“Antic Meet” (1958) with décor and costume by Robert Rauschenberg. (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Written jointly by Jason Andrew and Julia K. Gleich

With a final series of performances beginning tonight and continuing through New Year’s Eve at the Park Avenue Armory, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will close, ending nearly sixty years in operation.

First formed at Black Mountain College in 1953, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has changed the world of dance, not only through the development of a unique dance technique, but also in its embrace of cross-disciplinary collaboration with musicians and artists. Cunningham’s dances certainly stand alone in their use of space, time and the human form, but the experience of his choreography is magnified through his collaborators.

Brandon Collwes, Jennifer Goggans in “Rainforest” (1968) with décor by Andy Warhol and costumes by Jasper Johns (photo by Rob Strong, 2011) (click to enlarge)

Cunningham’s most famous collaboration was with his life partner the composer/philosopher John Cage. Together, Cunningham and Cage proposed a number of radical innovations. One of the most famous and controversial of these concerned the relationship between dance and music, which they concluded can occur in the same time and space but can be created independently of one another.

“This continued to play out over six decades of Merce’s creative lifetime including a variety of other types of artists other than composers including visual artists, digital media artists, filmmakers, dancers, costume designers, and lighting designers,” remarked Trevor Carlson, Executive Director of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, at a panel hosted at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Thursday, December 8. The panel invited four of the Company’s recent collaborators to discuss their work with Merce Cunningham: Daniel Arsham (set design), Gavin Bryars (composer), Paul Kaiser (designer), and Patricia Lent (dancer).

The sculptor Isamu Noguchi was among the earliest artists to team up with Cunningham and Cage, designing sets and costumes for Cunningham’s “The Season’s,” which was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for his Ballet Society in 1947. And when it was officially founded in the summer of 1953 at Black Mountain College, collaboration had become a vital signature of the company.

Andy Warhol’s floating silver pillows and Jasper John’s shredded unitards in Cunningham’s “Rainforest,” Robert Rauschenberg’s set design, Roy Lichtenstein’s back drop, music by John Cage, David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi … the list goes on to include Radiohead and Sigur Rós. Many of these collaborations were highlighted during the Legacy Tour. It could be said that Cunningham’s record as collaborator with contemporary artists and composers rivals that of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, which brought painters such as Picasso and Matisse and composers Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Ravel to the stage.

The performances at the Park Avenue Armory conclude the company’s two-year Legacy Tour, which comprised more than 60 engagements and 150 performances around the world. For the Armory, the company will perform a series of Cunningham’s signature site-specific Events performed across three stages in the Armory’s soaring drill hall. Throughout its history, the Company has mounted over 700 of these signature site-specific choreographic collages that feature full-evening performances made up of excerpts from various dances.

“These historic Events at Park Avenue Armory offer an opportunity to celebrate Merce’s extraordinary creative vision and honor the musicians, artists and generations of dancers who have brought that vision to life,” explains Carlson.

The Park Avenue Events will feature the last-ever music commissions for Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Music director Takehisa Kosugi, David Behrman, John King and Christian Wolff will present their scores in different orders each evening to create six unique performances. Choreography will be arranged by Robert Swinston, who became the director of choreography following Cunningham’s death.

Daniel Arsham’s decor for the Miami “Events” (2010) (image via merce.org)

There can’t be a Cunningham dance without décor and Daniel Arsham, the now seasoned designer, will not disappoint. He first met the Company in 2005 over the phone when Arsham was only 25.

“I was living in Miami,” Arsham said at the BAM panel. “Trevor called me on the phone and said ‘Merce is going to premiere a work next year and Bonnie Clearwater said that you might be someone who would be interested in working with us.’”

To this, Arsham said “sure I’d love to work, I’ve never been on a stage before, how big is the stage?” and I think Merce said, “it’s a stage.” Arsham soon completed the set for Cunningham’s 2007 piece “eyeSpace” and numerous other collaborations since.

“Merce’s relationships were across the gamut in terms of generations,” Carlson said at the panel. “I heard [Merce] say he liked working with people who were living in the time that he was living and working. So when the time came and Merce was making another new dance, we set out to find collaborators who seemed to us who were embarking at the entry into their perspective fields. Daniel Arsham was one of those.”

For the Armory Event, Arsham has filled the drill hall with massive suspended “clouds” comprised of thousands of individual colored spheres giving the appearance of clouds.

Costumes for the Park Avenue Event are designed by Anna Finke, the Cunningham Company’s resident wardrobe supervisor and company photographer. Each costume — the ubiquitous Cunningham unitard — features either a photograph of Westbeth, home to the Cunningham Studio since 1971, or an image taken from the surrounding skyline.

It’s hard to imagine the full impact and influence of this one man. Merce Cunningham had a spirit full of flight and fancy, determination and dedication. He was a mentor to many and his ideas have been embraced by both the profession and academia. He is nearly deified in those hallowed halls of the university.

But most of all, his dances broke barriers and he wasn’t sentimental about it. He knew very well the fleeting nature of dance, the most transient of all art forms. Although many of us wanted him to live forever, life is a space in time. His legacy will always be in his dances, but they will never be the same. Dance is an ethereal form and Merce preferred creating over reconstructing. He had to be coaxed into looking back on his old dances. The Park Avenue Events mark the last time to see his company performing his dances … ever.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performances start tonight at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) and conclude on New Year’s Eve.

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Jason Andrew

Jason Andrew is an independent scholar, curator, and producer. Specializing in the field of Postwar American Art, Mr. Andrew is currently the manager and curator of the estate of Abstract Expressionist...