Who will protect the legacies of Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham?

When a great choreographer dies, does their work die with them?

Merce Cunningham once wrote: "You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that fleeting moment when you feel alive."

No other choreographer celebrated the ephemeral quality of dance in quite the way Cunningham did. He relished the knowledge that it was created out of the fluky, fragile bodies of men and women, that it was rooted in the here and now. But after his death last week, at the age of 90, these words have resonated with a special poignancy, as his New York-based company is left to consider what will happen to the fleeting beauty of the 200-plus works Cunningham created.

In Germany, Pina Bausch's dancers are now faced with the same challenge, after the choreographer died five weeks ago at the age of 68. To put the enormity of this challenge into some context, you only have to imagine a situation where the paintings of Rauschenberg or Bacon were taken down from galleries as soon as those artists died; where the novels of Saul Bellow were removed from the bookshelves, or the music of Stravinsky was silenced. What happens to dance once the artist who made it is gone?

No other art form would accept for a second that death implied the possible death of an artist's oeuvre. But what makes this a genuine issue for modern dance is the umbilically close connection between most choreographers, their companies and their work. The dances of Cunningham and Bausch were created for a dedicated group of performers; when death or financial crisis threatens the survival of that group, it puts the works in jeopardy, too.

In ballet, the chance of a work outlasting its choreographer is much stronger, simply because most classical companies operate a very mixed repertory. The Royal Ballet is typical in maintaining a wide range of ballets: a new work such as Wayne McGregor's Infra takes its place alongside classics such as Giselle. This mix is sustainable not only because the company has a large teaching staff to rehearse the works, but because the repertoire, despite its range of period and style, is grounded in the basic classical vocabulary, in which the dancers train every day.

Modern dance has historically been more about the individual artist, less about a tradition. And as choreographers such as Martha Graham, Cunningham, Bausch and others have developed their own unique bodies of work, they have gathered around them dedicated companies of dancers to perform them. While they remained alive, that principle worked fine. But now that so many of the early pioneers have died – and even Bausch's generation is starting to go – modern dance faces urgent decisions about what to do with their legacies.

The Cunningham company attempted to head off a crisis long before the choreographer died, ensuring that nearly all of their repertory was videoed and notated. Yet while the resulting archive is exemplary, it can't guarantee that more than a fraction of these works will continue to be shown in theatres; the Cunningham company itself can only afford to operate in its current form for another two years. As dancer Robert Swinston told me: "So much of our funding and sponsorship has been attached to the creation of new work, and without Merce, that's gone."

A soon-to-be appointed trust will decide what, if anything, will take the company's place as a repository of the work. Swinston, who is on the list of possible trustees, believes it is essential to keep the Cunningham school going, so that future generations continue to acquire the technique the choreographer developed to train his dancers. But Swinston also believes it is crucial to have some small, possibly part-time, performing ensemble in place – to direct a steady flow of Cunningham choreography on to the stage. "I couldn't bear it if we were reduced to just being an office somewhere."

The Cunningham Trust will also license work out to other companies, hoping to widen the net beyond the very few who currently perform it. One of these is Rambert Dance Company, who in many ways Swinston sees as an ideal partner. Cunningham's choreography is not easy to perform, with its twisting, tilting angles, and its radical oddities of rhythm and shape, but Rambert's dancers know it inside out because they take regular classes in his technique. Just as importantly, Rambert artistic director Mark Baldwin is a passionate fan of Cunningham's work. "Performing it is really important to us. It's like a ballet company dancing Swan Lake: it really makes us step up to the bar."

Next year, Rambert will acquire their 10th Cunningham piece, Rainforest. Yet however deeply Baldwin admires the repertory, he can only stage a limited amount of it. With its challenging electronic scores, its mind-bendingly complicated choreographic structures and blithe indifference to story or character, it is what Baldwin tactfully describes as "big city work". "I have to be careful how I programme it," he says. "It's difficult to tour to certain theatres."

At least Cunningham's work is easy to stage. Most of his dances are short, fitting comfortably into a standard triple bill; most have simple costumes and easily portable decor. Bausch's productions are a far more daunting prospect, frequently lasting up to three hours, and with scenery scaled to match – a 20-metre mud wall, a carpet of carnations, a giant tank of water. Few companies have the resources to stage such epics, nor even to adequately prepare their dancers. Bausch did not develop a technique as such, but created works as a collage of speech, movement and psychological rituals, which anatomised the hearts and minds of their performers. Very little of her work was performed by other companies while she was alive, and it's hard to imagine that changing now.

