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As with his creative works, Merce Cunningham had a vision for his legacy

The choreography created a precedent-setting living egacy plan to avoid the bitter feuds that entangled Martha Graham's work after her death.

By Carol StricklandContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 2009

In this 2007 photo, choreographer Merce Cunningham watches his dancers rehearse at his dance studio in Manhattan.

Ronna Gradus/ Miami Herald/ AP/File


New York

The modernist choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died July 26 at age 90, was always ahead of his time. He was even ahead of his own departure from this world, announcing in June his wishes for the sequel to his life. "Merce was an artistic maverick and the gentlest of geniuses," says Judith R. Fishman, chairman of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, which is charged with carrying out his instructions, including a world tour by his dance company, ending in a New York performance with all tickets only $10.

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His vision was always a combination of the very explicit (his choreographed movements) and the open-ended (numerous collaborative elements). In his piece "Split Sides," for example, an onstage roll of the dice determines all elements at each performance. Only then do dancers discover the costumes, set, lighting, and score. They leap about barefoot, their movements almost autonomous, like leaves swirling in the wind. Thirty-two different combinations are possible, reflecting Cunningham's embrace of chance.

Yet, in a press conference held in Cunningham's dance studio shortly before his death, Fishman announced, "The future of his life's work cannot be left to chance."

Trevor Carlson, executive director of the foundation, describes Cunningham's "precedent-setting" living legacy plan, a model for other cultural groups "transitioning to a post-founder existence."

"Merce's career," Mr. Carlson adds, was "distinguished by a constant desire to expand creative boundaries and explore new ideas." Bravely confronting the ultimate boundary – his mortality – the man called the world's greatest living choreographer designated the Merce Cunningham Trust as caretaker of the rights to his work.

Ted Striggles, an intellectual-property attorney who once danced with avant-garde choreographer Martha Graham, explains that memory of the bitter feud over the Graham estate is what propels dancers to protect their legacy, as evanescent as breathing. After Graham died in 1991, a squabble over rights to the choreography prevented performances of her work for years, with her dance company claiming "intellectual property intimidation."

Cunningham, according to board member Allan Sperling, "wanted clarity with respect to the ownership, control, and continuity of his choreography." Mr. Sperling adds, "He wanted it to be in the hands of those he trusted to carry out his philosophy and approach." The trust, which has meticulously documented his works, controls licensing of revivals. "Presumably," Sperling says, "the trustees will set standards for the way the work is performed."

Given Cunningham's stature "like a rock star, the Mick Jagger of dance," according to Joseph Melillo, executive producer at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is this plan a paradigm for artists? Will it preserve, but not petrify, a creator's work? It depends on the degree to which the intellectual-property system enhances, rather than restricts, artistic creativity.

Copyright, which extends for 70 years after an artist's death, exists to protect a creator's property rights and income. Many argue cultural content should be in the public domain sooner, available to future generations to build upon and freshen. The Creative Commons movement and advocates of open-source file-sharing warn against locking up our cultural heritage, which hampers the free exchange of ideas.

Two "safety valves" provide flexibility and protect free speech: the ability to cite facts and ideas (which cannot be copyrighted) and the notion of "fair use," which allows quoting a small portion of an original work. Parodies and "transformative" re-use are also permitted.