An open-ended look at contemporary art – both inside the Walker and out – as framed by our Visual Arts curators.
The décor for Canfield (1969) entered the Walker’s collection with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition in 2011. It is a rare Robert Morris sculpture, little-studied within his practice, and due to its size and logistical challenges, it was only used a handful of times by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before falling out of repertory. […]
The décor for Canfield (1969) entered the Walker’s collection with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition in 2011. It is a rare Robert Morris sculpture, little-studied within his practice, and due to its size and logistical challenges, it was only used a handful of times by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before falling out of repertory. Following a six-month restoration project by the Walker’s registration and program services crew, the conserved décor is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time.
Stored in three original touring crates, the décor the Walker acquired was a mysterious vestige of the magic environment it was intended to create onstage. The 25-foot-tall column broke down into two joined five-foot units and a single five-foot unit of hammered aluminum. Years of disregard had yellowed the paint, which was still scratched and stained from its last performances.
The design for Canfield was entirely Morris’s own conception, as he would not have discussed or known the nature of the choreography before proposing his design to Jasper Johns, then the artistic advisor of the Cunningham company. Morris’s original vision for the Canfield décor was to have the dancers wear leotards dyed with a reflective paint that would glow when caught by a beam of light. Admittedly, Morris was less than active in his creation of the work; after communicating his concept to Johns, Rick Nelson and James Baird—lighting designer and stage manager for the company, respectively—were put in charge of producing his idea. Nelson and Johns sourced airplane runway lights, which produced a blinding glare upstage when attached to a reflective scrim. Baird mechanized Morris’s column to travel slowly across the stage, from left to right, meaning that most of the choreographic activity occurred outside the lights’ glow, in shadowy darkness.
The exact mechanics of this early design were confounding to us at the Walker as we attempted to reconfigure the apparatus using as much of the original assemblage of pulleys, weights, and steel I- and T-beams as possible. Once successfully mounted in the Walker’s McGuire Theater and safely rewired by Egan Electric, the process of mechanizing the column began. At times the process of mounting the piece felt like a humorous contemporary take on the projects developed collaboratively by Experiments in Art and Technology.
It was apparent that, in order to properly restore Canfield, the column had to operate as it had in 1969. The traveling beam of light, as opposed to the column itself, was Morris’s vision for the design, and a stationary column hanging from the gallery wall would not have successfully conveyed Canfield’s purpose. Peter Hannah, from the Walker’s program services team, sourced a Teknic motor, which was programmed to traverse the I-beam, stop gently, and return in the opposite direction.
Now operational and installed as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time for the first time since its acquisition, Morris’s desired effect was visible. As an active design, rather than a stationary sculpture, the piece’s relationship to Cunningham’s work of that late 1960s emerged. Perhaps most interestingly, the decor shares a direct relationship to artist Francis Picabia’s stage design for the 1924 ballet, Relâche. Cunningham and Cage had seen René Clair’s film, Entr’acte, created for Picabia and Erik Satie’s ballet, in the late 1950s and, likely through their ongoing friendship with Marcel Duchamp over the next decade, processed the work as an important historical reference. Commissioned by Rolf de Mare for the Paris-based Ballets Suédois, Picabia’s design consisted of hundreds of white lights shining at the audience upstage of the performers. Combined with Satie’s score (it would be his final composition), the ballet was an early Dadaist celebration. The work’s title, which translates to “canceled” or the “show has been canceled,” made any scheduled performance of the work into a pun (the first advertised performance was indeed cancelled, adding to the play). Relâche’s disjointed relationship of dance to music, challenging décor, and seemingly non-narrative action on stage makes it an ideal progenitor of Cunningham’s own choreography.
In Walkaround Time (1968), Cunningham split the dance into two acts broken by an intermission, or entr’acte, during which the dancers remained on stage in view of the audience. Even Cunningham’s “strip tease,” in which he changes costume on stage following the entr’acte, coyly mimed from not only Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (a gender reversal of the bride being stripped bare by the bachelors) but also the male dancer’s onstage costume change from evening tails into white unitards in Relâche, a move responded to as radical in the 1920s.
An advertisement for the ballet carried Picabia’s own disclosure: “Above all, don’t forget dark glasses and something to plug your ears.”1 Writing in 1981 (over a decade after Canfield’s premiere), Rosalind Krauss considered the experience of viewing the ballet against such harsh lights an act of “terrorism” striking out against the audience. This dramatic reading is supported by first-hand accounts of the work; Paul Souday, reviewing the work, wrote that the lights—reflecting off circular mirrors against the wall behind the stage—were “unbearable” to look at, especially once reflected against the small mirrors decorating the dancer’s unitards.
