Merce Cunningham as Collaborator, Breaking Down Hierarchies in Art and Bodies

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Cunningham’s first dances were in the psychologically fraught, symbol-heavy style of some Graham works. He even enlisted the services of her primary designer, Isamu Noguchi, whose sketches for a 1947 Cunningham piece called “The Seasons” are in the opening gallery at the Walker. But he abandoned this model. Cage, a student of Zen Buddhism, had begun using random sounds and silence as compositional matter. Following his lead, Cunningham introduced chance strategies into his choreography, tossing coins to determine the sequence of movements. He rejected symbols, strove for abstraction. In 1952 he wrote: “For me, it seems enough that dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form, and that what is seen, is what it is.”

His collaborations expanded. Through Cage, he met and worked with other venturesome composers, among them Earl Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, and the pianist David Tudor. Their music can be heard at listening stations throughout both parts of the show. In 1953, at Black Mountain College in Ashville, N.C., where Cage was teaching, Cunningham formed the dance company that would be the vehicle for all of his choreography thereafter.

Just as new music was an essential component for this work, so was new art. Also in 1953 at Black Mountain, which paired art and science in its curriculum, Cunningham asked a young painter, Robert Rauschenberg, to design décor for the troupe. What he produced was exhilarating. For the 1954 dance “Minutiae,” he cooked up a three-dimensional set from plywood panels covered with collages of fabric and newsprint.

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“MC9,” a video installation by Charles Atlas, celebrating Merce Cunningham.

Credit
Charles Atlas/Walker Art Center

The set was, as required, collapsible (the company strapped it atop a Volkswagen bus for tours); it was also the first in a series of assemblages called “Combines” that, shown in a gallery context, would made Rauschenberg’s art career. When Rauschenberg said “I don’t find theater that different from painting,” he meant it.

He was the company’s main scenic designer and artistic adviser for a decade, through a successful 1964 world tour. When he left, Jasper Johns stepped in. Reluctant to do design work himself, he extended commissions to still more artists. In 1967, Frank Stella created movable, mixable, bannerlike props for a dance called “Scramble”; in 1968, Andy Warhol supplied helium-filled “Silver Clouds” for “RainForest.”

The most captivating design of all, though, was by Mr. Johns himself: the cluster of inflatable, semi-transparent boxlike units for “Walkaround Time.” The set is a homage to “The Large Glass” of Marcel Duchamp, a Cage-Cunningham hero. And at the Walker gallery, it looks ethereal against Mark Lancaster’s baroque swag-curtain drop for the 1975 “Sounddance.” Mr. John’s boxes also bring more prosaic images to mind: a cluster of vintage mainframe computers. (In the old days, walking around was what you did a lot while waiting for kludgy programs to run.) They’re reminders that Cunningham would be one of the first choreographers to use digital software as a compositional aid.

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An untitled drawing by Merce Cunningham.

Credit
Merce Cunningham, via Margarete Roeder Gallery, New York

He was also one of the first to turn video into a fully choreographic medium, and to make dances specifically for television, which he did with one of his most inventive collaborators, Charles Atlas. Within the confines of Cunningham’s studio, they made a series of extraordinary videos in which the camera is both a dancer among dancers and an objective eye. Just as Cunningham broke down disciplinary hierarchies (dance is equal to art is equal to music) and bodily hierarchies (elbows are as interesting as faces or feet), he also sought to open up and level space: make everywhere and nowhere center stage.

In 2012, Mr. Atlas did something similar in an installation conceived as a posthumous tribute called “MC9” — Merce Cunningham to the 9th power. Following the model of the grab-bag performances that Cunningham billed as Events, concocted of excerpts from old and new work, Mr. Atlas pieced together his installation from some 20 dance videos projected in staggered sequences on angled screens, in a single gallery. The effect is to give a kaleidoscopic reprise of Cunningham’s career. And no matter where you stand, you’re right in the middle of it.

With its pulsing, flashing variety, “MC9” is the visual fulcrum for the show, which has been organized by Fionn Meade, the former artistic director at the Walker; Philip Bither, its senior curator of performing arts; along with Joan Rothfuss and Mary Coyne. (Lynne Warren oversaw the Chicago half.) Over all, the result is an admirable example of creative history writ large — and larger and more comprehensively at the Walker. But it has intimate elements too, and they are among the most memorable.

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A work by Robert Rauschenberg that is part of the exhibit.

Credit
Cameron Wittig

In Seattle in 1938, Cunningham and Cage became friends with the semi-reclusive, Zen-inspired painter Morris Graves. Graves’s tender pictures of birds and animals must have appealed to Cunningham. When he moved to New York a year later, he began doing his own drawings of creatures in the Central Park Zoo, and incorporated animal movements into his dancing. It was as if he were dismantling yet another hierarchical convention, revealing the conventional separation of the human species from other species as a fiction.

There are a few such drawings in Minneapolis and Chicago; they make for heartwarming interludes in a determinedly abstract world. And a video installation by the British artist Tacita Dean, which takes Cunningham as its subject, brings the Walker leg of the show to a moving conclusion.

The piece is often referred to as ”STILLNESS,” though its full title is unpoetically concrete: “Merce Cunningham performs ‘STILLNESS’ (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April, 2007 (six performances; six films).” In Cage’s famous 1952 composition, a musician appears onstage and refrains from playing his or her instrument for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds, indicating movement breaks with some small gesture (the lowering and raising of a piano lid). Whatever ambient sounds are heard is the music.

In “STILLNESS,” Cunningham is the soloist, performing in memory of his partner of nearly 50 years. But he’s also shifting the performance medium from music to dance, or to music and dance, and art. Age 88, he sits silently in a chair in his studio. Ms. Dean films him life-size, full-length, close-up. A classic portrait. The audio track catches noise from the Manhattan street and a rustle of cloth as Cunningham shifts position. The music. He shifts twice to mark the compositional divisions. His only actions are involuntary eye-blinks and slight muscle twitches. They are the dance, defined, like everything else, by time.

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