Blogs Untitled (Blog) Abigail Sebaly

Abi is currently the Cunningham Research Fellow for the Walker's new Merce Cunningham Acquisition. She was previously the director of special projects for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and has also lived and worked in Australia and Ireland.

Konnichiwa

I have just returned from a Merce Cunningham-related research journey to Japan, where I visited the Sogetsu Art Center’s archives at Keio University in Tokyo and the Kyoto Costume Institute, among many other places.  This work has been generously supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, which has also kept me working on the Walker’s Cunningham acquisition […]

I have just returned from a Merce Cunningham-related research journey to Japan, where I visited the Sogetsu Art Center’s archives at Keio University in Tokyo and the Kyoto Costume Institute, among many other places.  This work has been generously supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, which has also kept me working on the Walker’s Cunningham acquisition for the past year and a half.  While I reacquaint with this time zone and prepare a more thorough reflection, enjoy these images:

Tokyo Commute

Tokyo commuters in a relaxed mode. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Tokyo Hamburger

Plastic window burger and fries. Tasty. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Prada Store

Prada store in Ginza, designed by Herzog and de Meuron. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Kanazawa Museum

Museum of the 21st Century in Kanazawa. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Touch screen vending machine in Tokyo subway. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Touch-screen vending machine in Tokyo subway. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Shrine atop the Dover Street Market in Tokyo. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Eleganza in Ginza. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Eleganza in Ginza. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Garden in Meiji Shrine, Kyoto. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Garden in Meiji Shrine, Kyoto. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Happy Birthday, Merce Cunningham: We Hardly Knew Ye

“What is this indescribable event in a dancer’s life (when he loves dancing) that arises, given all the shit, the terrible hours of work, the grumbling and malaise of a company, the point-of-vertigo fatigue when he one day drops it all and dances…and some internal-infernal hook holds one at a peak for those few seconds, […]

“What is this indescribable event in a dancer’s life (when he loves dancing) that arises, given all the shit, the terrible hours of work, the grumbling and malaise of a company, the point-of-vertigo fatigue when he one day drops it all and dances…and some internal-infernal hook holds one at a peak for those few seconds, if you are extremely lucky, minutes.”—Merce Cunningham, from Other Animals: Drawings and Journals by Merce Cunningham

The secret inside of Merce Cunningham's cape for Antic Meet (1958). Photo: Abigail Sebaly

The secret inside of Merce Cunningham’s cape for Antic Meet (1958). Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Today we salute Merce Cunningham with an extract of Deli Commedia (1985), one of his short dance films directed by Elliot Caplan.  The piece has hues of the physical comedy of Commedia dell’Arte theater, realized with the aid of pastel Reebok high tops and the worm.  Although the dance was originally paired with music by pianist Pat Richter, the segment here is a masterful blind date mash-up with Black Sabbath.  This is why we love Merce.  His invitation for us to embrace chance pairings allows for even the most unlikely unions to seem so right.  Merce and Ozzy Osbourne, the collaboration that nearly got away:

 

 

Stanford Makishi Visits the Interdisciplinary Work Group

Early on in our Interdisciplinary Work Group convenings, a fundamental question emerged: Is our focus solely concerned with collaborations that happen among artists, or are we also drawn to how the interdisciplinary could apply to our daily work as Walker Art Center staff members?  While our diverse range of IWG invited guests spoke to both […]

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L-R: WAC Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither, WAC Assistant Curator of Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald, WAC Associate Director of Public and Community Programs Susy Bielak, WAC Cunningham Research Fellow Abigail Sebaly, Asian Cultural Council Director of Programs and Deputy Director Stanford Makishi

