The farewell visit of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, nearing the end of its Legacy tour, is the highlight of this year’s Dance Umbrella which will run from October 1. Cunningham always intended that his company should be wound up after his death in 2009, but the idea that we will never again see his dancers interpret his works is easier to accept on paper than in practice. In general, there is a reflective tone to this year’s programme. Both the punky Karole Armitage and the American pioneer Lucinda Childs are performing classic works; Richard Alston - who took part in the first ever Dance Umbrella performance in 1978 - is granted a full retrospective. This backward looking approach is supplemented by other Dance Umbrella hallmarks: a large scale, outdoor piece by Rosemary Lee, inspired by four London squares and some interesting festival debuts at the Place. But this DU is significant in other ways too. As things stand, this will be the last festival to receive its current level of funding, before the Arts Council shrinks its contribution to its budget by an epic 43 per cent over three years. It seems an astonishing amount to withdraw from an operation that has always punched above its weight. My suspicion is that the AC may be responding to what it perceives to be an increase in the availability of dance in London over the past 30 years. And certainly it is true that both Sadler’s Wells, the South Bank Centre and the Place now provide a pretty substantial bill of round-the year dance. When I see CandoCo or indeed Alston on the programme, I feel a certain weariness. These are acts you can see in Britain with some regularity. When Dance Umbrella is at its best, however, is either when it fulfills its brief to bring new dance to London - as in 2009’s innovative African strand - or when it promotes a historical survey that really needs undertaking - the Trisha Brown retrospective last year was genuinely thought-provoking and this year the idea of seeing Lucinda Childs’s dancers recreate the Judson Dance Theater’s DANCE, a really important piece to a Philip Glass score is thrilling. This is part of what DU director Betsy Gregory sees as her mission. “Contemporary dance needs a history,” she says. “Over the past 10 years, revivals of key works have popped into the festival, and I have found with real delight that there is a whole audience that has never seen these works.” That is certainly true. And I like the way DU is prepared to take work out of normal dance spaces and towards a much wider audience - in the streets, parks, and galleries of London. One of its great pleasures were the works presented at Stratford Circus, in front of a different, more local audience than you would find at the Barbican or Sadler’s Wells. (The Cunningham company is doing a residency there this year, in addition to its Barbican performances.) As to the big question - does London really need a festival of dance, when there is so much contemporary dance around - Gregory is defiant. She thinks Dance Umbrella builds new audiences, encourages audiences to be more adventurous and brings to attention works that would never be commissioned normally. “Generally speaking, a diversity of programming is very important,” she says. “A single or a couple of voices is not enough for a city like London.” I totally agree with her and hope very much that the Arts Council sees sense and restores at least some of the lost funding. Dance Umbrella has been hugely important for the health of contemporary dance, and it needs to be able to continue to present the best. But if this festival is to assert its importance, Gregory needs to put her faith in the most unusual, challenging works she can find: Alston and Candoco, for all their merits, no longer fulfill the brief.