Cunningham Legacy Tour almost skipped Seattle
How Merce Cunningham Dance Company almost bypassed Seattle on its last tour — and the unusual arts partnership that made sure the Centralia-born, Cornish-trained choreographer's troupe made one last stop in his home state before dissolving.
Seattle Times arts writer
The Legacy Tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company originally had no plans to stop in the state where Cunningham was born and the city where the world-famous choreographer had some of his key early training. When Donald Byrd heard that news, he went into campaign mode to bring the troupe here one last time before it folded up its tent and vanished into dance history.
Byrd, the artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, got word of the situation through David Lieberman, the theatrical agent he and Spectrum share with the Cunningham company. Lieberman revealed that Meany Hall, where MCDC made its last local appearance in 2001, couldn't make the booking work financially with only a 1,200 seating capacity. So Seattle wasn't on the list.
"To me that was just the most horrifying thing," Byrd remarked in a recent interview. "And I said: Well, what can I do? Maybe I can call some people."
He contacted Lane Czaplinski of On the Boards, Peter Boal of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Sandra Jackson-Dumont of the Seattle Art Museum and Sergei Tschernisch, then-president of Cornish College of the Arts (which Cunningham attended in 1937-39).
They weren't sure what could be done, but they decided to meet and talk.
"The biggest concern," Byrd says, "was how much did it cost? And if we raised the money for that, how was that going to impact our organizations' fundraising?"
Early on, Byrd was able to get pledges from two big funders, the Boeing and Paul Allen foundations. That left finding a venue. McCaw Hall, home of PNB, had a scheduling conflict and was too big. So the team of five turned to Josh LaBelle of the Seattle Theatre Group.
Would the Paramount be available?
"Josh said that he would do it," Byrd recalls, "if we could raise most of the money. He had to be able to make it work. So with the two foundations that I went to, I raised about three-quarters of what was needed."
Happy ending, right?
Um ... no.
As deadlines for a commitment were pushed past what Byrd calls "the drop-dead date," LaBelle continued to have worries about STG holding "the risk bag," as he calls it. LaBelle, by telephone, explained that between $265,000 and $275,000 was needed to present MCDC at the Paramount (that amount covers MCDC's fee, advertising, theater staffing, etc.) while anticipated box-office revenue could cover only $80,000-$90,000 of it. (Byrd's funders pledged three-quarters of the shortfall.)
Another complication: The Cunningham company needed to be in the Paramount for a full week to prepare for its two nights of performance — a tricky proposition for any presenting organization — and the company had very limited availability on its schedule.
The "calendar gods," as LaBelle calls them, eventually aligned. But the fiscal situation remained bumpy. "There was awhile there," LaBelle says, "that it didn't look so good."
But Byrd kept the pressure on.
"To be honest with you," Byrd says, "I could not imagine that tour not coming here. I just said, 'It will come here. I don't care what I have to do. It will come here.' "
Trevor Carlson, executive director of MCDC, was brought into the picture. Cunningham's nephews and nieces were also invited into the ring.
"There was all kinds of drama," Byrd recalls. But the big picture, in his mind, stayed clear: "To me, it would be — I won't say a tragedy — but it would have been a civic embarrassment, I thought, for the tour not to come to Seattle."
Byrd, it should be noted, has a curious history with Cunningham. After he won scholarships to train with the company in the early 1980s, it seemed likely he would join it. But as much as he loved most of Cunningham's work — "The technique made sense on my body" — he fled the prospect.
"I bailed for two reasons," he recalls. "One of them was that I knew I wouldn't stay if I joined that company, because I was already choreographing. And that's where my interests really were."
The deeper thing that worried him was the degree to which Cunningham might take him over: "I think something about what he demanded — not even 'demanded,' maybe just 'asked' — from people, artists, dancers that worked with him was that you turn yourself over to him. He didn't have to say it. It was like you just felt it. ... So I just bailed. I didn't call or do anything, which was my style then."
Byrd's disappearance had an interesting sequel when he ran into Cunningham at "some foundation meeting" long afterward. "Merce looked at me and burst out laughing," Byrd remembers. "He goes, 'I wondered what had happened to you. I thought maybe you were dead or something.' He just laughed and howled with laughter."
No offense taken, apparently.
The ultimate twist to this tale, however, is that Byrd, who's spent so much effort making sure MCDC wouldn't be a conspicuous no-show in Seattle's fall dance calendar, won't be sitting in the Paramount when the curtain goes up — not even for his favorite Cunningham piece, "Quartet."
"I'll be in Israel," he says. "I'm going to miss the whole thing, after all of this."
He'll be on a fellowship at the new American Academy in Jerusalem, working on a new dance piece based on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (the subject of his 2008 piece, "A Chekhovian Resolution"). He asked the Academy if he could delay getting there until the Cunningham company had come through Seattle. But they made him stick to his original travel dates.
"It's really terrible," Byrd says with a rueful shrug. "I'm missing 'Quartet.' How ironic is that?"
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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