Merce Cunningham, the nonagenarian choreographer, is planning for a world without him. He has decided that when he dies, or when the right time comes, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will embark on a final two-year international tour and then shut down, the Cunningham Dance Foundation, which supports the company, announced on Tuesday.
By other provisions of the plan, the Merce Cunningham Trust will take control of Mr. Cunningham’s dances for licensing purposes; the dancers will each receive a year’s salary as severance and extra money to help find new careers; staff members and the musicians who play for his performances will also receive payments.
Meanwhile, Cunningham associates will prepare detailed records of the dances so they can be licensed and given authentic productions by other companies. The foundation has embarked on an $8 million fund-raising campaign to pay for the transition.
The plan is Mr. Cunningham’s effort to confront the vexing problem of how choreography created by a lone master and interpreted by a dedicated company should be treated once the master has died. He turned 90 on April 16.
Cunningham associates say the plan can serve as a model for other creative artists, particularly choreographers with their own companies, to protect their legacies. At the least, it should help Mr. Cunningham’s body of work avoid the ugliness that surrounded the legacy of Martha Graham (who gave Mr. Cunningham his start in dance) after her death in 1991. The Graham foundation fought a bitter legal battle with Ron Protas, Ms. Graham’s heir, over rights to her ballets and was eventually awarded most of them.
“It’s really a concern about how do you preserve the elements of an art which is really evanescent, which is really like water,” Mr. Cunningham said in an interview last week. “It can disappear. This is a way of keeping it — at least with our experience here — of keeping it alive.”
The announcement came at a news conference at the dance company’s studio in the West Village. Mr. Cunningham did not attend because, foundation officials said, he was uncomfortable discussing the matter in public. One of the company’s dancers, Daniel Madoff, surrounded by eight colleagues, said, “It deeply saddens us to think about a future without Merce.” But he said the dancers support the plan.
Despite the careful planning, several issues remain unresolved, including what will initiate the transition plan. It certainly goes into effect on Mr. Cunningham’s death, but he could also make the decision beforehand. When asked what might prompt him to do so, he said: “It could be fatigue. It could be a lot of things. Certainly the financial situation could have a great deal to do with it.”
The board of the Cunningham foundation could also make the decision to cease company operations and begin the transfer to the trust, said Allan Sperling, a board member and a lawyer who helped work out the plan.
“It’ll be clear,” Mr. Sperling said, based on Mr. Cunningham’s capacities in the future.
“He’s the key to the whole thing,” Mr. Sperling added, noting that some board members had suggested that the winding down begin now, but that Mr. Cunningham refused.
“I don’t want to drop it,” Mr. Cunningham said. “If necessity makes that happen, all right. But at the moment, I’d like to continue.” At some points in the interview Mr. Cunningham appeared to contradict the documents prepared by the foundation, which included clear references to the company’s eventual closing.
That is the plan, he acknowledged. “But I hope that in its own way it can go on,” he said. “I’m under no illusions about things not changing. I would like it mostly if the ideas we explored were continued, not only with the present people but with other companies.”
Mr. Sperling said Mr. Cunningham had mentioned the possibility of the trust’s keeping on a few dancers to teach his works at other companies.
Mr. Cunningham added that he can accept the company’s future closing. “So if it stops, then it stops,” he said. “I won’t be around. I’m not going to say yes or no.” ”
Then he offered another possibility. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “if they close the present company down, they can start building something else.” Another uncertainty is whom Mr. Cunningham will name as successor trustees, and thus who will control his legacy. They are likely to come from his closest associates, who include Robert Swinston, his assistant; Trevor Carlson, the foundation’s executive director; and Laura Kuhn, executive director of the trust for the composer John Cage, Mr. Cunningham’s longtime collaborator and companion.
The plan calls for the Cunningham trust, which was established in 2000, to assume control of Mr. Cunningham’s personal art collection, including works by Jasper Johns andRobert Rauschenberg, who each designed sets for him. It will also take charge of the sets, props, costumes, archives and the digital “capsule” of each dance, which will include video, audio, lighting designs, and production notes.
The final two-year tour will offer a “triumphant conclusion to the creation phase of Merce’s work,” a document outlining the plan says.
Mr. Cunningham has stipulated that tickets to New York performances should cost $10.
In the interview Mr. Cunningham acknowledged the fragility of his choreographic record.
“I understand that my pieces, whatever they’re worth, can easily enough be forgotten not only for what they were,” he said, “but because as time continues, something else is happening which changes, which will push dance in different directions.”