There is, at least, no immediate prospect of the Bausch company disbanding. According to her friend and UK producer, Artangel's Michael Morris, "Pina had already scheduled the next three years of touring and this will certainly unfold. There is also the Wim Wenders project [a 3D film tribute to Bausch's life and work], which may develop in its scope and scale." But several question marks loom over the company's long-term future. It is unlikely that their home, Wuppertal Opera House, will continue to support them on the same generous terms. It's unlikely, too, that the company will be able to attract the same gifted performers who gravitated to Bausch during her lifetime. Dancers from all over the world queued up to join the company, just as they did to join Cunningham's, and what drew them was the chance to be in the studio with the choreographer, to see work created about and around them. A company that has essentially become a museum, preserving a dead choreographer's work, is a far less inspiring prospect.

Interestingly, the people least bothered about the idea of legacy seem to be the choreographers themselves. Martha Graham, who died in 1991, asserted that she wanted her work to disappear with her. Cunningham serenely insisted he didn't "care about the future" – his concern was "now". Morris, who has now arguably taken on the mantle of America's greatest living choreographer, has claimed it doesn't make him "sad when dances die".

That doesn't mean the rest of us can't be sad. Modern dance is now almost 100 years old, and while its focus, rightly, is on the creation and encouragement of new work, it has to look at conservation, too. Baldwin and Swinston both believe that dance schools and universities play a vital role in transmitting dance history, but that other parts of the profession could be more actively involved. If individual companies can't shoulder the sole burden of caretaking a choreographer's legacy, they should be able to collaborate with others – to mount festivals and retrospectives. They can pool their collective knowledge, and their collective memory.

Certainly, they need to start acting now. Baldwin feels it is essential for younger choreographers to have a sense of history. "Dance is like painting: you need to be able to see the old work and the new work hung side by side. You can learn so much from a choreographer like Cunningham. His work is so layered, so rich and so broad. It would really worry me if we lost all sense of what's gone before. I think the art form would be in danger of becoming increasingly banal."

It's important for audiences, too. I can still remember the awe, the excitement, the overwhelming sense of discovery I felt the first time I saw Cunningham and Bausch live in the theatre – it would be shameful to deny that to future generations. The shock of the past can sometimes be as thrilling as the shock of the new.


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pina Bausch for ever

Was it thrilling to dance for the late, great Pina Bausch – or terrifying? As the troupe she created heads for Edinburgh, Judith Mackrell asks key members to explain her magic

Judith Mackrell

09, Aug, 2010 @8:31 PM

Article image
Savour the last dance: Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham's stylish swansongs
Tanztheater Wuppertal’s playful Como el Musguito… contrasts with the darkness of Bausch’s early shows while Cunningham’s later pieces hummed with a digital energy. Choreographers’ final works can feel positively youthful

Judith Mackrell

04, Feb, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Portrait of the artist: Merce Cunningham, choreographer

'We recently performed in the bottom of a rock quarry in Minnesota'

Interview by Laura Barnett

29, Sep, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Obituary: Pina Bausch

Obituary German choreographer whose bleak vision changed the face of European dance

Luke Jennings

30, Jun, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Merce Cunningham, Barbican, London

Barbican, London

Judith Mackrell

06, Oct, 2004 @11:37 AM

Article image
Merce Cunningham's last dance

In 2008, choreographer Merce Cunningham took his troupe to an old car plant in California. There, he made a film with Tacita Dean that he didn't live to see. She relives three extraordinary days

Tacita Dean

27, Apr, 2010 @8:35 PM

Article image
Merce Cunningham, Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern, London

Judith Mackrell

05, Nov, 2003 @12:04 PM

Article image
Merce Cunningham, Barbican, London

Barbican, London

Judith Mackrell

15, Jun, 2005 @10:58 AM

Article image
'He said two things to me in five years. And one was thanks for the cheese' - Merce Cunningham
He was a rail-thin, zen-like powerhouse who electrified dance – and his pupils. As Merce Cunningham’s centenary is celebrated, four disciples recall an unforgettable teacher

Interviews by Lyndsey Winship

15, Apr, 2019 @12:56 PM

Article image
Dance review: Pina Bausch Wuppertal Tanztheater / Sadler's Wells, London

This long-sold-out season proves an electrifying experience, finds Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

14, Feb, 2008 @2:59 PM