Morris’s design for Canfield could be read as his riff on the historical work. In a reversal of Picabia’s conceit of a tableau against which the audience viewed the activity occurring downstage, Morris’s column, which continually moved across the stage, referenced his interest in actively altering the structures of time and space around the body through acute focuses on light and dark.2 Morris used a similar strategy—the dancer’s body against a dark ground—in his first dance work, Arizona, which premiered at the Judson Dance Theater in 1963. The dancer (Morris) wore white coveralls against a white column against a dark performance space. Spinning electric lights on ropes hung over the heads of the audience while, over the course of the piece, the stage area went dark. Morris would later consider:
the establishment of a focus shifting between the egocentric and the exocentric could be accomplished by swinging overhead in a fully lighted room a small light at the end of a cord. The lights in the room fade as the cord is slowly let out until, finally, in total darkness, only the moving point of light is visible as it revolves in the large space above the heads of the audience.
Cunningham was interested in these affronts to the body of the dancer and, perhaps even more so, that of the expectantly passive viewer.3 In Winterbranch (1964) Cunningham made his perhaps most challenging work to date, a foreboding choreography set to a grading score by La Monte Young. Cunningham opened the dance by moving onto the dark stage carrying a flashlight, the only source of light on stage. Automobile headlights placed on the stage lit the end of the dance; much of the dance occurred in shadows. Further adding to the sense of unrest, the dancers’ faces were marked with eye black (as used by sports players to minimize glare). Cunningham asked then-resident designer Robert Rauschenberg to light the work and to “think of the light as though it were night instead of day. I don’t mean night as referred to in romantic pieces, but night as it is in our time with automobiles on highways, and flashlights in our faces, and the eyes being deceived about shapes the way the light hits them.”4 Rauschenberg, who had worked as the lighting designer for the company since 1954, as well as creating the costumes and stage decors, saw Winterbranch as his pièce de résistance in his contributions to lighting: the deep shadows and harsh lights contributed to the mood.
Cunningham’s work often was met with resistance, understood as too difficult to watch. Since the 1940s, scores by John Cage, Bo Nilsson, and others were reported as an affront to the audience. To this day, many viewers comment on how Cunningham’s work is best enjoyed on mute or in silence. By 1965, Cunningham seemed prepared to embrace this challenge, intentionally drawing out what made the audience uncomfortable and thus more aware of their action as viewers of—and participants in—the work.
This planned affront to the audience members initially embraced by Cunningham in Winterbranch took on a sculptural form in the late 1960s. It is difficult not to look at the stage décor presented under Johns as in conversation with what Lucy Lippard termed “Dematerialized Art.” Andy Warhol’s helium-filled Silver Clouds (1966/1968); Bruce Nauman’s décor for Tread (1970), in which 10 fans blew directly outward form the edge of the proscenium stage onto the audience; and Morris’s column of light all capture the elements of Lippard’s dematerialized art. Morris dealt with this indefinite, or “dematerialized,” art not only in his inclusion of light and abstraction such as the time in his early performance works but also in his “sculptures” leading up to the commission for Canfield, including Steam (1967), an amorphous cloud of steam routed via pipes to small ruptures in a rock bed; Dirt (1968) a 2,000-pound pile of soil; and Continuous Project Altered Daily (1969), the latter of which notably was on view at the Leo Castelli Warehouse on Manhattan’s upper west side when Canfield premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Johns’s commissions during the last three years of his tenure as artistic advisor should be understood together, with Canfield at its heart, of the 1960’s preface Morris’s Bodymotionspacesthings at the Tate in 1971, an interactive sculptural installation that allowed him to translate this confrontation of sculpture in space with that of the viewer/participant.
Watching the now-mobile Canfield column installed at MCA Chicago, generating a steady illuminated glow against the reflective wall (in galleries, walls stand in for upstage scrims) the sensorial aspect of Cunningham’s work of this period was readily palpable. Always ready to physically challenge an audience, Cunningham’s collaboration with Morris, although appropriately developed independent of each other, is a key project within the artist’s interest in the spatial and psychological relationship between dancer, viewer, and object.
Canfield is on view as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through April 30, 2017. The Walker component of the dual-venue Common Time exhibition closes July 30, 2017.
1 391, no. 19, October 1924.
2 Morris articulates the relationship to light and dark to that of the temporal/spatial experience of the body in his seminal Notes on Dance, originally published in The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Winter, 1965): 179–180.
3 Although Cunningham was not making these choices directly, he clearly supported Johns’s partnerships with Nauman and Morris. When presented with an idea he wasn’t particularly keen on, Cunningham would famously suggest “maybe later,” rather than respond in the negative.
4 Merce Cunningham quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997).
In the One Work series, Walker curators explore the history of single works held within the permanent collection. Rather than examining these in isolation, the works are considered through the lens of their past exhibition history, exploring how an artwork’s context influences interpretation. In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time will […]
In the One Work series, Walker curators explore the history of single works held within the permanent collection. Rather than examining these in isolation, the works are considered through the lens of their past exhibition history, exploring how an artwork’s context influences interpretation.