Early on in our Interdisciplinary Work Group convenings, a fundamental question emerged: Is our focus solely concerned with collaborations that happen among artists, or are we also drawn to how the interdisciplinary could apply to our daily work as Walker Art Center staff members?  While our diverse range of IWG invited guests spoke to both types of exchange, it is important to note why this distinction came up.  One observation is that we cannot overlook the methods we use to facilitate and realize an interdisciplinary project.  In this case, the rules for engaging across disciplines are not solely the prerogatives of artists themselves.  Instead, as curators, designers, educators, and researchers, the techniques that we use to develop and support interdisciplinary projects must themselves be responsive to the dynamics of working among multiple fields and departments.  This may demand re-examining the language that we use to talk about a project, or re-thinking the pacing of the project’s timeline.  It may even require that we set up alternate physical workspaces in the building so that we can be closer to our collaborator colleagues.  Whether we are artists, or staff members of an arts institution (or both!), interdisciplinary work pushes us to reassess how we negotiate not only multiple practices and voices, but also a more fundamental series of human relationships.

For my IWG guest, I invited Stanford Makishi, who is currently the Director of Programs and Deputy Director of the Asian Cultural Council in New York.  As a former dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, and now a high-level arts administrator, Makishi is familiar with interdisciplinary work from both artistic and administrative perspectives.  For his IWG presentation, Makishi was offered complete freedom on how to format his talk.  The resulting conversation was a fascinating biographical survey of the numerous transitions that have occurred in his own professional life.  Even though Makishi has had numerous shifts in his career, from editor to dancer to development director to program director, there is also a remarkable consistency to his approach: Do not diminish your opportunities by immediately rejecting an idea that may seem daunting or beyond your capabilities.  Work hard at a project, but do not be afraid to make a change if the project ultimately doesn’t fit your interests.  Do not shy away from unusual professional hybrids (such as being a professional dancer while also working in development).  In a leadership role, carefully weigh the individual strengths of your team and allow others around you to lift the group, even if this may sometimes mean sharing tasks that you would like to keep for yourself.  When fostering collaborations, try to understand and acknowledge the perspectives of the various partners, seeing the circumstances through their eyes.  Although these may seem like fairly universal, basic tenets to abide by, they have clearly served Makishi well throughout his career.

Writer Susannah Schouweiler was also on hand for Makishi’s visit, and chronicled our discussion in the following report.

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In late November, a group of Walker staff in the center’s “Interdisciplinary Work Group” – curators, artists, programmers, designers, researchers and educators – gathered to chat with polymath artist-turned-administrator Stanford Makishi, who had been invited by Cunningham Research Fellow Abigail Sebaly. As Makishi describes his hugely successful, wide-ranging career path, his work approach is distinguished by expansiveness, and an openness to change and unexpected possibility. At one point, he says, “I was at the right place at the right time, to have all these opportunities open up to me. These shifts didn’t happen by design. I’ve had many people open doors for me; one thing that was really important to me was saying ‘yes’ to everything.”

Makishi’s career is as much a story of friendships as it is one of individual accomplishment; because of this, it isn’t surprising that his leadership style emphasizes mentorship over competition. His experience across fields and disciplines has been varied, but it’s also taught him again and again that fruitful collaboration and felicitous creative partnerships often don’t just happen – particularly in the workplace, they’re fostered by someone and nurtured by a perceptive, responsive management ethos up top.

Background and career pivots:
Born and raised in Honolulu, Makishi is a natural interdisciplinarian: a Harvard Economics major who, upon graduation, turned to focus on a career in dance. He remembers, “When someone suggested that I might possibly be talented enough to be a professional dancer, I took that to heart and worked really hard. I happened to be in New York when what became the company of my dreams, the Trisha Brown Company, was holding auditions. I gravitated to the kind of work she did anyway, and had taken a bunch of classes taught by her company members while I continued to study ballet.  I auditioned for the company and got in, and I became good friends with Trisha.” After five or six years, he told her he was ready to transition out of the company. Makishi recalls, “Trisha asked me to stay on for another two years and devised this plan where I would, in that time, become the organization’s development director. That meant I gradually spent more and more time in the office, writing grant proposals and the rest, while I was still dancing. The transition was very strange – I was often going straight from rehearsal, still sweaty from dancing, to do paperwork in the office – but it was also organic.”

