Merce Cunningham Trust

MCDC in Aeon.
Photo © Robert Rauschenberg 1961

It was decided that the funds intended for the canceled 1963 Broadway season should go toward the cost of a tour in India and Japan. If enough dates could be found, the tour would also be extended to Europe. It would start in the spring of 1964.
The financing of a world tour was obviously a formidable problem. Available proceeds from the art sale staged by the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts—a little over $20,000—would not nearly cover it; and no help was forthcoming from the United States Department of State. Thanks to Porter McCray, the JDR 3rd Fund gave a generous grant for travel expenses to the Far East.

The tour was scheduled to begin early in June. On 3 June 1964, a company of sixteen flew to Paris. There were nine dancers: Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Shareen Blair, Barbara (Dilley) Lloyd, Sandra Neels, William Davis, Steve Paxton, and Albert Reid; the two musicians, John Cage and David Tudor; the designer, Robert Rauschenberg, and his assistant, the painter Alex Hay; Hay’s then wife, Deborah Hay, who would be a tenth dancer in a few pieces; and two administrators, Lewis Lloyd and David Vaughan. The repertory on the tour consisted of Æon, Antic Meet, Crises, Field Dances, Night Wandering, Nocturnes, Paired, Rune, Septet, Story, Suite for Five, Summerspace, Winterbranch, and three of Cunningham’s solos: Changeling, Collage III, and Untitled Solo.

The company’s cash assets totaled some $40,000. There had been gifts from individuals, notably Mary Hayes Sisler, Judith Peabody, Philip Johnson, Rauschenberg, and Betty Freeman. The dancers and the administrators were paid $165 a week. Cunningham, the musical director, the pianist, the designer, and the designer’s assistant were each paid $185. There was no per diem for living expenses.



Viola Farber, Caroyln Brown, and MC in
Story. Photo © Douglas H. Jeffery 1964


On arrival at Orly Airport on the morning of 4 June, after being greeted by Bénédicte Pesle and other friends, the company drove to Strasbourg, where, on the 6th, the first performance of the tour took place at the Théâtre de la Comédie.  The most enthusiastic audience response that evening came from the young people in the upper reaches of the house, and this set the pattern for most of the tour. Strasbourg was a kind of out-of-town tryout for Paris, where three performances had been arranged by Françoise and Dominique Dupuy, animators of the Ballets Modernes de Paris. Three different programs were given at the Théâtre de l’Est Parisien, in the twentieth arrondissement, on 12, 13, and 14 June. The performances received critical notice of the most serious kind, especially from the veteran critic Dinah Maggie in Combat. Two days after this engagement ended, the company performed at the Maison de la Culture in Bourges.
From Paris the company flew to Venice, for a single performance on 18 June at the Teatro La Fenice. That year Rauschenberg won the Venice Biennale’s international grand prize. The Cunningham performance took place the day before the jury reached its decision, and was generally assumed to be part of a carefully orchestrated campaign by Leo Castelli, Rauschenberg’s dealer, to secure the prize for his client. Cunningham’s program certainly displayed Rauschenberg’s work for the company at its most brilliant and diverse: Antic Meet, Summerspace, and Story.
Steve Paxton and Merce Cunningham in
Antic Meet. Photo © Jack Mitchell 1964
Four days later the company left by bus for its next date, in Vienna. Earlier in the year, Dr. Gerhart Rindauer, director of that city’s Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, invited the company to perform in the museum. The performance took place on the evening of 24 June.
The next day the company moved on to Germany, where it performed in Mannheim on 27 June, in Mies van der Rohe’s Nationaltheater. The company was next scheduled to wait for two weeks in Cologne, where a single performance had been booked for 12 July. Here, Cunningham, Cage, and Rauschenberg met the great choreographer Kurt Jooss, who invited the company to give a performance at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen. The fee was minimal, but Cunningham was happy to accept. He was also sensible of the honor of being invited to perform in the home of the Ballets Jooss.
The stage proved to be tiny—more like a shelf, as Cunningham said. The local dancers were puzzled by what they saw, but there was a vociferous, presumably friendly response from a group of art students, devotees of Joseph Beuys, from the nearby town of Düsseldorf, who at the end of the show banged their chairs on the floor while moving them up toward the stage.
The Cologne performance had been arranged with the help of Todd Bolender, then the director of the Opera ballet company. Much of the audience was loud in its disapproval, but the performance was reviewed enthusiastically by Horst Koegler and Gerhard Brunner.
Carolyn Brown and Merce Cunningham in
Suite for Five. Photo © Georges Glasberg 1964

The next performance, on 16 July, was in a dance festival at Les Baux-de-Provence, again under the aegis of Françoise and Dominique Dupuy. Conditions at Les Baux were primitive.  The mosquitoes were virulent. Rauschenberg augmented the lighting for Story with the headlights of two or three automobiles.

The company then made its way, first to Paris and then to Calais and on by boat to Dover. Here a bus was waiting to take most of them to Devonshire, for performances at Dartington College of Arts, near Totnes.
The invitation to Dartington had come about through Dorothy Whitney Elmhurst, the American widow of the school’s founder, Leonard Elmhurst. She had been closely connected for many years with the Cornish School in Seattle, and knew Cunningham from his time there. Dartington’s Barn Theatre offered another tiny stage, but the company managed to perform a good portion of its repertory during the three evenings.
On 25 July, a Saturday, there was another long bus ride, to London. On the 27th the company opened at Sadler’s Wells. The London producer Michael White wrote, “I’m completely bowled over. Everything is fantastic, the intellectual expression, dancing, music and decor.”


Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown in
Crises. Photo © Shunk-Kender 1964

To coincide with the London season, an exhibition of photographs of the company by Jack Mitchell opened at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, organized by Francis S. Mason, then deputy cultural attaché, who also gave an opening-night party in his London home. During the week the full repertory was performed.

Michael White proposed a transfer to the Phoenix Theatre in the Charing Cross Road for a further two-and-a-half-week run. Business at Sadler’s Wells had steadily improved, and White thought it worth gambling on a continuation of this trend, particularly in a theater in the center of London. The company opened at the Phoenix on Wednesday, 5 August, and during the engagement gave four programs, performing each one on four successive evenings. The combined engagements, lasting four weeks, added up to the longest so far in the company’s history.
As in other European cities, these audiences included many artists and art students attracted by Rauschenberg’s participation, as well as musicians interested in Cage. In the dance world the company’s strongest supporter was Marie Rambert, long an advocate of dancing’s right to exist independently of music. Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Kenneth MacMillan attended.  Ashton said “You are a poet, and I like poetic ballets.” MacMillan, on the other hand, left before the end.
Cunningham’s most devoted following was among theater people. Directors like Lindsay Anderson, George Devine, William Gaskill, and Peter Gill, the designer Jocelyn Herbert, actors like Irene Worth and Harold Lang returned several times to see the company. Shareen Blair got married, and left the company at the end of the engagement. Cunningham took Deborah Hay into the company to replace her, at least for the rest of the tour.
Merce Cunningham in Summerspace.
Photo © Jack Mitchell 1965

The Stockholm engagement was arranged by Pontus Hultén, then director of the Moderna Museet, who planned a series of “5 New York evenings” in conjunction with an exhibition of works by Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Per Ultvedt, Claes Oldenburg, and Öyvind Fählstrom. The company was filmed for Swedish television, under the direction of Arne Arnbom.

At the last minute, the company was asked to perform one piece in a program by the Royal Swedish Ballet. Cunningham decided to perform Winterbranch, which, naturally, scandalized some ballet patrons. Before leaving Stockholm, Cunningham received a medal from the Society for the Advancement of Dancing in Sweden, of which the only previous recipients were the Queen of Sweden and Rolf de Maré, animator of the avant-garde Ballets Suédois in the 1920s.
The company left Stockholm, sailing on the late afternoon of the 15th, and went by bus to Helsinki. The performance there was also broadcast live on television, in a transmission directed by Heiki Seppala.  From Helsinki it flew to Prague.
In Prague the hall was vast—there were about 2,000 spectators—but the stage was small and ill equipped. The audience was confused, and the sightlines were poor, but the reception was tumultuous all the same. The next morning the company flew to Ostrava, where they performed that evening, the 24th.


Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown in
Night Wandering. Photo © M. Sekiyro 1964

The next day the company traveled by train to Warsaw, to make a single appearance at the Teatr Dramatyczny at noon on 27 September, as part of the eighth Warsaw Autumn Festival of contemporary music. Here tickets were available only to festival subscribers, many of whom had no interest in dance. The consequences were many empty seats and a large crowd of young people without tickets, banging on the locked doors of the outer lobby, trying to get in.

The next day the company traveled, again by train, to Poznan.  In Poznan there was again a single performance, on 19 September, at the Paustwowa Opera.
On the evening of 1 October, the company took a train to Krefeld, where a performance was scheduled imminently in conjunction with a Rauschenberg exhibition at the Museum Haus Lange. The Krefeld performance on 3 October at the Stadttheater went off without a hitch. The European part of the tour, which had lasted four months, was almost over.
Merce Cunningham in Untitled Solo.
Photo © Arnold Eagle



The company took off for India, arriving in Bombay on the morning of 14 October. With barely a day to recover from severe jet lag, the dancers had to give the first of two programs at the Bhulabhai Desai Auditorium on 15 October. On the evening of the 17th the company boarded the night train, the Gujarat Mail, to Ahmedabad, where the Sarabhai family were to be their hosts.
Every evening when the company was not performing, there was a banquet, followed by an entertainment of some kind: a puppet show, folk dancing, music, fireworks, or a performance by Mrinalini Sarabhai’s company, Darpana. The dancers also visited her school and rehearsed there, and Cunningham later gave a lecture-demonstration there. The company performed on the 21st and the 22nd in the Mangaldas Town Hall.
Two performances were given on 25 and 26 October. It is safe to say that most of  the audience had never seen anything like the Cunningham company’s dancing. It is equally true that they appeared to be spellbound. Whenever a man lifted—or even touched—a woman, there were gasps. No doubt Rauschenberg’s costumes seemed like the equivalent of nudity. But, as Cunningham observed, “You felt that if they hadn’t liked it they would have come at you with knives.”


MCDC in Nocturnes.
Photo © Shunk-Kender 1964

In Delhi, the company gave two performances, presented by the Delhi Music Society. A review of the first performance began "unless forcibly prevented the company will perform again on Friday night.” The review went on to describe Winterbranch as “a delicious lampoon of the anaemically sentimental sequences one sometimes comes across in classical ballet.”

The engagement in Thailand became a Royal Command Performance, given before Their Majesties King Phumiphon and Queen Sirikit on 3 November. On 5 November the company flew on to Tokyo, via Hong Kong. There was an open rehearsal on 6 November, and then a break of three days before the first performances, on the 10th and 11th. Immediately after the second performance, the company flew to Osaka. Two days later the company performed in Osaka, returning to Tokyo via Kyoto. The company's last performance of the tour, the last two performances, took place on 24 and 25 November. The next day, most of the company left for New York, exhausted, injured, and some disaffected. But there was no longer any doubt that they were a major dance company, and that in future years, Cunningham's work would have an enormous influence on contemporary dance, not only in the United States, but in Europe, especially in France and Britain.