In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time will be on view at the Walker as a centerpiece of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. It will be the third time the décor elements have been on view since their acquisition in 2000, although their exhibition history, both at the Walker and at fellow arts institutions far precedes this date. Why has Walkaround Time become such a fitting icon for interdisciplinary collaborative practice, despite being one of many striking stage décor works created by leading visual artists for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company?
In late 1967, Jasper Johns, who used his role as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to act as a curator rather than a creator, expressed to his mentor, Marcel Duchamp, his desire to create a stage décor for Cunningham’s new work based on the design of Duchamp’s famous The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, aka The Large Glass (1915–1923). Duchamp’s now well-known quip, “certainly but who is going to do all the work?” enabled the resourceful Johns to create the setting for one of Cunningham’s most well-known and richly created dances. Working in critic David Whitney’s loft on Canal Street, which afforded more space than Johns’s own studio, he stenciled the imagery from The Large Glass—”The Bride,” “The Seven Sisters,” “The Milky Way,” “The Cemetery of Uniforms,” “The Ocular Witness,” “The Glider,” and “The Chocolate Grinder”—onto vinyl sheeting, which was stretched over seven metal cube frames.
For performances, the images “The Bride” and “The Milky Way,” which appear in the upper register of The Large Glass, were suspended from stage flies, with the remaining five units arranged below. This honored Duchamp’s request that the décor mirror the composition of his work during at least one portion of the dance. As composer Nelson Rivera has aptly noted, the dance relies on lateral movement—the dancers continually enter and exit the stage from the wings and move longitudinally across the stage either across or behind the décor elements. This choreographic structure wryly comments on the dance’s title, which Cunningham explained references the seemingly protracted minutes spent waiting for early computers to process information. The entire dance, from David Behrman’s spoken-word remixed score, to the décor, to the choreographic structure, is an homage to Duchamp. If it’s at all possible to summarize Marcel, Walkaround Time approaches this; the work is, in a sense, Cunningham’s variations on a Ballet Mécanique.1 The dancers themselves seem to take on the movement of machines, often stiff, mechanized. During the work’s intermission, or enter’acte, the dancers remain on stage, seated among the décor, stretching, talking—an adaptation of René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte, which screened midway through performances of the Ballet Suédois’s Relâche. During the second act of the dance, Cunningham removes his warmup clothes while running in place, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (1912). Although the movement and character of the dance is uniquely Cunningham’s, the choreographer embraced Duchamp’s evasive attitude towards authorship and style.
Johns himself is hesitant to claim ownership of the décor, calling the design, in a letter to former Walker Director Kathy Halbreich, “something other than a work by me.”2 Johns is correct in that Walkaround Time is something outside a work by a single artist, more a material embodiment of Marcel Duchamp’s impact on the post-war avant-garde and continued influence today.
The Walker was the first to exhibit Walkaround Time within exhibition galleries in 1994 as part of Duchamp’s Leg, an exhibition that looked to this very lineage of Duchamp’s impact on the younger generations of artists. Although the company was still actively performing—Cunningham had yet to create many of his most iconic works such as BIPED (1999) and Scenario (1997)—curator Joan Rothfuss thought outside the proverbial box in seeking to include these décor works, which were recently retired, but still owned by the company in the exhibition. Only a pair of the seven vinyl pieces on view were installed in the Walker galleries. Displayed in this way, their scale and texture simulated the haptic experience of moving and carrying the pieces across a stage. In the opening sequence of Walkaround Time, Cunningham is seen running in place behind The Chocolate Grinder, allowing the clear vinyl décor to simultaneously frame and obstruct his movement. Walkaround Time is one of the few dances in which the choreography itself was developed in consideration of the décor (Cunningham had his dancers use cardboard boxes in rehearsals until Johns’s work was completed). Dancers lift and carry the cubes and then each other with little differentiation. The cube becomes body becomes readymade. 3
In 1998, Walkaround Time returned to the Walker for Art Performs Life: Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones, Merce Cunningham, for which the complete décor was installed and contextualized within Cunningham’s practice and within the designs artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Rei Kawakubo had created for the company. Following this seminal installation, the Walker approached the acquisition of the décor from the Cunningham Foundation, and the work formally entered the collection in 2000. It was only the second object created as a stage décor element for Cunningham to enter a museum collection (the Art Gallery of Ontario acquired Story (1964), a combine created by Robert Rauschenberg during a performance of Cunningham’s dance of the same name).