After working as the Trisha Brown’s development director for a year, and serving another short stint in the Proposals Department at Sotheby’s, Makishi was hired by the editorial department at Carnegie Hall. They brought him in as a marketing associate, but he quickly moved through the ranks, and in a few short years was offered a spot at the helm of the department; soon thereafter, he was offered the directorship of Creative Services for the whole organization.

He credits the expansive work ethos of the place, as much as his own initiative, for his rise: “It’s a tremendously warm environment filled with very talented people — a really great and generous place. My various positions there had so much to do with simply being present and willing.” At Carnegie Hall, his tasks included editing all the educational materials produced by the venue – including all the detailed materials for teachers and classrooms, programs; as a result, he worked with all the various departments, their executives and staff. “One colleague in particular, gave me access to all these meetings that I wouldn’t have otherwise been a part of,” he recalls, which gave him invaluable entry to all manner of areas of expertise, and afforded him a chance to speak on behalf of various interests in the organization at various times. “It was an unbelievable opportunity to learn.”

During his time at Carnegie Hall, he reconnected with Trisha Brown: “She asked if I would work on a project that involved staging a production [Winterreise, at the Paris Opera] with a lot of my old friends in the company. The offer was irresistible, given all I had going on at the time. But Carnegie Hall allowed me to accommodate rehearsals into my schedule.” And during that project, “there was a pianist who knew Mikhail Baryshnikov…”

And once again, those connections led to a career pivot: after a matter of months, Makishi took the lessons gleaned from his years at Carnegie Hall to take the reins at New York City’s new Baryshnikov Arts Center as Executive Director.  In his four years there, he established the center’s residency program, and ended up heading a major theater construction project and capital campaign.  As with so many things in the course of his career, Makishi said yes again, and set about learning, on the spot, what he’d need to pull the building project off and keep doors open at the same time.

And now, after stints as artistic director of New York City Center’s Fall for Dance series and serving on various boards for other organizations, Makishi spends much of his professional energy working on behalf of cultural cross-pollination between Asia and America as director of the Rockefeller-funded organization, the Asian Cultural Council, shepherding the professional development and creative growth of hundreds of individual artists across the globe by funding and facilitating intercultural study and travel.

Putting the interdisciplinary, collaborative workplace into practice:
Our conversation shifts back to modes of work – the practical business of operating within the teams of a larger organization, of leading and being led in various sorts of creative projects across disciplines. Bartholomew Ryan, a visual arts curator, asks Makishi,”By the time you got to the Baryshnikov Arts Center you had all these pockets of experience and also the opportunity to begin with a relatively blank slate, with a new organization. Based on all your experiences, what was the working culture you aimed to create and inculcate in your new team? How did you go about setting that up?”

Makishi responds:
“I had some really inspirational leaders — firm and warm. I also knew how horrible it was to be on the receiving end of a tyrant’s direction. I’d worked at a smaller organization, Trisha Brown, but also for very large organizations – Carnegie Hall, Sotheby’s. There were just five other staff members when I got to Baryshnikov Center, but I’d learned from Carnegie Hall how to divide work in ways that are really efficient. But, really, I just had to improvise. I looked to my experience at Carnegie Hall: I thought about the culture there, how I felt so loved and valued, and how it made me want to work really hard for the organization. I knew I wanted to recreate that in this other environment, even with the much smaller scale. We were stretched– our staff was small – and it was a challenge, because I didn’t want our mostly young staff to get used to the idea that they should be working until 1 in the morning (like I had at Sotheby’s), so I probably took on more than I should have on myself.”

