Merce Cunningham Dance Company begins a three-week residency in Seattle on August 22, 1977.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 6/10/2009
  • Essay 9044
On August 22, 1977, Merce Cunningham Dance Company begins a three-week residency presented by the Cornish Institute in Seattle.  Events include master classes taught by Cunningham, art exhibits in local museums and galleries, community discussions on Cunningham's work, and the world premiere of a new work, Inlets, danced by his company and designed by Morris Graves (1910-2001), with music by Cunningham's longtime collaborator John Cage (1912-1992). 

The residency marked the longest professional return that Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), a Centralia native and former Cornish student, had made to Seattle to date since moving to New York to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1939.

Cunningham a Cornish Dancer

At the time of Cunningham's residency, Cornish was engaged in a heated campaign to gain prominence on the national level.  Conductor Melvin Strauss had been named president of the school in 1974, and the the board of directors had made that mission his mandate.  The school’s name was changed, from Cornish Institute of Allied Arts to Cornish Institute, and its program was upgraded from community arts school to full four-year college.  In finding funding for and hosting Cunningham’s three-week company residency, Cornish reinforced its pride in his Cornish pedigree and its intent to continue producing students who would excel on the national and international level.

In 1974, the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges granted Cornish candidacy status for possible accreditation.  With candidacy for accreditation, Cornish students gained access to student aid and loans not previously accessible.  Full-time enrollment more than doubled between the 1974-1975 school year and that of 1975-1976.  The upcoming Cunningham residency, along with the good news about enrollment increases, received prominent mention in the school’s 1976 Annual Report.  Cornish received full accreditation on June 20, 1977.

A Homecoming

Cornish announced the Cunningham residency in its September 1977 newsletter.  Melvin Strauss noted that it was a homecoming for Cunningham and Cage:

"Forty years ago, Cage was an accompanist and Cunningham a student at Cornish.  Since then, their collaboration -- an embodiment in the allied arts concept -- has brought new directions to both music and dance ... . The collaboration of Cunningham, Cage, and Graves on this work has special meaning.  All three of these internationally known artists have roots here in Seattle.  They in fact, began their friendship here at Cornish” (“News of Cornish ... "). 

Merce Cunningham began studying at Cornish in 1937.  John Cage joined the Cornish staff as an accompanist for Bonnie Bird’s modern dance classes in 1938.  Cage and Cunningham knew Morris Graves from Seattle's fertile late-1930s cultural scene, and had wanted to collaborate with him since 1946.

Much Excitement

The residency included classes and workshops; a Foster/White Gallery exhibit of sets and costumes designed for Cunningham works by major artists, paintings by those artists, and scores and manuscripts by Cage; Robert Rauschenberg exhibits at the Linda Ferris Gallery and the Cornish Institute Gallery; a Cage and Cunningham Dialogue (a kind of performance incorporating Cage's spoken text and Cunningham's movement); Events (performances in venues other than theaters that included fragments of various Cunningham works recombined to form a new experience) in Seattle and Tacoma; and a Cage concert at Cornish Institute.

The residency culminated with performances on September 9 and 10, 1977, at Meany Hall.  The program presented on September 9 included Summerspace (1958), Solo (1973), Sounddance (1974), and Travelogue (1977).  On September 10, Inlets had its world premiere, along with performances of Torse (1976), Signals (1970), and Squaregame (1976).

Carole Beers described Inlets in The Seattle Times:

"Imagine a giant, sand-colored backdrop of a silky fabric, defined by an outsized black disc at upper left and by the slightly-bowed silhouette of a dancer facing right.  Imagine the sound of water gurgling softly from seashell to seashell while the light increases, revealing the black disc to be a mylar mirror.  Finally imagine the bowed figure uncoiling and moving forward, his limbs making fluid arcs, his solitude interrupted by other moving figures softened by a gauzey scrim separating them from the stage apron. The effect was of a particularly delicate sumi painting come to life" ("A Cagey Collaboration").

Favorite Sons

At a Henry Gallery reception following Inlet's premiere, Washington governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994)'s special counsel Lou Guzzo read Ray's official proclamation declaring Merce Cunningham, Morris Graves, and John Cage "Favorite Sons of the Arts in Washington and the Pacific Northwest."

Cunningham Dance Company members were:

  • Karole Armitage
  • Louise Burns
  • Ellen Cornfield
  • Merce Cunningham
  • Susan Emery
  • Morgan Ensminger
  • Lisa Fox
  • Lise Friedman
  • Meg Harper
  • Chris Komar
  • Robert Kovich
  • Julie Roess-Smith
  • Jim Self

The residency was sponsored by Cornish Institute and supported in part with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington State Arts Commission, King County Arts Commission, Seattle-First National Bank, the R. D. Merrill Foundation, and private patrons.

Cunningham's company returned to Seattle for another extended residency, this time sponsored by the University of Washington World Dance Series, from April 22 to May 2, 1996.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,  "Cunningham, Merce (b. April 16, 1919)" (by Paula Becker) (accessed June 10, 1009); Herb Belanger, “Cornish -- A Community Arts School Becomes a College,” Cornish Institute Magazine, March 12, 1978, “Historical Materials 1978” Box 1, folder 3a, Cornish School of Allied Arts, Accession 2654, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Seattle; 1976 Annual Report, “Programs 1936-1977” Box 1, Folder 4, Cornish School of Allied Arts, Accession 2654-03, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Seattle; “Cornish Accredited as a College,” and “Special Residency at Cornish: Merce Cunningham,” News of Cornish Institute, September, 1977, “Programs 1977-1978” Box 1, folder 5, Ibid.; Merce Cunningham and Dance Company  program, Ibid.; Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, Chronicle and Commentary by David Vaughn, ed. by Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997), p. 202; Carole Beers, "A Cagey Collaboration," The Seattle Times clipping marked September 12, 1977, in Dancers A-E Scrapbook, The Seattle Public Library Central Branch Arts and Literature Collection, Seattle.

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