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Notes on Interning for a Legend

by Elana Jacobs

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In 2008, the summer before Merce Cunningham died, I had the privilege of being the production intern for his dance company. Every morning, I would roll out of my sister’s air mattress, grab a coffee at a shop called Grounded, and head over to the basement of a modest building tucked away on Bethune Street in the West Village. It was the type of temporary routine that I could fit into like a glove—and kid with myself that it would never leave.

Nine years later, I can still remember the sacred feeling of that basement: no windows, just a crisp feeling of pride echoing through the chilly office where the stars of production did their dedicated work for the respected Merce. I bounced back and forth, learning about lighting, sound, and everything in between, with Production Manager Josh Johnson, Lighting Designer Megan Byrne, and Music Coordinator Stephan Moore, while trying to be of assistance to them in any way.

On my first day, I was told that Merce was ready to meet me. Shocked by his generosity and personal attentiveness to even the summer intern, I played it cool as we slowly made our way up to the bright studios on the 11th floor. I watched as the long dancers stood around this man sitting in a chair, leaning toward him to hear his quiet corrections, and I noted that they created a dome around him. After a couple of choreographic observations from Merce and many attentive nods from the dancers, their long bodies spread throughout the space and they ran the piece again. There is nothing like seeing an 89-year-old artist showing up every day to work just like everyone else. And there he was.

There is a knowable energy in a working dance studio. Bodies moving together, contemplating together, and listening together. It is a palpable vibration of respect throughout the room. This image of Merce and his dancers will always symbolize discipline for me.

My work with Stephan Moore was to help digitize the company's live audio tapes. I would spend hours transferring these tapes to a computer program. I had to listen to make sure that everything was intact and that I stopped the recording when it was finished. I could imagine John Cage, the composer and longstanding Merce collaborator, laughing as I struggled to decipher when the music began and ended. I would hear 10 minutes of silence only to be startled by a sharp, unrecognizable sound: “Surely it's over now, I should stop the recording—BOING!”

Even now I go back and forth between thinking that job was either a full-on intern prank or a giant responsibility for a naive student. I had to decide: What is music? When does the music end? What is the role of silence in the context of music and sound? How do you document live sound and dance? In waiting for a sound to return from silence, or in waiting for the audience to clap, I came to the conclusion that music and art do not have an ending. This is how I feel about creative work.

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I am 30 now and have found that creative practice is about listening to the world around you and finding both a constant humor (my everyday, unexpected BOING) and the musicality in it. I have relocated to Chicago and am the artistic director of the dance company CabinFever. We create music and dance primarily in homes and historical mansions (or other intimate spaces), inspired by the family memories, architecture, and history of the space. I meet a family and hear their stories and listen for the sound-bites that inspire a dance or a song. Then we create an evening of art, performing in the space for the family and their community.

Stephan Moore is now a professor at Northwestern and we have reunited for the first time since the internship—we had years to catch up on. We chatted for two hours over coffee and decided that it would be wonderful to collaborate again. He is joining CabinFever for our work Respire, which premieres at the MCA on April 29. What a wonderful thing that Merce is still bringing us together, almost 10 years later.

A framed poster of Merce Cunningham on the floor, leaning on the wall.

Poster advertising Merce Cunningham Dance Company's performance at City Center, Mar 17–29, 1981

Image courtesy of the author

That internship bestowed upon me many skills and memories, but one of my most cherished gifts was a poster from a dusty pile of original prints from the company’s past. The image I chose and now cherish shows Merce in front of five TV sets, his body tilted to the side, regarding the viewer from a new angle.

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For more information about CabinFever, visit their website or Instagram.