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Village Preservation Oral History: Merce Cunningham

Village Preservation shares our oral history collection with the public, highlighting some of the people and stories that make Greenwich Village and the East Village such unique and vibrant neighborhoods. Each of these histories includes the experiences and insights of long-time residents, usually active in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life.

Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009) was one of the most important choreographers of our time as well as one of the greatest dancers and founder of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC). Born Mercier Phillip Cunningham in Centralia, Washington, his unrelenting pursuit of innovation for dance led to collaborations with other forms of art, which became a defining trademark of the MCDC. MCDC was located at Westbeth from 1971 until 2012 when the dance company dissolved.  In his oral history with GVSHP, Merce provides an insightful account of his experience at Westbeth. (click HERE for the full interview).

Merce Cunningham with Carolyn Brown at Westbeth, 1972. Photo by Wendy Perron. Source unknown.

Merce was interviewed along with Jean Craig and David Vaughn, archivist for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. At the beginning of the interview, Merce described the challenges that choreographers and dancers faced in finding space in New York City in the 1960’s. The space the company had prior to coming to Westbeth at 498 Third Avenue was run down and less than ideal.  They learned of the artist housing and work space at Westbeth, a revolutionary model at the time,  through the newspaper. They visited the space but found that it was too expensive. Fortunately, a three year grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund enabled them to move in, and thereafter they were able to raise the money to afford the rent. Merce believed that Westbeth management was eager to have the company as a commercial tenant since they wanted arts organizations in the ‘commercial’ spaces. He says this of the space:

But the space, there are two things about it I remember from the very beginning. First of all it was just the size. It was wonderful. And I finally woke up to the fact about the views. It took awhile, but I suddenly realized you could see out here and see a great deal of Manhattan, and up here see the river and every once in a while a big boat will pass. I kept thinking what it must have been like a hundred and fifty years ago with the river dotted with sailboats.

Westbeth as viewed from the Hudson River Park. Photo courtesy Barry Munger.

Merce also compared the Westbeth neighborhood from the early 1970s to today and reminisced about the large windows of the dance studio, one of the many features of the building that influenced his work. He continued to describe the influence of the physical landscape of the building and how part of the adventure of Westbeth was its unique history and size:

Yes, because when the Bell Telephone Laboratory left, I think they cut all the wires. Just every wire, so that you would find something in this room that is connected with the elevator. It was, and this would take a while. Something wouldn’t work, and they’d have to follow lines and so on. And finally find out, as they did, that the connection was here. Why it’s here, nobody knows, but that’s where it was. That was part of the adventure of this place, too. Not only where it was situated in Manhattan, but what it was.

Towards the end of the interview, Merce spoke of how beneficial Westbeth is for artists because to the low rent, being able to work and live in the same space and due to the potential cross-pollination between the mediums.

Well, I think that Westbeth, although I don’t live here, as a place to live and for artists to do their work here has been for a great many of them something fortunate. Because it more or less has stayed within their financial means, so that they can pay their rent and do their work. And they’re able then to show it or sell it or whatever, rather than having to maintain another space in order to function, to do the work in.

Merce Cunningham in his studio, at left (photo by Mark Seliger via siongchin.com)

Merce Cunningham led his company up until his death at age 90. His legacy in the world of dance continues to resonate deeply to this day. To see a full transcript of this interview, click HERE.

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