Ironically, Walkaround Time has never been installed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. In 2011, soon after the Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, included in which was an exhibition copy of Walkaround Time, the work was displayed on a low stage within the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp—a “conversation,” in the words of curator Carlos Basualdo, rather than an exhibition, that explored relationships between the leaders of post-war avant-garde. In this active and transitional installation, Basualdo and co-curator Ericka Battle allowed the work to move between décor and sculpture. When the stage was used for performances, the vinyl boxes were drawn up towards the ceiling, creating a newly configured setting to Cunningham’s choreography
The following year the décor was included in A House Full of Music: Strategies in Music and Art, an exhibition that celebrated John Cage’s centenary at the Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt. Although Cage did not create the score for Walkaround Time, his fingerprints on the vinyl cubes are undeniable. Cunningham’s partner since 1945, it was through Cage that Johns and Cunningham developed their close, if reverential, relationship with Duchamp. This is one of dozens of key collaborations Cage fostered through his easily generated and far-reaching network of composers and artists. Cage was more than simply a social interloper between these individuals, and it is key to note how the design of Walkaround Time was in keeping with Cage’s own artistic practice. For Cage, music contained elements of the visual. Outside of being drawn to the theatrical and dedicating much of his life and work to Cunningham’s dance company, Cage’s own musical scores, including his well-known, largely-blank pages for 4’33” (1952), conveyed an acute sense of space, that of both the paper and the space in which the composition was performed.
In 2015, Philippe Parreno included the set elements for Walkaround Time as part of Hypothesis, an installation at the Hangar Bicocca in Milan. Parreno understood the unfixed qualities of Walkaround Time as expressed nine years before Walkaround Time by Johns: “It seems less the machine’s True Story capacities for romance than the capacity of the work to contain Duchamp’s huge precisions of thought-in-art that is conveyed by its vitality.”4
Parreno’s rearrangement of the décor in relation to the stage underscored Cage’s idea of the theatrical space as one that is inherently decentered, a space beckoning to be moved through much as the clear vinyl (or glass in Duchamp’s original work) is to be looked through. For Parreno, the décor element became an object of regeneration, a motif he re-contextualized after its creation by Duchamp and application through Cunningham and Johns. Parreno’s appropriation of Walkaround Time within his installation was a scheme used to indicate the “ability of an artwork to host another,” a type of parasitic homage in which each creation creates a possibility for something else to occur. In this way, he completed the transformation of one artwork into another, leaving the space below the suspended décor empty, a blank stage on which the shadows of The Large Glass suggested the possibility of new interpretations, embodiments, and regenerations.
In this way, Walkaround Time, with its origins at the nexus point of conceptual, performance, and composition practice, indicates superbly the shared and intersecting wavelengths Cunningham, Cage, Johns, and Duchamp rode at that moment in time, but act as a type of Rosetta Stone, rich with ideas from different perspectives that continue to foster an embodied approach to contemporary practice. The décor’s creative exhibition history to date is only the prelude to a performance in and around its clear shadows.
1 Ferdenand Léger, 1924 “dance” of Dadist collage for film.
2 Jasper Johns, letter to Kathy Halbreich, December 8, 1998, Walker Art Center archives.
3 David Vaughan notes how Walkaround Time was, at the time, one of the few times that Cunningham diverged from his philosophical approach that the music, décor and choreography be developed individually. See David Vaughan “‘Then I Thought About Marcel’: Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time” in Merce Cunningham : Dancing in Space and Time (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), Richard Kostelanetz ed., 66–70.
4 Jasper Johns “Duchamp” in Scrap, no. 2, December 23, 1960, 4.
In early fall 2004, Merce Cunningham, then 85 years old and still actively looking for a new creative challenge, began working on an adaptation for the proscenium stage of Views on Camera, an existing dance for camera he had developed that summer with collaborator Charles Atlas. The new work for stage, aptly titled Views on Stage, consisted of […]
In early fall 2004, Merce Cunningham, then 85 years old and still actively looking for a new creative challenge, began working on an adaptation for the proscenium stage of Views on Camera, an existing dance for camera he had developed that summer with collaborator Charles Atlas. The new work for stage, aptly titled Views on Stage, consisted of a similar choreographic structure, but was visually redesigned by costume designer James Hall and Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. Upon the invitation of Merce Cunningham Dance Company manager Trevor Carlson and Cunningham, Neto was given the opportunity to expand his design into a wholistic environmental experience, complete with theatrical lights and an eerie score of two John Cage compositions, ASAP (As Slow as Possible) (1985) and Music for Two (1984). Entitled otheranimal, Neto reconsidered a form he had imitated for his contribution to the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001, a horizontal nylon scrim stretched loosely over the ceiling from which hung “socks” of glass beads, rice and pellets. For Neto, the fabric was the skin of a body, the porous barrier between inside and outside, and at once the inside of a living body. Biomorphic, malleable and amoebic, otheranimal appears to be a organism as much as a set design, one that could melt, drip, fall, or embrace the dancers beneath it. Neto’s sculpture is at once foreboding and playful, suggestive of a primordial cave, and bringing to mind the soft sculptures of artists such as Claes Oldenburg.
