Film

How Merce Cunningham Worked with Filmmakers to Make the Camera Dance

A series of films installed on the High Line make the camera an intimate actor in experimental dance.

Installation view of Merce Cunningham: For Camera on the High Line (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

In Locale (1980), a thirty-minute film collaboration between Charles Atlas and the Merce Cunningham dance company, the camera performs many roles, but that of disengaged bystander isn’t one. The camera moves through and with the dancers. It ambulates around their punctuated arrangements, weaving through their trails across the studio floor. When dancers break into smaller modules, the camera partakes, contorting above and on top of two to three persons. But rarely, if ever, does the camera stay positioned as a peripheral observer. The moment the camera inches towards simply documenting the dancers, a company member ruptures the space between theirs and ours by running right into the lens to peer at us.

Merce Cunningham and Charles Atlas, Channels/Inserts (1982), (image courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust)

What does it mean to make a work of dance for camera? For a few more days, visitors to the High Line — from dusk until 7pm — can explore this union in Merce Cunningham: For Camera. Screening in the High Line’s Channel series, the exhibition brings together a trio of films in which the camera itself plays as central a part as the members of the Cunningham dance company. Two of the films, the aforementioned Locale (1980) and Channels/Inserts (1982) were made in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Charles Atlas, long-time cross pollinator of film, dance, performance et al., while Beach Birds for Camera (1992) was made with filmmaker Elliot Caplan.

Merce Cunningham and Elliot Caplan, Beach Birds for Camera (1992), (image courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust)

As the exhibition title suggests, these films all produce a certain type of image event. One never has the sense that there are two disparate occurrences in these works — 1) a dance performance and 2) the making of a movie that is a record of that performance. Cunningham integrates the camera as collaborator in a non-hierarchical way whereby it shapes space much as the dancers do. For instance, the steadicam in Atlas’s Locale pans and zooms with the controlled quality of a dancer; not the ease of a machine, nor the shaky handheld movements of something rougher. In Beach Birds for Camera, Caplan’s beautifully eerie black and white shots remain fixed but allow viewers the chance to get lost in the vastness of the dance, just as the performers methodical micro-movements do. A spare score by John Cage as well as identical black and white costumes rendering the dancers bird-like make perfect sense with the film’s careful editing and generously framed shots.

Watching Cunningham’s and Atlas’s film Channels/Inserts in the High Line setting achieves a distinctive effect, as the exhibition space enters the equation: a plane of angles and activity in the scaffold-covered, this-site-under-construction spot where the Channel series occurs. Punctuated by concrete, industrial surroundings, the dancers — donning grays, browns, and beiges — appear architectural and pillar-like as the film itself jumps between rehearsal space and hallway corridors. The interplay of camera, dancers, architecture in the film, plus architecture in situ combine to trigger an outpouring of playful possibilities. Suddenly, for, with, since, of, above, around — all become prepositions that could apply to the relationship between dance and lens in these films, each giving special treatment to the architecture of the body, movement, and the manufactured sequencing of time and space.

Merce Cunningham: For Camera is on view at Channel on the High Line (High Line park at 14th Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) daily, beginning at dusk, through February 27. [The exhibition period has been extended, and the installation will remain on view through March 6.]

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