Interview: Cunningham Archivist David Vaughan

by Adam Sobsey on January 7, 2011

David Vaughan (photo: Leslie Hansen Kopp)

A dancer, singer, actor, and choreographer, David Vaughan started working with Merce Cunningham in the early 1950s, playing various managerial roles until finally settling into his current position as Archivist in 1976. He is the author of the book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years and of Frederick Ashton and His Ballets. He received the 2000 CORD Award for Outstanding Leadership in Dance Research, and in September 2001 he received a New York Dance and Performance Award for sustained achievement. Vaughan recently gave an email interview to The Thread.

The Thread: You’ve been with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for a long time. How did your association begin, and how did the job of archiving come about?

David Vaughan: I first encountered Merce when I came from London in October 1950 to study at the School of American Ballet. He was teaching a class there at the time, which I took. He went away after a few months and never came back to the American School. A few years later, in the mid-50s, I started studying with him again and got to know him. In December 1959 when he opened a studio of his own in the Living Theatre building, he asked me to be the studio administrator. Because I have always been interested in dance history, I started organizing the programs and other documents so that I could compile a chronology of his work. Over the next few years this became rather more elaborate. In 1976 Jean Rigg, then what would now be called Executive Director of the company, applied for and received a pilot grant from the NEA to appoint me archivist, thus formalizing and naming what I had been doing for my own interest.

Are you able to articulate what drew you to Merce’s work so strongly? Did you have a sense early on that he would end up as one of the landmark figures of choreography and dance, or were you just there because you liked it?

Although I had taken his class at SAB, I didn’t see any of Merce’s work until April 1953, when I saw Sixteen Dances in one of the programs of American dance at the Alvin Theater in New York, sandwiched between a work by Martha Graham and one by Jose Limon (or Doris Humphrey). I was entranced by the wit, lyricism, and sheer invention of the dances. I have often been asked how is it possible that the two choreographers I most revere have been Frederick Ashton and Cunningham, who are so radically different, and I always reply that they do not seem so to me, because in both men’s work it is the dance itself that is uppermost. Certainly to me he was a “landmark figure,” though perhaps early on I wasn’t sure he would be recognized as such.

Do you have one single extraordinary memory of your time with Merce and his company that stands out among the others? What is it?

Not a single occasion, but the whole of the 1964 world tour, which I put together. I traveled with them as a company manager. My incompetence in both capacities did not stop the tour from becoming a turning point in the company’s history. In London and Paris, especially, the work of Merce and his collaborators, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, received a kind of recognition that was mostly denied them by the dance “establishment” in the US. Word of this response found its way back to America, and people began to think that maybe this work should be taken seriously, after all.

One tends not to think of dance as producing a lot of “archives” (no scripts, for example). Evidently there had long been a substantial volume of material that needed to be collected and preserved. What sorts of material is it, and what is your daily life like as archivist?

Programs, photographs, press clippings, later videos; also in recent years we have been able to copy and scan Merce’s choreographic notes, which were not available to me before. I come into work every day, usually in the afternoon, and work on these materials, also answer emails, phone calls. I go on tour with the company and frequently give lectures, interviews, answer questions from journalists and students. Nowadays I write up a report on each engagement which goes out on a blog.

It seems that video has nearly always been a prominent aspect of Merce’s work, well before it was part of our everyday lives. Do you have any thoughts on how and why Merce was drawn to video so early in its development as an art medium and teaching tool? Later, he began using computer programs to choreograph. What is your take on Merce’s nearly lifelong use of technology, and how do you think it informed his art?

Video of course was not readily available in the early days. People were watching TV long before video became part of his work. Merce became interested in making dances specifically for the camera in the early 70s, and about that time it also became the company practice to make rehearsal videos exclusively for the use of the dancers or of anyone who was in charge of reviving a piece. I think “as a teaching tool” came after his interest in choreographing for the camera. Probably the interest in video led to a curiosity about other new technology. When he was offered the use of the new DanceForms program (a joint project of the computer science and dance departments of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver BC) he readily accepted. It enabled him to devise movement that he could no longer perform himself, and also made possible an even greater complexity in his choreography, for example in combining different rhythms in different parts of the body—though this was not necessarily a new element, just more developed.

If you were describing Merce’s work to someone who had never seen it and knew nothing of it, what would you say?

Just look at it, don’t try to figure out what it might mean.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company gives its final NC performance ever at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Feb. 4 and 5. Consult the show’s Duke Performances page for tickets and more information.

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