In preparation for the February 2017 opening of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, we installed the complete work earlier this month in order to share notes on how to adapt this stage décor into a gallery installation. (It was last on view in the 2012 research exhibition, Dance Works II: Merce Cunningham/Ernesto Neto.) Joining our registration and theater technical crew was Rebecca Fuller Jensen, an expert lighting designer who set to work on re-programming the lighting plot based on the dimensions and light pollution concerns of the gallery space, where otheranimal will be exhibited. Jenson and the stage crew carefully plotted the exact dimensions of the gallery onto the McGuire Theater stage floor, and determined the exact location for each point of the hanging décor. Otheranimal was intended to hang from theatrical line sets, and its installation is determined by a plan in relation to lights that traverse the ceiling above, allowing light to shine directly down into the center of the decor, permeating the material.
Once in place, Jensen went to work, translating the relationship of Neto’s original design onto the more compact installation. The artist’s lighting plot makes the installation appear to change color from pink to orange, to white, blue, and green. Over 11 minutes, the lights gradually change color, generating a calming glow. Neto’s “egg”—a soft sculpture of lightweight pellets—sits at the center of the piece, and constitutes an orientation point for the dancers during the performance Views on Stage.
After two days of work, the decor was re-folded in its box (always considering the constant touring and mobility of the company, Cunningham’s instruction to Neto was that the décor be able to fit into a small packing crate). Even with the walls of the theater exposed, and without Cage’s score, otheranimal had transformed the theater into an alien landscape. The stage is a place constantly under transformation, shifting from one world to the next. Bringing this aspect of fantastical transformation and illusion into the gallery an important element to all the preparations for Merce Cunningham: Common Time.
Ernesto Neto’s otheranimal décor for Views on Stage will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s presentation of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, opening February 11, 2017.
The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s […]
The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s strict independence of the art forms, although philosophically antithetical, produced some of the greatest dances of the twentieth century. Composers Igor Stravinsky and John Cage are perhaps best known for the work they produced for the Ballets Russes and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, respectively. Diaghilev commissioned stage décors and costume designs by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst; Cunningham would work closely with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris. Due to their international prominence, including the American tours of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (the post-war company formed after Diaghilev’s death), the Ballets Russes’s impact on American dance, and on the young Cunningham, are undeniable.
Cunningham would have had his first opportunity to see the famous Russian company firsthand through New York performances by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the Fall of 1939. Whether he saw the performances of Les Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), Scheherezade, and Petrushka is uncertain, however as Cunningham scholar David Vaughan has stated, the qualities of these works “would have already become part of what is available to any choreographer.” Cunningham’s own exploration of composition, abstraction, and application of Dada and dance’s relationship to the music (or lack thereof) all hold roots in Diaghilev’s ballets. Diaghilev’s influence on Cunningham can be traced as far back as 1952, when Cunningham, still early in his professional career as a choreographer, was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein of the Festival of Creative Arts to create a new choreographic work after one of the Ballets Russes’s most significant ballets—Bronislava Nijinska‘s Les Noces.
This week is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the first Festival of Creative Arts, an annual two-day program of performances of music, dance, and theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the festival continues to be hosted at Brandeis today. In 1952, Bernstein was already an influential figure on the East Coast, having served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 1943. By 1952, Bernstein was heading the orchestral and conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer orchestral program founded in 1940 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The first Festival of the Arts (June 13–14, 1952) premiered Bernstein’s one-act social commentary opera Trouble In Tahiti and Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, accompanied by symposia on jazz and poetry (with performances by Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, and a reading by William Carlos Williams). For the first Festival of the Arts, Bernstein also commissioned Cunningham to create two almost entirely different projects—to choreograph an original work to Pierre Schaffer’s composition Pour un Homme Seul (1949–1950) and a restaging of Les Noces (1923), a ballet originally choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Nijinska to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Bernstein’s invitation was significant, as up to that point Cunningham had only been commissioned by Lincoln Kirsten for the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet) in 1947 and received a select few laudatory reviews in the New York Herald Tribune for brief solo works. While Cunningham’s skills as a dancer were recognized as early as his performances with Martha Graham Company in 1939, he was yet to receive significant recognition as a choreographer.
Nijinska’s ballet, a simple narrative of a Russian peasant wedding, was already antithetical to the type of work Cunningham had been producing. As opposed to translating Nijinska’s work, Cunningham rechoreographed the piece, taking the dramatic concept and music as his starting points. Cunningham’s dancers would later remember “leaping movements” and an athleticism not present in the Ballets Russes’s original choreography. Donald McKayle, a dancer in Cunningham’s class, described the movement as “raw, not sophisticated,” which is consistent with the dynamic solos Cunningham had been choreographing since the mid-1940s. Although no recording of the performance survives, the below photographs of rehearsals show the production including full costumes designed by artist Howard Bay, which were more ornate and dramatic than the fairly simple original designs by Natalia Goncharova for the original Ballets Russes production.
