Merce Cunningham Company To Disband

For more than 50 years, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company surprised audiences by rethinking the relationship between music and movement — even what dancers could do. On New Year's Eve, the company disbands less than two years after its founder's death. That was Cunningham's wish. Some of Cunningham's long-time collaborators prepare to say goodbye.

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Tomorrow night, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company stops performing. It was founded more than half a century ago and its final show will be an event in the dance world. Merce Cunningham was a revolutionary choreographer who changed modern dance. The company is disbanding not because of financial trouble, but because Cunningham didn't want it to go on without him. So, a year and a half after Cunningham's death, reporter Karen Michel talked to some of his collaborators as they prepared to say goodbye.

TREVOR CARLSON: He would sit backstage and watch from that chair. It was a chair that we traveled with.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: For the past 12 years, Trevor Carlson has been the executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Carlson describes his relationship with Cunningham as family. And as with family, he now has both memories and stuff.

CARLSON: The horsehair mattress, which is quite fantastic and comfortable - very hard but comfortable.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICHEL: The bed that composer John Cage made for Merce Cunningham, his partner in life and in art for nearly 50 years. Their collaboration broke ground; Cage didn't simply write music to which Cunningham set movement. The two were created independently. In a 2008 interview, Cunningham said that's because he wanted each art form to stand on its own - for the dance to be about movement itself.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: It didn't necessarily need to have - be framed by the music or by a set or have a story. It can do that obviously, 'cause people do it. But it doesn't need that. It has its own life. You make it come alive by itself.

MICHEL: When Cunningham made dances, he made challenges. His choreography is known for pushing limits of balance, the possibilities for the body as it moves through space and time.

Silas Riener joined the company during the last two years of Cunningham's life.

SILAS RIENER: You know, on top of the physical difficulty of the steps, Merce built in all of these mental challenges. There is all of the nuance of how you want to be a performer, assuming that you can do what he asked you to do, which is never a given.

CUNNINGHAM: One and two, and one and go.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

MICHEL: Cunningham had a sweet face and a steely focus. Perched on a stool at a class just a few years ago, his hair a thinning corona of white curls, his presence filled the room as he watched his dancers.

RIENER: There was a way that when you knew Merce was watching, you could do anything. You could give more than you thought you had. And now, you have to find your source from somewhere else because that energy of the maker and the figure is no longer present. So, we've all had to renegotiate that equation.

MICHEL: That will be even more difficult for dancers in the future without an ongoing company, so the choreographer created the Merce Cunningham Trust to license his work and teach the Cunningham technique to young dancers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICHEL: David Behrman remembers when he was a young composer and first saw a Cunningham performance in 1958.

DAVID BEHRMAN: When I was very young and I was first asked by John and Merce to do music for one of their pieces, it was just astonishing because I had no reputation. They just happened to - I mean, actually, they always did that. They always took a risk and asked young artists and composers to do work for them, and not relying on worldly fame or reputation; but just on their own instincts. And they did that over and over again for all the decades.

MICHEL: After Cunningham's death, there were no new dances made for the company. There was a memorial performance in New York City's Park Avenue Armory, an enormous space where tomorrow night's final performance will also take place.

Company executive director Trevor Carlson says there's a point in returning there.

CARLSON: Merce was anxious to do another work at the Park Avenue Armory. And we were hopeful that that would happen in his lifetime. So, when he passed, it seemed wholly appropriate to sort of see this through to the end with what we understood to be one of his last ambitions: the company's opportunity on behalf of Merce to say, for Merce, thank you and goodbye.

MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

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