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MINNEAPOLIS — I have a confession: for most of my life, I haven’t liked Merce Cunningham’s choreography very much. I always found his work to be quite cold and emotionless. Like ballet, his work is often defined by form and shape, but unlike the majority of ballet, there’s no narrative to allow the audience in. I found his dances inaccessible, and rather boring.
And yet, I’ve seen his work quite a bit — due to the Walker Art Center’s close relationship with the artist and the fact that I’ve spent most of my life in Minnesota. I saw his company perform in the sculpture garden in 1998 and then at a quarry in Waite Park for “Ocean” in 2008, a performance presented by the Walker. I saw the company perform its final tour following Cunningham’s death in 2009. I’ve also seen multiple exhibitions at the Walker that featured his work, both before and after it acquired his archives as part of the artist’s legacy plan.
So I looked toward the opening of Merce Cunningham: Common Time at the Walker Art Center with a kind of dread. “Why now?” I thought, given the calamity happening around us with Muslim bans, a probable dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, and the like, knowing the answer, of course, is that the exhibition had been in the works for several years — since the museum acquired the archive of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
And yet, something unexpected happened as I began to watch the public performances of his choreography that have occurred in conjunction with the exhibition. Finally, after all these years, Cunningham is starting to grow on me.
But let me back up for a moment. Common Time, which the Walker presents in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, explores the trajectory of Cunningham’s career, with an emphasis on the incredible collaborations the choreographer had over the course of his life. “This is a kind of interesting model that provides a different way of looking at art, that looks at the critical importance of networking, of collaborating, of putting many minds together on a project,” says independent curator Joan Rothfuss, who helped organize the exhibition along with Fionn Meade, Mary Coyne, and Philip Bither of the Walker. “It’s a different way of thinking about art than the idea of a solitary artist working alone in a studio, that is, the product of one mind, one ego, one imagination.”
The high caliber of the objects and sounds created as part of Cunningham’s performances elevates the exhibition to something more than an encyclopedic view of ephemera. Many of the individual elements can be appreciated in their own right.
With collaborators who include contemporary art giants such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Nam June Paik, and the great John Cage, many of the pieces look very much at home within the context of a contemporary art museum. Rauschenberg’s set dressings, in particular, might be mistaken for works created autonomously. The mixed media decor created for Cunningham’s 1954 “Minutiae”, for example, as well as his piece “Trophy II (for Teeny and Marcel Duchamp)” in 1960, pop with whirling colors, drawing the viewer in without necessitating a performer to enliven them. His giant enamel on canvas, made for “Summerspace” in 1958, towers over the gallery in which it’s presented, even in its subtly muted pastels.
Even costumes, posed on mannequins, get their due attention, perhaps more than they would within the context of performance. Remy Charlip’s multicolor leotards for “Minutiae” (1954) and Sonja Sekula’s costume for “Dromenon” (1947) allow the viewer to marvel at their artistry and boldness.
In certain cases, while the visual object was compelling, looking at it made me yearn to see it in the performance context. Such is the case of seeing Andy Warhol’s metallic balloons, which he made in 1966 for an installation called “Silver Clouds” and was later picked up by Cunningham for a performance of “Rain Forest” in 1968. There’s an interactive element to their presentation in the Walker’s galleries, where visitors can play with the balloons, but one can only imagine how incredible they were in the context of a performance.
One piece, Marc Lancaster’s decor for “Sounddance” (1975) didn’t do much for me when I saw it in the galleries. “So what?” I thought. “It’s a gold curtain. That’s not very exciting.” It wasn’t until I saw CCN-Ballet de Lorraine perform with another copy of the curtain live on stage at Northrop Auditorium, with contorted bodies dancing as if in a science fiction dystopia, that I appreciated the grandeur of the object.
The least successful aspect of the exhibition are the videos of Cunningham’s work, which don’t come close to approximating the experience of performance and don’t stand on their own in the same way as some of the performance accoutrements. There’s a whole room of dance for the camera created by Charles Atlas that, at best, fails to capture the magic of live performance, and, at worst, is quite gimmicky in their experimentation with tawdry special effects.
