writers on dancing


The Chosen One

By Nancy Dalva
copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva
published August 2, 2004

In the middle of the expansive rehearsal floor at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio in the Westbeth building in New York, a quiet young woman stands alone. If Julie Cunningham exhibits any quality as she waits for instruction, it is readiness.

She has been working towards this moment for most of her life; her acquired skills, her innate interests, her significant determination, and her own unique attributes have led to this. She is the right person at the right time. She is the newest member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Unlike a ballet company with an eager corps and soloists waiting for that final promotion to prima, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, some fourteen strong, is composed entirely of principals. Unlike many other modern dance companies, they do not hold open auditions, nor do they seek out dancers in other companies. “Rather,” the assistant to the choreographer Robert Swinston, during a break in a busy day, “the company relies on dancers who are interested specifically in Merce Cunningham’s work to come to the studio of their own accord. A dancer must be willing to participate in the training and work process without the guarantee of company membership.”

Julie grew up in Liverpool, and then studied ballet in London at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. There, says her former teacher Thér?se Cantine, an examiner for The Royal Academy of Dance, she showed “a particular aptitude towards Merce Cunningham’s unique way of working and his choreography.” Julie first saw the Cunningham company perform during their 2000 season at the Barbican, which included an early piece, “Summerspace,” and a recent, vividly futuristic dance called “Biped.” She loved the work at once.

The following summer she came to New York to study at the Cunningham studio. “I really like your dancing,” Swinston told her at the end of August. “Please stay in touch.” She left on September 10, having seen the last outdoor dance performance at the World Trade Center, on the plaza between the Twin Towers. “It felt so strange,” she remembers, her voice still echoing her shock, “to get off the plane and have everyone shouting at me about what had happened in New York.” Undeterred, she returned for the summer of 2002, then went to Europe to take up a ballet job in Germany. Meanwhile, she kept in touch with Robert Swinston, traveling to see the company in Dublin and in Munich. “I have to come to New York,” she told Swinston. “Okay,” he said, rewarding her persistence. “You can come.”

But getting to Westbeth was just a beginning. Now she had to prove herself to Cunningham as a member of the Repertory Understudy Group (RUG). Chosen from among the most promising students of Cunningham technique, these dancers work alongside the company, learning current dances and working on significant revivals, which they perform in studio showings.

“Julie has an extraordinary willingness to learn,” explains the choreographer, “and her working process is equaled only by her love of dancing. It is clear she brings a certain quality to the repertory and will be a great asset in the creation of new works. She proved these qualities when in the last year I workshopped movement first on the understudy group, resulting in the creation of ‘Split Sides’ for the company.”

Now Julie will reassume her workshop role in “Split Sides”, taking over from Derry Swan, who had left the company. It is a significant role, with a solo demanding precise, fleet allegro footwork delivered with an adagio-like calm. But that’s the least of her assignments, for that she has already worked on. At the time she was invited to join the company in June, Merce Cunningham was making a new dance for film, reviving significant work, and preparing for major international tours, including seasons in London, Paris, and New York. Thus even as she is involved in the making of Cunningham’s latest dance, Julie has been immersed in his older repertory. She not only has to learn what’s new, she has to learn everything her predecessor, who played a large role, performed before her. For this job, Julie has an essential quality—a particular kind of memory. She has a genius “muscle memory”—the dancer’s name for the ability to remember movement.

Even as a small child she could remember ballet sequences. Now, she enjoys acquiring more than one work at a time, a process which she does not find confusing, even though Cunningham’s works are of daunting complexity. “Sometimes,” she says, “one is a rest from the other.” In little more than a month, she has learned dances spanning some fifty years of Cunningham’s choreography, including roles in “Ocean,” “Ground Level Overlay,” “Pictures,” “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run,” “Fabrications,” “Biped,” “Native Green,” “Suite,” and “Split Sides.

“Your whole body is exhausted,” she said after rehearsal, “ but your mind is soooo exhausted! But the outcome is so special, and so specific. The hardest thing is the co-ordination. The technical side is so hard. Hard on the body, hard to remember. I lie awake at night thinking about it. Every time I close my eyes it is ‘One, two. One, two!’ Then it goes down into your body and your brain becomes clear.”

“Julie,” says Robert Swinston, “has a special kind of excellence. She has an amazing memory, and a strong physicality. She is honest with movement, and she puts the whole of her spirit into dancing. She has an inner quality. She has the look. She’s clear. She can do what Merce Cunningham asks.” And, he notes with a wry pragmatism, “She can take correction like a dream.”

In crossing the ocean to work with Cunningham, Julie follows in the footsteps of Valda Setterfield, also Rambert trained, who danced with the company in 1961, and from 1965-1975, and has since gone on to star in the David Gordon Pick Up Performance Company; Emma Diamond, with the company from 1988-1994 and now the founder of her own dance studios in England; current dancer Daniel Squire, who trained with the Royal Ballet; and Cunningham’s biographer David Vaughan, who has been associated with the company for more than thirty years (since 1976 as the company archivist), and is a performer in his own right.

This fruitful Anglo-American relationship has been amplified by the acquisition by British companies, including the Rambert Dance Company, of Merce Cunningham works for their own repertories. The Cunningham technique and style have fervent British advocates, among them Richard Alston of the London Contemporary Dance Company, and Alastair Macaulay, chief drama critic of the “Financial Times of London.

Most importantly, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has a loyal British audience. They have been appearing in England for some forty years, when their first London season placed them on the English dance map, but never more frequently than the present. Recent co-commissions by the Barbican and Dance Umbrella, and their rapturously received recent Event season at the Tate, are to be followed this October by a tour to London, Sheffield, Manchester, Warwick, Oxford, Brighton, and Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, the girl from Liverpool is already at home in New York. Julie has found a place to live in Brooklyn, but really that’s just where she sleeps. Her home is now where her heart has been for years. In Westbeth, with Merce Cunningham. “I believe that we will benefit greatly from her contributions to the company,” says the venerable choreographer himself of his newest dancer. “Her spirit and personality accentuate the choreography and make her presence on the stage irreplaceable.” Thus begins the latest chapter in the relationship between Cunningham and the British. In every way, a fair exchange.

Photos courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Originally published:
Volume 2, No. 29
August 2, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Nancy Dalva


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