There’s much to say about legendary modern dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, but above all he’s a well-rounded, thoroughly modern guy.
In April, Cunningham’s eponymous dance company celebrated his 90th birthday with premier performances of his new work, Nearly Ninety, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. True to Cunningham’s long history of progressive collaborations, Sonic Youth and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones scored the piece and Romeo Gigli designed the costumes.
Locally, Carl Solway Gallery is hosting A Tribute to Merce Cunningham in His 90th Year, a smallish but worthy assembly of Cunningham’s drawings, photos of the artist and in-depth documentaries shown on flat screens.
When one thinks of Cunningham, one doesn’t immediately regard him as a “visual artist,” despite dance itself being a visual form. A renegade from early on, he’s best known for breaking away from traditional expectations to develop more flexible ideas about dance and for incorporating the use of chance. While his choreography resembles ballet in its lines and technique, with erect postures and precise movements, what it offers is a world apart.
Also well known are his risk-taking collaborations with a host of artists, from Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol to his long-term partner, the late avant-garde composer John Cage. Although it’s not the first time dance has joined forces with artists (the company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Salvador Dali, for example), Cunningham has always forged new ways of bringing together diverse forms.
This exhibit underscores how Cunningham’s life’s work has succeeded in its mission and come full-circle. Interestingly, the audiences at his early performances were comprised of more painters and sculptors than musicians and dancers.
There’s a text by Cunningham describing the circumstances in which he started drawing during some free moments while on tour.
He followed a natural impulse. His subjects are natural, too: animals and plants.
Perhaps he also wanted to explore a medium more concrete than dance. In an interview seen in Elliot Caplan’s film, Cage/Cunningham, Cunningham says, “(Dance is) fluid like water. It’s a substance; it’s there, but it disappears.”
Although he began drawing more than 20 years ago, his works embody the kind of childlike, wide-eyed wonderment of seeing something for the first time. He seems to be looking at his subjects with new eyes in order to capture their forms. Cunningham uses basic materials such as crayon, colored pencil, ink and watercolor, lending his works an accessible appeal. It’s a captivating contrast against the non-representational nature and razor-sharp precision of his choreography. Yet like his choreography, his drawings appear quirky and idiosyncratic.
At first glance, the exhibit might seem almost haphazard — black-and-white photographs of the artist and his dance works hanging between his whimsically colorful drawings in a gallery flanked by flat screens. But viewed in context, it actually parallels Cunningham’s unorthodox ways. In an interview from Cage/Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, who designed sets, lighting and costumes for Cunningham’s company from 1954 to 1964, says, “It was an excruciating collaboration but also the most exciting. Nobody knew what anybody else was doing until it was too late.”
Collaborating artists created their elements independently of one another and with minimal direction. The results became a collage, united only by a common time and place. Happenstance and chance prevail in Cunningham’s way.
Watching the archival film footage of his early dance works, one realizes how fortunate it is that it still exists. Dance is ephemeral, and many pioneering dance companies have lost early work. Here, we can see Cunningham and dancers in their grainy glory, captured on color film in 1944. Today, he choreographs using cutting-edge software and posts a weekly webcast of goings-on at his dance company called “Mondays with Merce.”
He might be 90, but Cunningham has always stayed two steps ahead.
*** After the initial publication of this article, Merce Cunningham — one of the giants of 20th-century dance and choreography — died at age 90 in Manhattan on Sunday, July 26, 2009.
Cunningham had a friendship with Cincinnati art dealer Carl Solway. The show described in this article was organized to celebrate Cunningham's recent 90th birthday.
Solway got to know Cunningham through the latter's longtime partner, the late composer John Cage, when Cage did a residency at University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music in 1968. Cincinnati arts patrons Alice and Harris Weston arranged for Cage's visit here. (Harris Weston died in June at age 91.) ***
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