To the Walker’s credit, the live performances they’ve lined up in conjunction with the exhibition, really help round it out. On opening night, I watched one of four half-hour pieces performed by four former company members. Performed against the backdrop of a giant, multi-colored abstract decor, designed by Robert Rauschenberg, the dancers realized what Cunningham used to call “Events”, which were drawn from a variety of Cunningham’s works. Arranged and staged by Andrea Weber, the “Event” I saw was accompanied by local musicians Nick Gaudette, a bassist, and vocalist Mankwe Ndosi.
As expected, the staging was precise, intricate, with the performers like perfectly crafted sculptures that moved in and out of each other. The virtuosity of the dancers, the specificity of each living movement dazzled me, but what really struck me was the sense of improvisation. Even with each dancer’s meticulous form, each moment was surprising.
Most stunning of all was the relationship between the movement and the accompanying music. For the most part, the two elements went in different directions, but met at certain moments, where Ndosi’s guttural vocalizations seemed in perfect accord with what was happening with the bodies of the dancers. As Ndosi’s improvisational sounds reached a fever pitch, so did the energy of the dancers, and vice versa; they also found the lulls of quieter moments together.
In addition to the performances featuring Cunningham’s choreography, I also watched the durational in-gallery performances created by Maria Hassabi: a group of dancers, dressed in plaid, stripes and other loud prints, languorously move at glacial speed from one lounging position to the next.
The Walker’s Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither says the museum didn’t want to lose sight of Cunningham’s primary form of expression, the body. By commissioning additional dance makers: Maria Hassabi, Beth Gill, and the duo Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener who, “like Cunningham, were cutting new paths, making abstract, formal artistic expression, using the body and using choreography,” Bither says.
Both the newly commissioned “Events” by former MCDC company members, and the presence of the Maria Hassabi dancers throughout the galleries served as reminders of why Merce Cunningham is important. It’s his work as a choreographer that earned him a place in history. Even though some wonderful and luminous objects from his collaborations remain, part of what he created can never fully be realized again.
Along with the Cunningham exhibit, the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts gave “Not a Moment Too Soon,” (2017) its North American debut. The piece was created by Trevor Carlson (Cunningham’s close friend for the last 15 years of his life and the executive director of MCDC), in collaboration with Spanish Director Ferran Carvajal. The work focused on Cunningham’s impulses as an artist, when as his body declined and he was no longer to choreograph by creating dances with his own body, he came to rely on technology. Cunningham thereby discovered that he could create video footage as an artistic outlet, some of which is shown in the piece. While not great art itself, the footage demonstrates Cunningham’s intense need to create art with whatever tools were at his disposal. (There’s a poignant cat video that serves as the highlight of the show.)
In the work, Carlson said that Cunningham wanted MCDC to shutter after his death because he had no interest in it becoming a “museum company.” So, what would Cunningham think of Common Time, and its many recreations of his work and dance? Perhaps he would be grumpy about it, but the homage demonstrates the impact Cunningham has had on artists that followed him, creating a legacy of abstract expression of the body.
Meanwhile, at Northrop Auditorium, the Walker and Northrop co-presented CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performance of two Cunningham works, including “Fabrications,” which Cunningham originally performed in at Northrop in 1987, and “Sounddance”, from 1975. With both pieces, I was again impressed with the unexpected movement, the inspiring nature of Cunningham’s work, but was also moved by something I never thought I’d feel watching a Cunningham dance: emotion.
You see, Cunningham was in fact responding to the world, though his methods of abstraction and spontaneity don’t create obvious messages. It was a realization I could only have by watching the performances live.
Unlike a painting or sculpture — which lives far beyond the moment of its creation or even beyond the life of the artist — performance is momentary. The ephemerality of performance is part of its electric embrace. Whether it’s dance, theater, or live music, performance lives and dies in the exchange between performer and audience. Vestiges might be left behind: a score, a script, a costume, a recording, but all of those things are simply pieces that only realize their full potential in the life of the performance event.
Thus building an exhibition around the visual objects and sounds created for the performance of Merce Cunningham’s choreography, along with photographs, recordings, and ephemera that capture the work of the great 20th-century dance innovator, will never achieve the experience of being there.
Merce Cunningham: Common Time is a retrospective exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center that is appearing concurrently at the Walker (725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis, MN) through July 30, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL) through April 30.
Correction: This piece originally stated that Mary Coyne was a curator at the MCA Chicago, not the Walker. We regret the error. It has been fixed.
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