After hearing news of the passing of the great dancer and choreographer over the summer, I felt compelled to look through some of the holdings in Special Collections in search of some tangible material documenting Merce Cunningham’s connection with Washington State, which yielded some surprising results.
Born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, Merce Cunningham famously studied dance at Seattle’s Cornish School from 1937-1939, before being plucked by Martha Graham for her company in New York City. Cunningham remained with Graham’s troupe through 1945. He had begun performing his own choreography while still in the company, and, after leaving, he continued to give recitals as a soloist, eventually forming his own company in 1953.
Naturally I looked for some evidence of Cunningham’s student days in the Cornish School of Allied Arts records, but did not find much in the way of official school records, programs, or photographs from this period. I did, however, discover this tantalizing telegram in a file of correspondence from Bonnie Bird:
The Portland-born Bird (a somewhat neglected figure, whose biography you also can read in Special Collections), had herself studied at the Cornish School with Graham during Graham’s brief tenure as a teacher at the school. Bird joined Graham’s first company, but returned to Seattle in 1937 to head the dance department at Cornish, where Cunningham became one of her students. It was during a Bennington summer institute held at Mills College in Oakland, California, attended by Cunningham, along with Bird and other fellow Cornish students, that Graham first encountered the young dancer. She quickly invited Cunningham and another Cornish colleague, Dorothy Hermann, to join her company, as indicated in this telegram.
While I certainly found the telegram to be thrilling, it ultimately tells us more about Bird (and her view of the situation at Cornish) than it does about Cunningham. However, pursuing Bird led me to another interesting item; this time found in the Ralph H. Gundlach papers. Gundlach, a controversial University of Washington psychology professor, met Bird while she was teaching at Cornish and the two later married. Both were deeply committed to progressive causes and worked with others to stage a fundraising event in support of the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy held at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on May 6, 1938. Bird’s major contribution to the evening was a group dance featuring several of her pupils, including Cunningham, Hermann, Syvilla Fort, and Cole Weston. A rare program for this performance can be found among Gundlach’s papers:
Apparently called, Dances for Spain, the piece, as Bird later described it, “ended with a dance of youth as a very positive thing, in a sense celebrating the youth of Spain” (Transcript of oral history interviews with Bonnie Bird Gundlach conducted by William Riess and Heidi Gundlach-Smith, July to November 1994, page 200). It was remarkable to see Cunningham, whose own work is not usually associated with political causes, taking part in this performance, but it serves as a reminder of just how deeply entwined art and issues of social justice frequently became during that turbulent period.
If you act quickly, you can see some of the dances of this era on display in The Shape of Dissent, the current concert program being presented by the UW Chamber Dance Company. The CDC, whose mission is “to present and record works of historical and artistic significance” is providing a valuable service by breathing new life into choreographic works, which, without continued performance and preservation, threaten to become mere artifacts or to disappear completely. Although the program itself focuses on the choreographers of the (also recently-demised) New Dance Group, you could view it as a tribute to Merce (who, in his own way, was such an advocate of, and innovator in, dance archives) or Bird (who was a champion of dance notation) as well.
Performances of The Shape of Dissent continue through this weekend at Meany Hall (video recordings of the works in the CDC’s Repertory Archive are made available for viewing at the University of Washington Libraries Media Center at Odegaard Library). Merce Cunningham’s life will be celebrated in a special event in New York on October 28, 2009.