Michèle Steinwald, a curator with the Walker’s Performing Arts department, follows up: “At Carnegie Hall, having all those streams of information come through you from all those departments, navigating all those various interests and points of view: As you considered the sort of work flow you’d institute at the new Baryshnikov Center, what was your strategy for avoiding the silo-ing that often happens in organizations?”

Makishi replies: “We did many things together at Baryshnikov Center, because we had to. We were all in one room together:  we all knew what the others were doing. With so few people, everyone very talented, we didn’t have specialists. At a place like Carnegie Hall, you tend to get very specialized – you go down one track for 20 years, your expertise became very niche.” With a small organization, where professional agility is not just desirable, but essential, the sort of silos of knowledge Steinwald refers to, he says, you just don’t have a chance to become entrenched, much less calcified as happens in much larger institutions.

Abi Sebaly, observes: “You mentioned that, at the Baryshnikov Center, you ended up taking on more of the work yourself to ease the pressure on staff members. As a manager now, how do you balance that willingness to take work on with a trust for your staff members, delegating those responsibilities and duties to them?”

“I love working – I love what I do,” Makishi says. “And it’s hard to give away the good parts, but it’s important to delegate – it’s a necessary part of developing a staff member, giving them a project that you know really well so you can be useful in that relationship [as they begin to learn the ropes].”

Strategies and tactics for collaboration:
Susy Bielak, from the Walker’s Education and Community Programs Department is interested in strategies for collaboration: “There is a system at play here at the Walker, some levels of specialization –on the spectrum, we’re somewhere in the middle of your experiences, it sounds like. Can you offer some insight on tactical collaborations? It sounds like you’ve had some beautiful mentorship – but what about those instances of working together where collaboration isn’t quite so natural, so easy.”

Makishi responds, “The residency programs I’ve worked in all champion natural collaborations, self-chosen collaborations, but I don’t think that’s the only way to work together. For myself, I’m very fond of matchmaking:  As a manager, I’ve occasionally put two people together who weren’t natural pairings, but where there was one person I thought would benefit tremendously – like medicine. Maybe, as a result, I needed to be a diplomat, when one of the pair drove the other crazy, but these could still be very useful partnerships.”

He says, as a leader in such situations, “it’s my role to see things through another’s eyes, to make the bridge. [Inculcating that sense of collaboration, even among unlikely partners, then] becomes a very gentle admonition to think a certain way, to empathize and try things from a new perspective.”

On the other hand, he says, “when two people naturally gravitate toward each other, I think one should take advantage of that, allow them to boost each other. But that kind of partnering is easy, isn’t it?” He says, for him, the strategy linchpin is in putting the right team in place from the beginning, selecting a complementary mix of qualities and working styles: “It’s important not to worry so much about hiring quickly, but hiring correctly. To put the right person in the right job, so that they love what they’re doing – so they’re just where they want to be.”

 

Happy Birthday, John Cage: Do You Know This Cake?

Today we, like many others, are remembering John Cage on what would have been his 100th trip around the sun. In 1982, in honor of Cage’s 70th birthday, the Walker produced the exhibition Happy Birthday John Cage. In addition to showing works by his friends and collaborators such as Louise Nevelson, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, the exhibition also featured pieces from Not Wanting to […]

John Cage celebrating his birthday with an unidentified friend in Minneapolis, September 1982. Courtesy Walker Art Center.

Today we, like many others, are remembering John Cage on what would have been his 100th trip around the sun. In 1982, in honor of Cage’s 70th birthday, the Walker produced the exhibition Happy Birthday John Cage. In addition to showing works by his friends and collaborators such as Louise Nevelson, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, the exhibition also featured pieces from Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel, 1969, a series of screenprinted plexiglass plates (“plexigrams“) that Cage produced with Calvin Sumsion. The 70th birthday celebration also included music and dance performances, poetry readings, a symposium called John Cage: Art and Influence, and the masterful yin/yang cake pictured above. If you have further details on the story behind this cake, who produced it, or what it consisted of, please help our archive fill in the details.

