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A Medium for Engagement: On the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Events

“An Event offers the experience of Cunningham’s genius at full strength. You feel with unmistakable force the shock of his creativity, his capacity to illuminate.” —Dance critic Dale Harris, 1978 In 1964, during its first world tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) was engaged to perform in Vienna at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Museum […]

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the Walker Art Center galleries, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancers Douglas Dunn and Chris Komar (foreground) and Susana  Hayman-Chaffey perform Event #32 around Philip Ogle’s untitled sculpture in the exhibition Invitation: 7 Young Artists, Walker Art Center, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

“An Event offers the experience of Cunningham’s genius at full strength. You feel with unmistakable force the shock of his creativity, his capacity to illuminate.”

—Dance critic Dale Harris, 1978

In 1964, during its first world tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) was engaged to perform in Vienna at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Museum of the Twentieth Century). When company members arrived, they found that the museum had neither a theater nor a portable stage. Forced to improvise, Cunningham invented a new format he called an Event: a collage of excerpts from existing dances which could be performed without special décor or lighting and did not depend on conventional stage exits and entrances. The flexibility of this format meant that Events could be performed in virtually any setting or circumstance; as Cunningham noted, this allowed for “not so much an evening of dance as the experience of dance.”

After Museum Event No. 1, as the Vienna performance has become known, MCDC presented more than 800 Events in parks, plazas, gardens, outdoor theaters, museums, galleries, gymnasiums, and railroad stations all over the world, including several at the Walker. From March 30 through April 9, visitors to the galleries of Merce Cunningham: Common Time will have another chance to experience this unique format when former company members present Walker Cunningham Events.

In the following text, excerpted from her essay for the Common Time exhibition catalogue, art historian Hiroko Ikegami reflects on an Event presented at the Walker in June 1972.


The earliest known video recording of an Event was made at the Walker Art Center on March 12, 1972, while MCDC was in Minneapolis on a weeklong residency. The company was planning to perform the repertory dance Canfield (1969), but for reasons that are unclear they instead danced an Event that included most of the Canfield choreography. It was performed in the Walker’s lobby and three adjoining galleries in which were installed three separate exhibitions: a survey of work by Italian sculptor Mario Merz (Gallery 1); a group show entitled Introduction: 7 Young Artists (Gallery 2), and Bill Brandt: Photographs (Gallery 3), a traveling exhibition of work by the British artist.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallelyr alongside Mario Merz's Fibonacci Igloo (1972, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallery alongside Mario Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo (1972), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

The video, which is about 30 minutes in length, does not seem to record all of Event #32, as it was later titled, but it captures dancers walking into a gallery space and placing themselves, either individually or in a duo or a group, around a variety of artworks made in 1972, including Philip Ogle’s Untitled, a wood sculpture that hung from the ceiling; Leland Bjorklund’s Durations: X, comprising ten pieces of square canvas painted with tar and bronze; and Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo, an iron structure covered with rectangles of stuffed fabric and studded with neon numbers. The dancers are dressed in simple long-sleeved T-shirts and sweatpants, suggesting that no special costumes were prepared for the performance. Spectators are either seated or standing along the sides of the staircases between the galleries, leaving space for dancers to move from one area to another.

Scattered throughout the three galleries, the audience members cannot see everything that is going on. The majority of them seem unaware of a series of complicated and beautiful movements performed by Carolyn Brown and Ulysses Dove in Gallery 3, where Gordon Mumma plays an [unidentified] oriental instrument. Although not visible in the video, David Tudor can be heard playing electronic music while John Cage recites diarylike prose—most likely his own writing (as he did when he read from his essay “Indeterminacy” during the 1965 MCDC dance How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run). Parts of the sentences sound like a conversation in a medical clinic: “‘Do you have diabetes?’ ‘Don’t know.’ Disturbed, I looked up ‘diabetes’ in dictionary.” These restrained acoustic elements resonate not only with the abstract and unemotional movements of the dancers but also with the minimalistic vocabulary of many of the artworks on view. Although independent from the choreography, music in Events is always live and at times improvisational, collaborating with other factors presented in the performance.

As the Event proceeds, the dance increases in speed and intensity, and the dancers’ movements begin to rhyme with the sculptural objects. Often, the angular lines and balanced poses made by their trained bodies resemble shapes of abstract sculptures. When a male dancer stands next to Dustin Davis’s Wall Rope, which consists of three human-size plexiglass cylinders with strings around them, he looks like he could be the fourth cylinder of the sculpture. When a group of dancers make a circle in the gallery, they look like a sculptural object in their own right, and when several dancers lie down on the floor or lift a female dancer above their shoulders, their bodies appear to be an extension of the wooden bars that comprise Ogle’s hanging sculpture. Cunningham, who always claimed his dance movements were just movements and did not refer to anything else, probably did not intend or wish for this effect to happen. Yet, the correspondences between art and movement in this Event are more than just an insignificant coincidence, as they offer spectators an opportunity to actively grasp their experience by making an association between different genres.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallery alongside Mario Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo (1972), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancers Carolyn Brown and Susana Hayman-Chaffey perform Event #32 in the exhibition Bill Brandt: Photographs, Walker Art Center, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

The role of spectators actually seems to be more important in Event #32 than in previous Events. As the performance progresses, their number increases. Seated or standing, they now surround the dancers in the gallery spaces, as if constituting a part of the presentation. Although the limited space keeps them from wandering freely around, they seem focused and engaged by the dynamic interplay between dancing, live music, spoken word, and artworks. In fact, the spectators become an indispensable actor in this interplay, as they are positioned to synthesize various sensorial elements into the “experience of dance.” In 1964’s Museum Event No. 1 in Vienna, the connection between dance, music, and visual art was somewhat unclear to the audience, who did not know that they were able to come and go as they wished. In contrast, Event #32 cleverly used the gallery’s architectural settings and provided the audience with not only the physical space to move about but also the mental space in which they were free to associate one artistic element with another. By the time of MCDC’s 1972 engagement at the Walker, the Event scheme had matured into an open, flexible format in which artistic dialogue among different genres could occur and spectators could create their own experiences.


Excerpted from Hiroko Ikegami, “A Medium for Engagement: On the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Events,” in Merce Cunningham: Common Time (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2017).

 

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