to do to be a really good teacher is to teach a lot.”
Since 2011, the Cunningham Fellowship has nurtured the teaching, reviving, and staging of Cunningham’s works. The chosen fellowship recipients (former Cunningham company dancers) engage in research about the fundamental structures and vocabulary of Cunningham Technique. In a workshop setting, they reconstruct a Cunningham work through an intensive with pre-professional students, who are selected by audition and who attend the workshop for free. Among the Cunningham works taught to pre-professionals in 2017 were Sounddance (1975), Changing Steps (1973), Second Hand (1970), Cross Currents (1964), Fielding Sixes (1980), and Signals (1970).
Into the future
The question of how a dance technique changes over time affects any legacy after the death of its founder. Over the arc of Cunningham’s creativity, his approach to his classes changed: steps got faster, he did less floor work, he became more analytical about directions, and he used computer programs to determine the diverse ways that the body could move. Lent recalls that Cunningham dancers were either annoyed or thrilled with his changes 30 years ago. Naturally, anyone setting his works wants to keep the movement as pure and true to form as possible. And yet there needs to be room for evolution.
“Merce was always interested in pushing things a little further—can you do that or this?” says Lent, who admits she was shocked when the foundation disbanded the company, but has come to accept it as the most sensible solution. “That happened both in his work and his technique. I think any kind of movement technique will change, and it’s a question of having an awareness that that’s happening and understanding a reason behind why it might change.”
Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications. He received a BA in journalism from The New School in New York City and lives in Palm Springs, California.