 

 

Documenting the Drops: Part 1

This past week, the McGuire Theater has been occupied with the unpacking, photographing, and re-rolling of many of the Cunningham backdrops.  The drops came to the Walker folded down and packed in portable touring -friendly hampers and bags (imagine a large sleeping bag in a small scrunch sack).  But now that they are here to stay, they are being rolled […]

This past week, the McGuire Theater has been occupied with the unpacking, photographing, and re-rolling of many of the Cunningham backdrops.  The drops came to the Walker folded down and packed in portable touring -friendly hampers and bags (imagine a large sleeping bag in a small scrunch sack).  But now that they are here to stay, they are being rolled flat on long cardboard cylinders, to eliminate creases and stabilize their condition. Although we have already hung several of the drops in theater in preparation for the exhibition Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham / Robert Rauschenberg, this is the first time that any of the drops are being formally photographed by the Walker’s photographers Gene Pittman and Cameron Wittig. 

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Production Director Davison Scandrett has also been on site, documenting some of the drops and other set pieces for the company’s dance capsules.  The Merce Cunningham Trust’s dance capsules will facilitate the licensing and recreation of some of Merce Cunningham’s existing dances, so that even though the company has disbanded, educational institutions and other dance companies can still present Merce’s work. 

The artists represented in this first batch of backdrop photos include Jasper JohnsAfrika, and Marsha Skinner.  The photographers also documented drops by William Anastasi and Robert Rauschenberg, which will be featured in another upcoming post.  

MCDC Production Director Davison Scandrett pulling the Exchange (1978) drop out of the bag. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

 

The unfurling of the Exchange drop, designed by Jasper Johns. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

 

Davison with WAC Registrar Joe King, in front of the Exchange drop. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

 

The backdrop for August Pace (1989), designed by Afrika (Sergei Bugaev). Photo: Abigail Sebaly

 

The August Pace drop coming down. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

 

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

 

Backdrop for Change of Address (1992), designed by Marsha Skinner. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

 

Joe King helping the WAC photographers set up their shots. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

 

Chuck Hits the Road

Chuck Close’s Big Self Portrait (1967-1968), which is featured in the Lifelike exhibition, also recently made a sojourn (in postcard form) to Nepal and India. His presence incited a few double-takes and queries from the locals – Who is this smoking guy? Do you worship him? Close said of his portraits in 1970, “I am not trying to make facsimiles of photographs. Neither […]

Chuck Close’s Big Self Portrait (1967-1968), which is featured in the Lifelike exhibition, also recently made a sojourn (in postcard form) to Nepal and India. His presence incited a few double-takes and queries from the locals – Who is this smoking guy? Do you worship him?

Chuck Close's "Big Self-Portrait" installed in "Lifelike"; to the left is Duane Hanson's "Janitor" (1973). Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Close said of his portraits in 1970, “I am not trying to make facsimiles of photographs. Neither am I interested in the icon of the head as a total image.”  Here Chuck inhabits new places, sometimes a familiar face, sometimes just a man with the mountains.

Chuck having an existential moment with a Pepsi machine in the Delhi airport. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Chuck on a Spice Jet flight to Kathmandu. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Chuck, with an interest in telecommunications. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Chuck trying out the local cigarettes. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Chuck with the Himalayas and Buddhist stupa in the background. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Chuck's crowning moment at Tengboche, 12,687 feet, with Mount Everest in the background. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Chuck with bindi. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Travelogue: Paris

Several weeks ago I went to Paris for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final repertory performances at the Théâtre de la Ville. My mission was to do recorded interviews with the many Cunningham affiliates who were in town for the company’s last European shows.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Théâtre de la Ville; December 2011. Photo: Abigail Sebaly.

