Spotlight: Alums Take Part in Cunningham Celebration

Tuesday, Apr 02, 2019
by Sarah J. Adriance
Juilliard Journal
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Craig Black in Cunningham's 'Summerspace'
Scenes from Juilliard's Cunningham repertory: Craig Black (BFA '11) in 'Summerspace' (2010)

Alumni Spotlight

In honor of what would have been vaunted choreographer Merce Cunningham’s 100th birthday, on April 16, the Merce Cunningham Trust is presenting Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, a three-venue celebration staging. Many Juilliard alumni are involved, both onstage and off.

Cunningham used the term Event to describe dance experiences made up of whole or fragments of repertory that have been arranged to form an entirely new entity. This project is the largest Event ever and features 75 dancers— former repertory understudies and selected guests from a variety of dance backgrounds who will perform alongside musicians and composers representing Cunningham’s interests. Each venue—the Barbican Centre in London, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance—will have a specially curated set. In a nod to Cunningham’s appreciation of technology, the Events will be live-streamed so viewers can watch in real time.

Former Merce Cunningham company members are staging and arranging the choreography for the Events. Andrea Weber (BFA ’97, dance), one of the stagers, notes that there is a “strong Juilliard presence” in all three Events “because they have Cunningham training.” Former artistic director Lawrence Rhodes added Cunningham technique to the curriculum—taught by Banu Ogan (faculty 2005-14)— because he felt it was “very useful to today’s dancer” due to its “physical and choreographic integrity.” Cunningham’s choreography is complex with unconventional coordination, long balances, and precise musical timing. And since Cunningham dancers don't rehearse to music, they must also have a deep, innate musicality.

Hannah Wright Neeleman
Hannah Wright Neeleman (BFA '12) in 'Summerspace' (2010)

Merce Cunningham died in the summer of 2009, just as Juilliard Dance was negotiating to perform his work for the first time, including Summerspace, which was part of the spring repertory program in 2010. Upon Cunningham’s death, his radical Legacy Planwas enacted—it included a two-year farewell world tour, a preservation plan for all of his work, and ultimately, the closure of both the company and the Cunningham Dance Foundation.

The legacy now lives on in the Merce Cunningham Trust, whose mission it is to carry the choreographer’s vision into the future by preserving, maintaining, and sharing the work. 100 Solos is part of a larger yearlong centennial plan that also includes film screenings, discussions, and the staging of repertory on a variety of dance companies, all under the guidance of Trevor Carlson (BFA ’92, dance), a Cunningham trustee, the longtime executive director of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, and the executive and centennial producer of 100 Solos.

Andrea Weber, who’s staging the L.A. Event, decided to study at Cunningham’s school a few years after graduation on the advice of a Juilliard classmate. She fell in love with both the dancing and the philosophy and “found my home,” she says—she performed with the company from 2004 through its disbanding, in 2011. For Weber, staging so many solos in limited time with dancers who live far and wide has been an unusual challenge since between the staging and the performance, the dancers must carry on refining the work for themselves. “There is a trust you establish with the dancers that they will take the dance and work on it,” she says. It’s amazing to see so many individuals of different ages in different places in their careers, coming to the work with such openness.”

Jason Collins (BFA ’13, dance) is performing five solos as part of the BAM Event, which is staged by Patricia Lent and Jean Freebury (faculty 2014-present), Juilliard’s Cunningham teacher. Participating in this project has been a “dream come true,” Collins says. “I began studying Merce’s work just after he passed away, so I never thought I’d have the opportunity to learn and perform the work outside of a studio.” He adds that his attraction to the work is not about attaining perfection, “it’s about the effort and abandon you discover in the attempt to do the nearly impossible.”

Dancers Eliza Lanham Jones and Daniel Ching
Eliza Lanham Jones (BFA '17) and Daniel Ching (BFA '16) in Cunningham's 'Biped' (2015)

Merce Cunningham’s legacy lives on in well-documented archives, in curated programs, and in the bodies of dancers who experience the work from within. On April 16, you can watch a new generation embody the legacy live or online. For details, go to

Sarah J. Adriance (BFA ’95, dance) formerly the administrative director of the Dance Division, is the general manager of Pam Tanowitz Dance and the director of the Juilliard Summer Dance Intensive

The following Juilliard dancers are scheduled to perform in the Cunningham Centennial Event: Daphne Fernberger (BFA ’14) and Asha Thomas (BFA ’99) at the Barbican Centre; Jason Collins (BFA ’13), Angela Falk (BFA ’17), David Norsworthy (BFA ’13), and Anson Zwingelberg (BFA ’17) at BAM; and Lorrin Brubaker (BFA ’17), Frances Chiaverini (BFA ’03), Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (BFA ’17), Casey Hess (BFA ’17), Victor Lozano (BFA ’16), Jermaine Spivey (BFA ’02), and Riley Watts (BFA ’07) at UCLA

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