Both projects required Cunningham not only to develop new a choreography but to teach it to Brandeis University students. Since 1950, Cunningham had been teaching daily dance classes at his 8th Avenue studio in New York, and by 1952 he had developed a small, dedicated group of dancers, for whom he had begun developing a new technique. These dancers made up the core cast for Cunningham’s work at Brandeis. After receiving the commission he worked in New York, developing the movement and choreography for the principal roles, and then developing the structure of the cast with the Brandeis Dance Group later in the spring.
Les Noces, and the far more experimental Pour un Homme Seul, are key to considering Cunningham’s career-long connection between pedagogy and his own creative practice. Although on numerous occasions he would profess his frustration with teaching (“I hate teaching. The repetition that is demanded by [class] drives me crazy”), Cunningham was keenly aware of its importance to his development of new work and its role at the heart of his philosophy of dance. Bernstein also valued the importance of continued teaching throughout his career: “[Teach and learn] are interchangeable words. When I teach I learn, when I learn I teach,” he would often profess. Bernstein, then on the faculty at Brandeis, created the festival not only as a platform to support new work by key figures in visual arts, music, dance, and theater but also as a multi-disciplinary access point for the university’s students. For Cunningham, the translation between his own idea for a movement and the dancer’s interpretation through their own unique style, continued to be a key aspect of his philosophy. “I use class like a laboratory,” Cunningham would later reflect, “something occurs to me and if I could do it myself I would figure it out and show it to them.” 
Teaching not only provided Cunningham with his main source of income in the 1950s, but also allowed him the means for experimentation. The Brandeis commissions were only one of a number of Cunningham’s engagements in 1952. Earlier that spring, Cunningham and his partner the composer John Cage, briefly taught a series of classes Black Mountain College. Later in June, Cunningham hosted a six-week summer course at the Dancer’s Studio in New York before again returning to Black Mountain College, followed by a brief engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Constructing his own approaches to movement through teaching, and instilling a personal dedication to his craft through the ritual of daily class, were key to Cunningham’s development as a dancer. Bernstein’s choice to commission the young Cunningham to work from Nijinska’s existing influential work allowed Cunningham to infuse a historical score with his own interpretation and sense of the present. Filtering historical influences while pushing his own creative boundaries is the nature of Cunningham’s practice—and partly why his work continues to resonate in the present. Always an original thinker, Cunningham’s reflections on history are uniquely his own and always approached as a means to a new creative challenge.
Merce Cunningham: Common Time opens at the Walker Art Center February 8, 2017.
 David Vaughan, “Diaghilev/Cunningham” Art Journal 34, no. 2 (Winter 1974–1975): 140.
 Donald McKayle, quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997): 64.
Morgan Fisher and Jack Goldstein—both featured in the exhibition Ordinary Pictures—belong to a small community of Los Angeles–based artists who applied structural critiques to the industrial Hollywood apparatus during the early 1970s. Both were employed for short periods within the studios themselves, drawing insider knowledge from their day jobs while maintaining a critical distance from […]
Morgan Fisher and Jack Goldstein—both featured in the exhibition Ordinary Pictures—belong to a small community of Los Angeles–based artists who applied structural critiques to the industrial Hollywood apparatus during the early 1970s. Both were employed for short periods within the studios themselves, drawing insider knowledge from their day jobs while maintaining a critical distance from cinematic production and a keen analysis of how this social phenomena, so unique to Los Angeles’s identity, could engage with and comment artistic production.
Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes (1973) is a documentary adaptation of Hollywood industry material. Introduced dryly by a monotone narrator seated at a nondescript desk in the manner of an ironic John Baldessari, Fisher explains that the film will demonstrate the “cases,” an industry term for three portions of production use film: synch (image and sound, both recorded in real time), MOS (an acronym for mit out sound or without sound), and wild sound (a filmed recording of only the sound element of a scene). Also presented is a final fourth option, “null case,” in which neither sound nor image is recorded; as this option has no industrial use, it is not part of the Hollywood lexicon. By working with film as a series of industrial, standardized units, Fisher contributed towards a West Coast adaptation of Minimalism.
Fisher has described his work in film as being in relation to the material limits of the medium: How do the intrinsic properties of film lend themselves to what is available for production, and what types of images can it support? Fischer would later summarize: “Film of all kinds is unified by its material facts.” Breaking down the film into its material properties sheds light on the systematic units of cinema production—the film itself and the strikingly non-cinematic way in which they were used in day to day studio functions. The utilitarian use of film, in which its status as material is laid bare, is what interests Fisher. The film is still taken as a single unit of a film reel. Mathematically precise, each reel contains the same number of stills. In the case of the Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes, each still can nearly be isolated as an entity; there is no narrative arc or unfolding of a drama. One image, one still, one object after another.
