Where's Merce? He's in the purse. (His ashes, that is.)
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Where's Merce? He's in the purse. (His ashes, that is.)
The current season of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” meets Merce Cunningham in an incongruous mash-up of reality TV and modern dance.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- “Can you get my drink, and I’ll get Merce?”

In certain circles — OK, mine — that name can belong to only one person: Merce Cunningham, the 20th-century choreographer who reshaped modern dance. Over the past few weeks, his name has come up in the strangest of places: “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

On recent episodes, Sutton Stracke traveled to Spain with her fellow Housewives. Along with racks of designer clothes, she brought Cunningham’s ashes packed in a Ziploc bag. Cunningham, it turns out, was one of the most important men in her pre-“Housewives” life, and she wanted to release the ashes “in a significant place and make this a really meaningful trip.”

Dismay ensued. “Put me in a Birkin, fine,” said Kyle Richards, another Housewife. “But a Ziploc? No.”

And out of Erika Girardi’s tipsy mouth poured this gem at dinner: “Merce is in the purse.”

Worlds are truly colliding. Cunningham, who died in 2009 at 90, is an indelible part of dance history but less familiar to the general public. As Stracke told her castmates, “He’s a real big deal.” How big? Stracke explained that he was a founder of modern dance.

Girardi asked, “With Martha Graham and all them?”

“Yes,” Stracke said.

“Twyla?,” Girardi said, referring to Twyla Tharp. Girardi, who performs pop music as Erika Jayne, has long worked with choreographer Mikey Minden, and knows a thing or two.

“Twyla studied under him,” Stracke said.

“OK,” Girardi said with detectable pride. “There you go.”

Cunningham and his partner, composer John Cage, believed that music and dance could exist independently. Cunningham also used strategies of chance to determine, say, the structure of a dance by rolling dice or using the I-Ching. This “Housewives” plotline is like shaking out a pair of sixes. It seems against every odd.

Stracke, blond with a peppy, Southern accent, is on the kooky side but maybe the most no-nonsense of the Housewives. (My favorite non-Merce moment was when she set a timer during a shopping trip.) In her 20s and an aspiring dancer, she worked at the Cunningham Dance Foundation in New York as a studio manager and later as an associate director of development. It wasn’t unusual for people in his orbit to have been given a small envelope of his ashes.

“Merce and I had a bond immediately,” Stracke said on the show. “I think he liked me as a dancer and he liked my work ethic. And I would go over to his apartment, and he would cook. He also liked, I guess, how I watered his plants.”

Did Stracke, who is on the board of American Ballet Theater, create the ashes arc to make Cunningham a little bit more of a household name?

Last summer, choreographer Sarah Michelson created a response to a Cunningham work that featured a plane flying over Rockaway Beach, Queens, pulling a banner: “Dear Merce Cunningham — You Busy RN?” Now the question is “Dear Merce Cunningham — What Are You Thinking RN?” Would he be mortified for his remains to be on “Housewives”? Amused?

Maybe Stracke really just wants to spread the gospel of modern dance. Some credit goes to Girardi: “I kind of feel like a loser for not knowing about him,” she said. “Because I know so much about, like, Bob Fosse, Alvin Ailey or other greats. So when I said to Mikey” — choreographer Minden — “‘Like, who’s Merce Cunningham?’ He goes, ‘How dare you?’ And I got checked by my own friend.”

Stracke brought the ashes to Sitges, a town in Spain’s Catalonia region, describing it as one of the first places Cunningham’s company performed in Europe. The group did perform there in 1966, but by then it had been to Europe plenty, having completed a world tour in 1964. Oh, whatever. Trevor Carlson, former executive director of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, lives in nearby Barcelona. He and Stracke are friends. He joined the Housewives for dinner and the Merce send-off.

When the day came to release the ashes, Stracke was full of emotion — thinking also about her father’s death and the breakup of her marriage. “It’s really over two decades of my life that I’m starting to realize I need to let go of,” she said.

She chose a view overlooking the sea. “All right, let’s do it,” she said to Carlson. With an arm wrapped around him, she tossed the ashes into the water. Soon, there were screams. The Housewives, standing off to the side, weren’t safe: Merce was out of the purse — and speckled onto their dresses, their faces, their hair.

“Sorry, girls!,” Stracke yelled.

Once, Girardi might have felt like a loser for not knowing who Cunningham was. Now, she was mad. “I don’t know this man,” she said. “I don’t want to taste this man.”

Stracke was filled with glee. “Merce didn’t get on me at all,” she said. “He was known for these great leaps. He leaped over me and got all over those girls! It was so good.”

Choreographically speaking, it was tremendous. And just like Merce.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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