Winthrop University: Dance Professor Honors the Legendary Merce Cunningham With Grant
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Dance Professor Honors the Legendary Merce Cunningham With Grant

March 30, 2021

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Having worked directly with the iconic artist, Neels is deeply familiar with Cunningham Technique and frequently incorporates it into her dance courses and choreography projects at Winthrop.
  • Neels joined the Winthrop community in 1990. 

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA – As one of the most influential and innovative choreographers of the 20th century, Merce Cunningham changed the landscape of dance, music and contemporary art. Over his seven-decade career, and even today, dancers and choreographers have been inspired by his work. 

The legacy of Cunningham is no small feat to capture; yet, Sandra Neels hopes to do just that with a research grant from the Cunningham Trust

Neels, an associate professor in Winthrop University’s Department of Theatre and Dance and former dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, received a research grant in late 2020 from the Cunningham Trust to document “The Evolution of the Cunningham Dance Technique.” Having worked directly with the iconic artist, Neels is deeply familiar with Cunningham Technique and frequently incorporates it into her dance courses and choreography projects at Winthrop.

“I am thrilled and grateful to have had my application approved, as it provides me with yet another chance to serve and contribute to Merce Cunningham’s legacy,” Neels said. 

Neels’ research focuses specifically on the early days of Cunningham’s career. For the last six months, she has dedicated her time to finding and interviewing dancers who took Cunningham’s classes in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s to get a sense of what the classes were actually like. 

While there is no strict deadline on the research, Neels knows that time is not on her side. “This is extremely difficult research to conduct,” Neels said. “Since [Cunningham] began teaching classes in the ‘40s, it’s difficult to find dancers who are still alive to interview.”

Neels believes that the Cunningham Technique remains relevant today because it strengthens the body, incorporating spine exercises with ballet. 

“The stress on the body was much less than traditional ballet techniques because of the alternation between the legs and the spine,” Neels said. “There were very few injuries compared to other companies like Alvin Ailey or Martha Graham.” 

Neels has been a reconstructor/restager for the Cunningham Trust since 2003, reconstructing eight of Cunningham’s works. In 2019, she choreographed an interdisciplinary dance piece at Winthrop called “Just by Chance” as part of a larger international event to celebrate the centennial of Cunningham’s birth.

Neels toured the world as a performer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for 10 years. She has taught at University South Floria Tampa, York University in Toronto, Hampshire College (where she was the chair of dance), The California Institute of the Arts, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, UNC Greensboro (guest artist), The South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Ballet Spartanburg. She has choreographed more than 150 works in a variety of settings, including musicals, operas, children’s theatre, universities and arts institutes, for competitions at the Youth America Grand Prix, fashion shows, rhythmic gymnastics and figure skating. Neels helped create the dance degree at Winthrop, where she has been a faculty member since 1990.

For more information, contact Whitney Hough, director of communications and community engagement for the College of Visual and Performing Arts, at 803/323-2399 or houghw@winthrop.edu

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Last Updated: 10/4/21