Several weeks ago I went to Paris for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final repertory performances at the Théâtre de la Ville. My mission was to do recorded interviews with the many Cunningham affiliates who were in town for the company’s last European shows. The Mellon Foundation grant that supported both the Walker’s Cunningham Acquisition and my fellowship position also includes funds for this type of primary research, so, with a Walker portable recorder and collapsible light reflector in my suitcase, off I went.

The Cunningham company has been traveling to Paris since the early 1960s, largely because of the work of advocates such as Bénédicte Pesle, who has been the company’s champion and European booking agent since its early beginnings. In the early days, when French audiences were still resistant to Merce’s work, Bénédicte encouraged Merce to dodge the naysayers’ eggs and tomatoes and plow ahead to the next engagements. Now Cunningham has super-fandom in France, and it is always fun to watch the cult status take over.  The shows usually sell out in a blink, and there are always scalpers and hopefuls waiting outside the theater. The audiences for these two weeks of performances were particularly keyed up. One woman wore an eccentric 3-foot-tall hat, a la Cat in the Hat, which she refused to take off even after the show started. A frustrated audience member took one for the team and shouted “CHAPEAU!” after which she finally got the message. The French audiences also have a unique way of clapping in synch to show their appreciation at the end of each performance. The applause organically goes from chaos to order in an unspoken shift, and it gives me goosebumps every time.

Théâtre de la Ville at night. Photo by Abigail Sebaly

The company presented two repertory programs. In RainForest (1964), which was also presented in November here at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, all of Andy Warhol’s unattached Silver Clouds floated off into the musicians’ pit and the audience.  For the rest of the dance, you could hear them being quietly batted around like beach balls at a football game. Composer Gavin Bryars was in town to perform his composition for the dance BIPED (1999) live with the other company musicians. I got excited about delving into the Mark Lancaster costumes in the Walker’s Cunningham Collection after seeing Quartet (1982) and Duets (1980), two pieces that the company recently revived (Lancaster helped provide design updates for these revivals).

One interview set-up at the Théâtre de la Ville. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

With the videographic help of former Cunningham dancer Daniel Squire, who was already in town for the performances, I did seven filmed interviews and an additional four audio interviews for the Walker’s archive. We taped everything in a Phantom of the Opera-esque rehearsal room on the top floor of the theater, as well as in an ornate lounge on one of the lower floors. With the street din of Paris—lots of motor bike humming and gendarme sirens—providing a sound wallpaper, interviewees recounted these extraordinary stories about their connections with the Cunningham company. Carolyn Brown, a founding dancer with Merce, spoke of Robert Rauschenberg and other downtown New Yorkers transporting their paintings in her husband’s (composer Earle Brown) station wagon in the 1950s, and of the 1964 world tour when the company’s popularity skyrocketed in London, and the dancers subsisted on yogurt. Christian Wolff, composer, scholar and a Cunningham company musician,  recounted stories of being a young student of John Cage’s and sharing a copy of the I Ching with him (from an edition published by Pantheon Books, headed by Wolff’s parents). How might the course of Cage’s compositional path been changed if he hadn’t met this teenaged music student? And vice versa? After speaking to composers, collaborators and former dancers, I was struck by the recurring theme of luck.  Sure, hard work and discipline were common denominators among everyone, but so was serendipity.

The Pompidou has it's own Calder mobile out front, too. Photo by Abigail Sebaly.

In addition to the Cunningham interviews and shows, I was also able to check out the exhibition, Danser sa vie, at the Centre Pompidou, and to speak with Emma Lavigne, one of its curators. In an impressive 10,000 square-foot space, the show explores the intersections between dance the visual arts. One feature that I particularly enjoyed was seeing dance works on film projected in larger than life scale on the gallery walls. The Pompidou also had a Yayoi Kusama retrospective going on. While it was fascinating to see the breadth of her work, it’s definitely a safety hazard to enter her Infinity Mirror Room while jetlagged! Whoa.

