Esprit de Tour: Notes from Retracing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s 1964 World Tour
August 12, 2016
This past May, I presented an update on my work in progress at Danspace Project, an event co-sponsored by the Merce Cunningham Trust, and the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University. The presentation included a panel discussion with original tour participants Carolyn Brown, Lewis Lloyd, David Vaughan, and musician and composer Petr Kotik, whose ensemble Musica Viva Pragensis played with the company in both Prague and Warsaw. In addition to the live discussion, I also shared segments of interviews that I have recorded around the world with those who have had some affiliation with the tour. Included here are clips with Barbara Dilley (Lloyd), who was a dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1963-1968 and Pavla Jerusalem (Kotikova), who was instrumental in securing arrangements for the company to perform in Prague and Ostrava at a time when it was highly rare for American artists to be presented in Czechoslovakia.
March 2015, Ahmedabad, India. The sounds of early morning prayers drift from the city’s mosques over the Sabarmati River. Even at 6:00am, there is an unseasonably intense heat overtaking the day—too hot and too many thunderstorms for this time of year, the locals say. I am staying in the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts’ staff quarters, located in a warren of residential dwellings several blocks from the Academy’s grounds itself. Darpana was founded in 1949 by Mrinalini Sarabhai, one of India’s premiere classical dancers. Her family hosted the Merce Cunningham Dance Company during their first trip to India in 1964. In Darpana’s open air campus, young students stand in parallel rows in their white cotton practice clothes, learning the fundamentals of Bharatanatyam on the same smooth stone floors that have been there for decades. On this day I am able to briefly sit with Mrinalini herself. We drink glasses of nimbu pani (limeade) and she talks about Cunningham’s visit, including the challenge of finding a grand piano in Ahmedabad for John Cage to use—ultimately located through a Parsi family in town. The Mangaldas Town Hall theater, where the Cunningham Company performed during their visit, is only a short rickshaw ride away from this Usmanpura riverside neighborhood. Cheap seats were made available so that anyone could attend. Although some of the Indian audiences were taken aback by the non-narrative quality of the work and the unfamiliar movement styles, scholar and critic Narayana Menon noted, “No one who saw these performances will look at dancing the same old way. A door has been opened to a new world of movement, sound, color.” 
Since early 2015, I have been retracing the full itinerary of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s 1964 world tour, a 6-month series of travels throughout Europe and Asia that fundamentally altered both the company and many of the artistic communities whom they encountered during their journey. The tour’s participants comprised a group of dancers, visual artists, and musicians who also had rapidly expanding creative practices of their own, including John Cage as music director, Robert Rauschenberg as resident designer and stage manager, composer and musician David Tudor, artist Alex Hay, dancers Cunningham, Shareen Blair, Carolyn Brown, William Davis, Viola Farber, Deborah Hay, Barbara Lloyd (Dilley), Sandra Neels, Steve Paxton, Albert Reid, and administrators Lewis Lloyd and David Vaughan. Among their numerous ports of call, the company performed at the Teatro La Fenice (overlapping with Rauschenberg’s Grand Prize win at the Venice Biennale), at the Phoenix Theater in London’s West End, at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, as part of the 5 New York Evenings series at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, in Le Corbusier’s planned city of Chandigarh, India, in Bangkok as part of a command performance in for the King and Queen of Thailand, and under the auspices of the Sogetsu Art Center in Japan.
The motivation behind my present-day journey is not merely to replicate the past, but to build a new framework of understanding around this pivotal series of events, examining the tour through the diverse contexts of the 30 cities in 14 countries that the company originally visited. I am focused on studying the nuances of how and why the group was invited to each venue, and how they interacted with the local artistic, cultural, and historical landscapes of the time. Because the company received invitations from a broad gamut of entities, ranging from established theaters and museums to individual hosts operating on a more modest scale, the tour also offers a unique case study through which to observe a wide variety of presentation styles and curatorial approaches. Whereas some performances were arranged over a year in advance, others came together more spur of the moment, generated from the momentum of the revelatory press reviews that emerged while the company was already on the road, particularly during their extended residency in London.
When I started this project, I was focused on addressing the question of influence—discerning the impact that the journey had had both on members of the Cunningham Company, and on the individuals and communities that they encountered. However, in speaking with primary sources (original tour participants, audience members, artists, patrons, critics, presenters, scholars), it was not always easy for people to distill the tour’s repercussions away from the larger progressions of history and their own individual lives. Sometimes these strands of influence were often too broadly and retrospectively compressed to easily parse. Instead, it has been more productive and generative to start with the pragmatics of how and why the company ended up in the locations that comprised the tour. This kind of detective work in itself requires a holistic understanding of the period and the tour’s distinct locations, including addressing elements of what was happening not only artistically, but also culturally, socially, and politically in each of these locales at the time.
At a time when Cunningham’s work still had only a modest following, it is important not to underestimate the links made through its music and visual art affiliations. These affiliations had an expansive effect, anchoring the company to venues, institutions, and supporters who might not have otherwise connected with a dance group. Cage, Tudor, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and their extended group of contacts, tapped into their own networks to create unique inroads of opportunity where they didn’t yet exist for the new kind of dance company that Cunningham was building. For example, John Cage and David Tudor’s independent music travels yielded invitations to festivals that were primarily music-based, such as the Warsaw Autumn Festival. Cage and Tudor’s longstanding connections with the Sarabhai family in India and the Sogetsu Art Center in Japan also paved the way for extended residencies in both places. Rauschenberg, too, had further enhanced the lines of communication with Stockholm’s Modern Museet and director Pontus Hultén through his participation in several exhibitions there prior to 1964. At his February 1964 show at the Whitechapel Gallery, he also emphasized his hope that the Cunningham Company would be presented in London. These examples are not meant to undercut the obvious importance of the dance as a selling point in itself, but to illustrate the multiple forms of influence that the Cunningham Company had on its side.
Although the company did not receive any funding from the U.S. State Department in 1964, they undertook their travels alongside other government-funded dance company tours. Amid this active touring climate, these surrounding engagements sometimes aided or hindered the Cunningham Company’s initiatives. After the Martha Graham Dance Company’s visit to London in 1963, critics noted the rising interest in modern dance, yielding more potential enthusiasm for future performances. However, a less favorably received performance by the Jose Limon Company in Kyoto stymied the Sogetsu Art Center’s efforts to schedule a Cunningham performance there.
I am currently half way through the initial travel portion of this project, with 15 of the 30 cities left to visit. The value of committing to the whole 1964 journey is that it does not preemptively prioritize locations in terms of their perceived levels of success and receptivity. Revisiting the complete itinerary allows me to investigate the tour not only through primary source interviews and archival materials, but also through the present day personal experiences of navigating the route. Even in venues where the memory of the Cunningham Company is more faded, there is still value in examining why this is the case. Ultimately, the present-day process of retracing the 1964 tour’s path has unified a diverse group of individuals around a series of historical events whose significance still offers new lines of inquiry, not only in terms of the Cunningham Company’s own chronology, but also more broadly, in terms of how performances were negotiated, curated, and supported around the world.
 Menon, Narayana. “Another evening with Cunningham.” The Indian Express. October 31, 1964.
View Sebaly’s full presentation and discussion Esprit de tour: A conversation on retracing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s 1964 World Tour, hosted May 17, 2016 at Danspace Project, here.