As Fisher has elucidated, this articulate attention to the material properties of film is tied to his study of Minimalism, of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Walter de Maria, and Blinky Palermo. For him, the reel is a unit composed of a set number of units which have material properties in and of themselves. Picture and Sound Rushes presents the four cases in equal number. Examples of each are provided six times, all 27.45 seconds long to show that “each case is equally important.” Or equally unimportant, as none of the cases contain significant footage—the work maintains an aspect of outtakes, or throwaway footage only maintained for daily memorandums and then soon left on the cutting room floor.
In the 1970s, Los Angeles balanced the influence of East Coast Minimalism with a critical engagement in “throwaway” commercialism. In January 1971 Jack Goldstein, shortly before enrolling as a graduate student at Cal Arts, installed a series of stacked precut wooden blocks, resting one on top of another, at the Pomona Art Gallery. At once weighty and monumental, the sculptures equally bore a temporal fragility at one moment, with any gust of air they could fall, their existence impermanent as celluloid. “I am interested in the simplest relation of parts,” Goldstein would explain. Like Fisher, Goldstein worked for a short time in commercial film production and embedded his practice with a critical fascination for the industry’s tropes.
Goldstein’s A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (1976) are brief recordings of wild sound—the audio effects of a burning forest, dying wind, wrestling cats, or a tornado. Loosened from their signified, the sounds become multipurpose units, which are at once generic enough to meet any range of uses and specific enough to convey, without viewing, a direct image. Goldstein did not record these sounds: they are appropriated sounds, re-recorded onto colorful SPs. Goldstein’s act of authorship rests in the critical reveal of Hollywood production, a laying bare of the disparate, absurd elements of how films are made.
Goldstein’s distrust of the finished cinematic product is consistent with Fisher’s close reading of the industry’s commercial and social power. For Fisher, pulling back the curtain on Hollywood’s facade was an innately political act, grounded in a Benjaminian distrust of cinema and the manufactured social experience. By creating a fourth possibility in Picture and Sound Rushes, a “null case,” Fisher allowed the cinematic construction to fail, ultimately contradicting the status quo of an industry from which it is derived. Coming of age as the motion picture studios began to collapse from the citywide giants of mid-century, Fisher provides a close read of the celluloid foundation on which these industries stood and undermines their possibilities for future expansion.
 Morgan Fisher “Picture and Sound Rushes” in Morgan Fisher writings (Generali Foundation and Museum Abteiberg: Cologne, 2011), 38.
 Jack Goldstein quoted in Willoughby Sharp “Rumbles,” Avalanche 2 (Winter 1971): 8.
When the stage lights go up in Walkaround Time (1968) the nine dancers are frozen, almost in mid-step as if they had been moving before the performance began. There’s something frozenly mechanical about this opening tableau, the cogs and gears of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass imagery (on which Jasper Johns’ décor was based) […]
When the stage lights go up in Walkaround Time (1968) the nine dancers are frozen, almost in mid-step as if they had been moving before the performance began. There’s something frozenly mechanical about this opening tableau, the cogs and gears of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass imagery (on which Jasper Johns’ décor was based) has, as the dancers themselves, momentarily ground to a halt. This is the moment photographer James Klosty captured in his 1968 photograph of the dance, a print of which is in the Walker’s Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.
Three islands are observed from the air—the blue and white sea radiates outward from them as the underwater reefs surrounding the islands allow us to visually penetrate the clear water. Jack Whitten’s Zeitgeist Traps for Michael Goldberg (2009) is not a landscape, or a abstraction of the Greek Islands off Crete, where Whitten has spent […]
Three islands are observed from the air—the blue and white sea radiates outward from them as the underwater reefs surrounding the islands allow us to visually penetrate the clear water. Jack Whitten’s Zeitgeist Traps for Michael Goldberg (2009) is not a landscape, or a abstraction of the Greek Islands off Crete, where Whitten has spent every summer since 1968. Zeitgeist Traps for Michael Goldberg (2009), part of Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, isn’t a map; the work instead functions more as an abstract collaged homage to Michael Goldberg, an New York abstract expressionist with whom Whitten would have interacted after moving to New York in 1960. (more…)
For the past two weeks, eleven Minneapolis-based dancers have spent their days at the Walker Art Center playing dress-up in Merce Cunningham Dance Company costumes. Nearly a hundred costumes from more than fifty different dances were documented–forming a representative sample of the thousands of costumes in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection. The resulting images […]
For the past two weeks, eleven Minneapolis-based dancers have spent their days at the Walker Art Center playing dress-up in Merce Cunningham Dance Company costumes. Nearly a hundred costumes from more than fifty different dances were documented–forming a representative sample of the thousands of costumes in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection. The resulting images will soon be featured on the Walker’s Collections website.
Last week I visited the Joyce Theater in New York to see the Stephen Petronio Company perform Merce Cunningham’s RainForest (1968). It was a rare opportunity to see Cunningham’s choreography performed live: following his death in 2009, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company ceased to perform consistently following a two-year Legacy Tour. Dancers from the former company continue to pass on Cunningham’s choreography and technique through weekly classes at the Merce Cunningham Trust, and work with museums, institutions, and dance companies—yet performances of Cunningham’s choreography are opportunities that do not come often (The Juilliard School presented Cunningham’s BIPED this past March under guidance of the Merce Cunningham Trust).