As I mentioned, the Cunningham company has been traveling to Paris for many years, accumulating many stories, friends, and memories. One of my favorite tales is when Robert Swinston, dancer and Director of Choreography, left a roasting chicken unattended in his hotel kitchenette and the whole hotel had to be evacuated because of the smoking chicken. Upon being evacuated, Merce apparently asked gravely “Was it one of us?”

Mondrian knitwear for the whole family. Photo by Abigail Sebaly.

Berthillon ice cream flavors. Photo by Abigail Sebaly.

Relaxing the Folds

One bonus of working at the Walker is the proximity to primary resources. One minute you can be sitting at your desk, in total office mode, and a few stairs and hallways later you are in the theater, or a gallery space, or art storage, face to face with the actual objects of your study. Around every […]

A view from the grid: Mark Lancaster's backdrop for Rune (1982) being hung in the McGuire Theater.

One bonus of working at the Walker is the proximity to primary resources. One minute you can be sitting at your desk, in total office mode, and a few stairs and hallways later you are in the theater, or a gallery space, or art storage, face to face with the actual objects of your study. Around every corner there are visual reminders of why you do what you do. As the Walker begins to unpack some of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s backdrops, the primary resources don’t get much bigger.

Most stage backdrops are around 30 feet high by 60 feet wide. The Cunningham drops arrived folded down into squares, an origami that needs to be reversed in order to eliminate creases and to assess conservation needs. Currently onsite, the Walker is processing drops by Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Lancaster, John Cage, and William Anastasi. Before being wound onto storage rolls, each of the drops are being hung in the McGuire Theater for a week, pulled taut by heavy piping that is inserted into the bottom of the fabric.

When it comes time to exhibit the pieces, their physical scale presents a logistical and curatorial challenge: How do you adapt a stage backdrop to gallery proportions?  How do you allow viewers to take in the entire piece? Is it a misrepresentation of the work to display only a small detail of it? What happens when you foreground a work that is meant to have moving bodies in front of it?

Robert Rauschenberg's backdrop decor for Summerspace (1958). Photos by Abigail Sebaly.

L-R: John Cage's backdrop, Ryoanji, and a close-up of William Anastasi's design for Points in Space (1986). Photos by Abigail Sebaly.

A curious thing happened to me when I was standing in front of the backdrops in the McGuire, and I observed it happening to others, as well. When the drops were unfurled, the initial reaction was to get close to them, to inspect the patterns and details.  But the subsequent impulse was to turn away from the pieces and look out over the theater seats, to orient oneself to the performer’s perspective.  Rather than merely experiencing the backdrops visually, it’s instinctive to want to position oneself within them.

A visit to the Midwest Arts Conservation Center. Photos by Abigail Sebaly.

Walker registrar Joe King and I also recently visited the Midwest Arts Conservation Center (MACC), where Rauschenberg’s wooden wheeled platforms for Cunningham’s dance Travelogue (1977) are being restored. MACC is housed within the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and is a resource for both museums and private collectors. In the instance of Rauschenberg’s wooden platforms, the scuffs and smudges that one might casually try to scrub off with Windex and a paper towel are instead painstakingly treated with Q-tips and various solvents.

 

Philosophical Chili

In order to pack in some primary research, last week I visited the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the Cunningham Dance Foundation.  The building that houses the Rauschenberg space used to be an orphanage (St. Joseph Mission of the Immaculate Virgin), and it retains traces of this almshouse in […]

The "chapel" space at the Rauschenberg Foundation in New York. Photo by Abi Sebaly.

