The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s strict independence of the art forms, although philosophically antithetical, produced some of the greatest dances of the twentieth century. Composers Igor Stravinsky and John Cage are perhaps best known for the work they produced for the Ballets Russes and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, respectively. Diaghilev commissioned stage décors and costume designs by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst; Cunningham would work closely with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris. Due to their international prominence, including the American tours of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (the post-war company formed after Diaghilev’s death), the Ballets Russes’s impact on American dance, and on the young Cunningham, are undeniable.
Cunningham would have had his first opportunity to see the famous Russian company firsthand through New York performances by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the Fall of 1939. Whether he saw the performances of Les Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), Scheherezade, and Petrushka is uncertain, however as Cunningham scholar David Vaughan has stated, the qualities of these works “would have already become part of what is available to any choreographer.” Cunningham’s own exploration of composition, abstraction, and application of Dada and dance’s relationship to the music (or lack thereof) all hold roots in Diaghilev’s ballets. Diaghilev’s influence on Cunningham can be traced as far back as 1952, when Cunningham, still early in his professional career as a choreographer, was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein of the Festival of Creative Arts to create a new choreographic work after one of the Ballets Russes’s most significant ballets—Bronislava Nijinska‘s Les Noces.
This week is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the first Festival of Creative Arts, an annual two-day program of performances of music, dance, and theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the festival continues to be hosted at Brandeis today. In 1952, Bernstein was already an influential figure on the East Coast, having served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 1943. By 1952, Bernstein was heading the orchestral and conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer orchestral program founded in 1940 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The first Festival of the Arts (June 13–14, 1952) premiered Bernstein’s one-act social commentary opera Trouble In Tahiti and Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, accompanied by symposia on jazz and poetry (with performances by Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, and a reading by William Carlos Williams). For the first Festival of the Arts, Bernstein also commissioned Cunningham to create two almost entirely different projects—to choreograph an original work to Pierre Schaffer’s composition Pour un Homme Seul (1949–1950) and a restaging of Les Noces (1923), a ballet originally choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Nijinska to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Bernstein’s invitation was significant, as up to that point Cunningham had only been commissioned by Lincoln Kirsten for the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet) in 1947 and received a select few laudatory reviews in the New York Herald Tribune for brief solo works. While Cunningham’s skills as a dancer were recognized as early as his performances with Martha Graham Company in 1939, he was yet to receive significant recognition as a choreographer.
Nijinska’s ballet, a simple narrative of a Russian peasant wedding, was already antithetical to the type of work Cunningham had been producing. As opposed to translating Nijinska’s work, Cunningham rechoreographed the piece, taking the dramatic concept and music as his starting points. Cunningham’s dancers would later remember “leaping movements” and an athleticism not present in the Ballets Russes’s original choreography. Donald McKayle, a dancer in Cunningham’s class, described the movement as “raw, not sophisticated,” which is consistent with the dynamic solos Cunningham had been choreographing since the mid-1940s. Although no recording of the performance survives, the below photographs of rehearsals show the production including full costumes designed by artist Howard Bay, which were more ornate and dramatic than the fairly simple original designs by Natalia Goncharova for the original Ballets Russes production.
Both projects required Cunningham not only to develop new a choreography but to teach it to Brandeis University students. Since 1950, Cunningham had been teaching daily dance classes at his 8th Avenue studio in New York, and by 1952 he had developed a small, dedicated group of dancers, for whom he had begun developing a new technique. These dancers made up the core cast for Cunningham’s work at Brandeis. After receiving the commission he worked in New York, developing the movement and choreography for the principal roles, and then developing the structure of the cast with the Brandeis Dance Group later in the spring.
Les Noces, and the far more experimental Pour un Homme Seul, are key to considering Cunningham’s career-long connection between pedagogy and his own creative practice. Although on numerous occasions he would profess his frustration with teaching (“I hate teaching. The repetition that is demanded by [class] drives me crazy”), Cunningham was keenly aware of its importance to his development of new work and its role at the heart of his philosophy of dance. Bernstein also valued the importance of continued teaching throughout his career: “[Teach and learn] are interchangeable words. When I teach I learn, when I learn I teach,” he would often profess. Bernstein, then on the faculty at Brandeis, created the festival not only as a platform to support new work by key figures in visual arts, music, dance, and theater but also as a multi-disciplinary access point for the university’s students. For Cunningham, the translation between his own idea for a movement and the dancer’s interpretation through their own unique style, continued to be a key aspect of his philosophy. “I use class like a laboratory,” Cunningham would later reflect, “something occurs to me and if I could do it myself I would figure it out and show it to them.” 
Teaching not only provided Cunningham with his main source of income in the 1950s, but also allowed him the means for experimentation. The Brandeis commissions were only one of a number of Cunningham’s engagements in 1952. Earlier that spring, Cunningham and his partner the composer John Cage, briefly taught a series of classes Black Mountain College. Later in June, Cunningham hosted a six-week summer course at the Dancer’s Studio in New York before again returning to Black Mountain College, followed by a brief engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Constructing his own approaches to movement through teaching, and instilling a personal dedication to his craft through the ritual of daily class, were key to Cunningham’s development as a dancer. Bernstein’s choice to commission the young Cunningham to work from Nijinska’s existing influential work allowed Cunningham to infuse a historical score with his own interpretation and sense of the present. Filtering historical influences while pushing his own creative boundaries is the nature of Cunningham’s practice—and partly why his work continues to resonate in the present. Always an original thinker, Cunningham’s reflections on history are uniquely his own and always approached as a means to a new creative challenge.
Merce Cunningham: Common Time opens at the Walker Art Center February 8, 2017.
 David Vaughan, “Diaghilev/Cunningham” Art Journal 34, no. 2 (Winter 1974–1975): 140.
 Donald McKayle, quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997): 64.