The program opened with an homage to Cunningham. Although Petronio himself never danced with the Cunningham Company, the inspiration is evident in the rapid, complex choreography of unexpected, technically challenging movement broken by extended moments of stillness. Locomotor and Non Locomotor, works that premiered a few days before my visit, converse both with each other and with Cunningham’s own work. More closely aligned with Cunningham’s later work, of the 1990s and 2000s, both dances are at once impersonal, avoiding outward emotion, but at times incredibly sensual. The dancer’s personalities and unique styles of movement come to the fore as they perform similar movement vocabularies seemingly in isolation or in pairs. As did Cunningham, Petronio relies on communication between bodies rather than in the face. Expression and connection between the dancers is minimal other than the responses of their bodies in the dance. The seven dancers entered and exited the stage circuitously, a choreographic structure resulting in a feeling of being witness to only one view of on ongoing movement sequence.
The Petronio Company worked for months with the Cunningham Trust to embody the technique, which appeared more natural to some (Gino Grenek, who danced Merce Cunningham’s role) and slightly more of an effort to others. As it typically took a few months of intensive work, or even a few years for Cunnningham’s own dancers to fully embrace the movement, it would be unfair to expect the same from dancers who have been trained differently. This unconscious response of comparison is one of the difficulties for companies who take on Cunningham’s work. There are dozens of dancers who have embodied roles throughout history—Margot Fonteyn’s Juliet, Vaslav Nijinsky‘s Faun, Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea—that each dancer after them will forever face that comparison. Cunningham’s vision for his company involved dedication to a new form of training, molding dancers that were uniquely equipped to perform the often unnatural and formerly untaught ways of moving. Over months and years of this training, the movements looked natural, effortless. Rainforest’s original 1977 cast, is almost incomparable in that Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Gus Solomons Jr. embodied their roles, and completely became the personas of the choreography. Cunningham created roles around and for the his company member’s individual personalities and styles of movement. He would famously become upset when a dancer left the company, for that meant re-inscribing his or her parts onto another body—one for which it was not created.
I held these concerns going into the performance, questioning how much a few months of classes in Cunningham technique could do. Petronio’s dancers quickly soothed these concerns, in the premiere works they established they could not only take on Cunningham movement, but make it their own. It is important to remember that although Cunningham created for choreography for individuals, he also valued the way other dancers interpreted the work. This “realization of the personal and imperfect””1 is what makes re-performances of the the company’s repertory so special. As the Cunningham Company of the 2000s tackled the choreographer’s repertory from the previous fifty years, the Petronio dancers used the training as an a method through which to approach the movement without being imitative.
RainForest is a signature Cunningham work—his single collaboration with Andy Warhol (at the invitation of artistic director Jasper Johns) and perhaps one of the more character-driven works in his repertoire. RainForest has been described as the closest that Cunningham would get to Martha Graham, and in its exotic, even fantastical nature, this is true. However the movement is uniquely Cunningham: although we gather glimpses of characters, there is no narrative. The mood is set—a primordial rainforest, the dancers somewhere between creature and human, but we are left with this mood. Warhol’s Silver Clouds, replacing foliage or more organic scenery, float untethered across and out from the stage. In several movements in the choreography a dancer will make running leaps into the Clouds, almost playfully sending them bouncing into the audience.
As the amused audience continued to bat the stray Silver Clouds back onto the stage (or back over each other) the Fluxus-inspired sense of play that is rarely mentioned in descriptions of the work. Warhol and Cunningham would have, of course been aware of, and embraced the unfixed nature of the props, even as the flying helium-filled clouds at times obscured the dance. The childlike joy of sending a balloon bouncing into the air, shared by the audience as a whole, was a rare moment of connection between the audience members turned participants and the dancers on stage.
As Petronio seeks to build on this homage to Cunningham by performing works over the next few seasons from seminal postmodern dance makers, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Anna Halprin, Lucinda Childs, and Trisha Brown (the latter of whom Petronio had studied and danced). The Bloodlines initiative seeks to both challenge his own dancers to embody the very unique styles of each of these choreographers, but also to so closely compare one’s own style with that of the formative choreographers of the past fifty years. What does it mean to re-perform their work alongside one’s own? Or to reform the work of living choreographers? These are interesting questions as we present work by contemporary and historical choreographers and artists, often side by side. I like to think that this is, in part, behind Petronio’s choice to present RainForest. In being associated with Cunningham’s time as a young dancer with the Martha Graham Company, the performances by the Petronio Company creates a choreographic mise en abyme of past, history and present.
1 Silas Reiner (former Cunningham dancer) in conversation with Abigail Sebaly, February 14, 2013.