In order to pack in some primary research, last week I visited the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the Cunningham Dance Foundation.  The building that houses the Rauschenberg space used to be an orphanage (St. Joseph Mission of the Immaculate Virgin), and it retains traces of this almshouse in its broad wooden stair cases, the behemoth cast iron stove in the kitchen, and the multi-story “chapel” in the back of the building.  It’s hard not to have a transformational experience when you’re in this cavernous room by yourself, looking high up through a large skylight, experiencing a sense of quiet that is otherwise totally unnatural to the beast that is Manhattan.  The Rauschenberg staff was extremely helpful, in spite of the fact that it was sunny and everybody probably wanted to be at the beach.  It was particularly exciting to explore a batch of files that had just come up from Captiva, Rauschenberg’s Florida home. Among my findings, Bob’s instructions for making chili:

RAUSCHENBERG’S CHILI (also published in M Magazine in April 1986)
“I think chili is a philosophy.  A sophisticated dish built out of scraps.  My refrigerator is not sociologically, organically regional enough to prevent me from shopping a couple of days for my leftovers.  Hot is paramount.  A variety of meats in taste and texture are necessary to give that second-day awareness: ground meat, chopped gizzards and calf livers, chicken.  Start with onions and chilis.  Cook them in oil until they are soft.  Start adding other stuff; green peppers, meat, stock or water, and more hot peppers.  Cook for density and add spices (chili powder, oregano, cumin) to make the initial encounter seem tolerable.  Don’t add tomatoes or beans.  Sour cream and naturally cooling guacamole can be used as first aid.  Serve frozen mango, watermelon, and key lime pie for dessert.”

At the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, I explored Cunningham-related materials that have already been housed there.  As the Cunningham company comes to a close, its administrative files, photographs, films, and other similar materials will take up residence there.

And finally, I spent a day at Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s home on the far west side, on what is verifiably one of the city’s windiest streets.  The dancers were rehearsing for their upcoming Mexico City tour, and everyone else was equally purposeful and busy in their work.  Most of my time was spent in the archives, grasping as much information as I could from archivist David Vaughan, who has been steadfastly chronicling the company’s history since its early beginnings.

L: Photographing materials at the Rauschenberg archive. Photo by Matt Magee. R: Rauschenberg's design for Springweather and People (1957) costumes. Photo by Abi Sebaly.

 

Archivist David Vaughan at the Cunningham Dance Foundation. Photo by Abi Sebaly

Hi Res with the House Lights Up

As the Cunningham Collection continues to be catalogued, here are more close-ups of the aquisition items.   This week’s images focus on Antic Meet (1958), a piece that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will present as part of their Farewell Legacy Tour at the Walker’s McGuire Theater this November 4/5/6.  Robert Rauschenberg costumed the piece with both his own designs and loot gathered from the New York second […]

L: Sunglasses from Antic Meet (1958). R: Detail of the 4-armed, no-neck Antic Meet sweater that Merce knit himself.

As the Cunningham Collection continues to be catalogued, here are more close-ups of the aquisition items.   This week’s images focus on Antic Meet (1958), a piece that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will present as part of their Farewell Legacy Tour at the Walker’s McGuire Theater this November 4/5/6.  Robert Rauschenberg costumed the piece with both his own designs and loot gathered from the New York second hand stores of the day.   When Merce was creating a dance, he rarely discussed backstory and structure with Rauschenberg.  But in a rare 1958 letter to Bob, he writes of Antic Meet, “I hope it’s dazzling rather than willy-nilly… it’s like a series of vaudeville scenes which overlap…This all comes from Dostoevsky.” (from Changes: Notes on Choreography, by Merce Cunningham, 1968)

If you could turn a costume inside out, crawl underneath a set piece, press your nose up against a Rauschenberg backdrop, this is what you might see…

L: Detail from Merce's Antic Meet (1958) chair. R: Merce Cunningham in Antic Meet (1958). Photo by Richard Rutledge.

 

L: The under carriage of Merce's Antic Meet chair. R: Merce's initials, sewn by Rauschenberg into Antic Meet's corduroy cape.

 

R: MCDC in Antic Meet (1958). Photo by Matthew Wysocki. Note Merce in the background, wearing the notorious sweater. L: The 4-armed, no-neck sweater that Merce knit himself.

 

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