How Merce Cunningham Became One of Dance’s Greatest Pioneers

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Westbeth class June 1971
Merce Cunningham with dancers at Westbeth, 1971Photography by James Klosty

From a bold collaboration with Rei Kawakubo to his famous silent rehearsals; as an interdisciplinary exhibition of Merce Cunningham’s work opens in New York, we speak to its curator about his radical legacy

In the spacious galleries of the Walker Art Center, four dancers in brightly coloured unitards twist their bodies to improvised music, their limbs tensed one moment, then quivering with motion the next. They are living testimony to the legacy of Merce Cunningham, one of the most influential choreographers of our time. They are also a crucial element of the extended interdisciplinary exhibition of Cunningham’s work titled Common Time, currently showing there. Spotted at 20 by the American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, Cunningham went on to dance as a soloist for her for six years, before leaving New York in the summer of 1953 to work at the famously experimental Black Mountain College. It was here he formed his own dance company.

With the composer John Cage his partner and a frequent collaborator, he maintained the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, working with painters such Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Yet often he chose to rehearse with dancers for months in silence in order to focus on movement rather than music. Cunningham was “the most influential, prolific and consistently creative dance creator of the past half-century,” says senior Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither. “His radical ideas and his rigorous dedication to experimentation not only changed dance, but significantly changed the culture of our times.” Bither, and visual arts curator Joan Rothfuss, used the complete scenic and costume archive of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to ratify Cunningham’s legacy and explore his impact on the contemporary art world. We spoke to them about putting together such a monumental exhibition.

On starting the project...
Philip Bither: “We acquired the Cunningham collection in 2011, and we knew the massive painted backdrops, the scenic sculptures, moving images, the costumes, the imaginative props and the sound recordings of his collaborators would in themselves compellingly convey how his collaborative process changed the nature of modern and contemporary art. We also knew that the full Cunningham story really required a combination of static and live forms – the type of overlapping multi-disciplinary experience that many of his own works evoked.”

On the highlights of the company’s scenic and costume archive...
Joan Rothfuss: “There are several elaborate, fanciful costumes for Cunningham’s works of the 1940s and early 1950s, such as the embroidered, fringed coat and velveteen pants for Sixteen Dances for a Soloist and Company of Three (1951) and the futuristic skirted jumpsuit for Mysterious Adventure (1945). These are so unlike the minimalist Cunningham costumes we are most familiar with, and they helped me understand the aesthetic distance between his early and late works.”

On the rare and never-before-seen moving image presentations...
JR: “One of my favourites is Assemblage (1968), which was shot on location in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. The dancers run, fall, and jump through the plaza, and they look like they are having a great time; the pedestrians, cafes, harbour, and buildings all become characters in the film. The filmmaker, Richard Moore, added colourisation, overlays, silhouettes and optical illusions to create a sort of psychedelic visual experience that is completely true to its time. Assemblage hadn’t been seen since it was broadcast on the San Francisco TV station KQED in 1968, it had just been languishing on a shelf in someone’s archive.”


On innovative collaborations...
JR: “Variations V (1965) was an enormously risky mixed-media work in which Cunningham embraced technology he had not tried and which had not yet been proven. John Cage, his collaborator, wanted to find a way to use the dancers’ movements to produce sound. This was done through “antennae” on stage, which made sounds when the dancers passed near them, and with contact microphones attached to props that the dancers handled. The backdrop for the dance was a series of screens showing experimental film and manipulated video images. The technology was only intermittently successful, but wouldn’t you rather see an ambitious failure than a safe success? There’s a great film of this dance in the exhibition.”


On Cunningham’s impact on modern dance...
PB: “He reimagined what dance could be, forging independence between movement, music and visual art which respected the integrity of each form, and placed them in Common Time, building a kind of integrated yet independent existence between artistic disciplines which was far ahead of its time. His radicality, curiosity, and constant commitment to new choreographic and kinetic invention brought not only the globally influential Cunningham movement technique but an openness which helped lead to the formation of the today’s diverse fields of contemporary, post-modern, experimental and conceptual dance.”

On the importance of the show...
PB: “I believe the exhibition and many live events combined succeed at conveying the vitality of Cunningham’s creative spirit, capturing the energy, joy and freedom that can be realised when visual, media, sound and live art forms come together, as they did with Cunningham’s own work.”

Merce Cunningham: Common Time runs until July 30, 2017 at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.