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Merce Cunningham

03/26/07 12:00AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Support for the arts can be hard to find under the best of circumstances - and a special challenge in rural communities - but commentator Jay Craven was recently reminded that it's important to keep trying.

(CRAVEN) Congress recently held its first hearings in twelve years on arts funding. Trumpet ace Wynton Marsalis and others asked leaders to restore at least fifty million dollars in cuts that were made ten years ago to an already slim National Endowment for the Arts budget. The Vermont Arts Council wants the State Legislature to allocate $180,000 in new funding. I hope they succeed. The money would enable arts organizations to receive a maximum $10,000 grant, more than is now available though short of the $15,000 Arts Council grants that existed twenty years ago.

Low public funding and cutbacks in corporate and foundation giving have badly hurt local organizations, and caused some of our leading arts activists to question why they persist.

I recently drove through a blizzard to see Merce Cunningham's dance company at the Flynn Theater. The choreography, dancers, and music were dazzling, transporting young and old into worlds of discovery. Two of the dances were created more than thirty years ago, showing how artistic work can endure, as fresh, decades later, as it was in the moment of its creation. During the final piece, the lead dancer performed the role that Cunningham himself premiered in 1975. His detail, humor, and grace took my breath away.

Leaving the theater, I was reminded of the time when I ran Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury and brought Merce and his company to the Northeast Kingdom.

On the day of the show, Cunningham stopped by my office. While reviewing program copy, my phone rang and a man's voice bellowed loud enough for both of us to hear. "Am I coming across OK?" he said in a heavy Vermont accent.

"I'm in the milking parlor -- Up here to Barton. Just had to make sure you got two tickets for that dance show they're putting on tonight down to Lyndon."

"We've got a few," I said.

"Well, you better give us two. But I don't carry credit cards and never will," he said. "So you just have to trust me."

Cunningham was tickled. "Have him come backstage after the show," he said -- Which I did. When the farmer met Merce, he lit up. "I saw the whole thing," he said -- "Every bit of it."

Months later, Cunningham's manager contacted me. "Could you call Merce and ask him to stop talking about Vermont," he said, half-joking.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"What's wrong," he said, "is that we just played a grand opening with Rudolph Nureyev at the Paris Opera Ballet. At the reception after the show, with Nureyev beside him, all Merce could talk about was the milk farmers in Lyndonville. He does it every time he's in public."

As I walked into the snowy night after the Flynn show, the sublime performance and the memory of Cunningham in Lyndonville washed over me. And suddenly I knew why we all persist in our commitment to the arts - and to the fusion of community and culture that endures against the odds - here in Vermont.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.

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