Merce Cunningham was a radical choreographer. He also made a damn good visual arts curator.
He and his dancers performed before huge backdrops created by Robert Rauschenberg, among floating silver pillows designed by Andy Warhol, in leotards painted by Jasper Johns. The Walker Art Center acquired these in 2011 among a trove of about 4,500 pieces — costumes! sculptures! sets! — created by and for the dance pioneer.
So in one sense, the center’s massive exhibition dedicated to Cunningham, which it is copresenting with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is a chance to show off that collection.
But “Merce Cunningham: Common Time” is also something much bigger: an argument that Cunningham — more likely to be described as “important” than “popular” — ought to be seen as a force who molded not only performance but visual art, music and film. Who changed how artists collaborate. Who anticipated the technology of today.
Need convincing? The Walker will give you every opportunity starting this week. The exhibition, which builds off a decades-long relationship with the late New York dancer, spans seven galleries, six months and a host of stages, including one being built inside a gallery.
“It’s the biggest exhibition the Walker has done in recent times,” said Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts, “and that speaks to how large the Cunningham history looms for us as an institution, but also what we believe is one of the most significant, transformational art figures of the 20th and early 21st centuries.”
Cunningham once said that dancing “gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
Even so, the Walker is trying to animate his legacy — forever tied to his longtime partner, composer John Cage — with those very things: sculptures, paintings and objects. But such an exhibition would be incomplete without dance. In addition to videos, live performances pop up across the exhibition’s run, including three Walker-commissioned works.
In Bither’s office hangs a large poster for “Ocean,” featuring a woman in a burnt-orange leotard, her arms outstretched, dancing before a dramatic granite backdrop. That performance brought 14 dancers, 150 musicians and some 4,000 fans from around the world to a quarry in Waite Park, Minn. Cunningham, then 89, watched from a wheelchair.
The staging of that piece, Cunningham’s 1994 magnum opus, also capped the iconoclast’s friendship with the Walker, which began in 1963 — at the Woman’s Club in Minneapolis — and stretched across nine residencies, three commissioned works and performances small and grand.
“There was no question that the relationship with the Walker was a long and important and sustained one,” said Patricia Lent, a former dancer with the company who now works with the Merce Cunningham Trust. A dance co-commissioned by the Walker, “Fabrications,” premiered at Northrop Auditorium in February 1987, she pointed out, where it was heralded by one critic as “an extraordinary work almost baroque in its steady flow of events, yet deftly detailed and crystal clear.”
Thirty years later, as part of the Walker’s exhibition, the French company Ballet de Lorraine will perform the piece there before its original backdrop, created by Dove Bradshaw, and with the original electronic score.
“It’s quite an anniversary,” Lent said.
Fresh thinking on art
When Cunningham began creating work, in the 1940s and ’50s, modern dance was driven by psychology, with drama, music and narrative, said Linda Shapiro, a writer and choreographer who taught at the University of Minnesota. Cunningham divorced dance from story, she said. He got rid of traditional music, pairing dance with discordant scores — or silence. He rethought the stage, dancing in gymnasiums and galleries.
“I think he taught audiences to look at dance differently than they ever had,” said Shapiro, who in 1981 co-founded the New Dance Ensemble in Minneapolis.
After moving to New York in the 1960s, Shapiro started taking classes at Cunningham’s studio. She was moved by the company’s basis in ballet, which she had studied as a child, and its clean but unusual lines. “A lot of dance people don’t like his work,” Shapiro said. “But for me, everything detractors say about it — oh, it’s so abstract, the dancers have no personality — I saw just the opposite.
“It had so much meaning for me.”
Cunningham would demonstrate steps that seemed simple but somehow couldn’t be counted, she said. “His rhythmic sense was so complex and beautiful and different.”
That paired well with Cage, who had little interest in musical conventions such as time and harmony. Together, they rethought how music related to dance, and vice versa. Music was no handmaiden to movement. In fact, it was rarely even “music” in the traditional sense, employing groans, drones and silence.
Working together and with other artists, the pair insisted that sets, costumes and music be painted, created and composed separately from the dances. So separately, in fact, that Cunningham’s dancers often didn’t hear the music or see the sets until the dress rehearsal — or the performance itself.
“We sometimes didn’t even have a dress rehearsal, to tell you the truth,” Lent said. Sometimes the set and music seemed to fit Lent’s notions about the dance. Other times, she said, she found herself thinking, “Oh, this isn’t how I thought about the dance at all.”
When all the pieces came together, oftentimes in unexpected ways, it “sort of forever changed the dance,” she said. “That time, that coming together, altered the feeling somehow, or the texture of the dance. Now it was no longer only our choreography — it was a collaborative piece of work.”
Similarly, the musicians were told little about the dance: the duration of the piece and, sometimes, the title.
“That’s all you had,” said John King, a New York composer who began working with Cage and the dance company in the mid-1980s. King’s first commission, at age 33, was “both frightening and completely inspiring,” he said. “I thought that I had been given this great gift of freedom.”
For that piece, he made use of a new instrument, given to him by a Cage collaborator: a violin with each string amplified separately, fed into eight different speakers. “So I could move the sound just by how I was playing the instrument,” King said. He continued working with the company for decades.
King, who grew up in Excelsior, put together “Music for Merce,” the Walker’s two-night celebration of such musical collaborations. In Cunningham fashion, King invited the musicians, including Radiohead’s Philip Selway, “in as open a way as possible,” he said. Play a score performed with the dance company, he suggested, a work inspired by a performance — or something else entirely.
King, 63, plans to play a piano solo he wrote for Cunningham as a 90th birthday present, its melody based on musical notes represented by letters in his name: “petite ouverture en forme de mErCE CunninGHAm.” It incorporates the kind of chance procedure Cunningham and Cage were known for, tossing a die to determine how often to repeat each musical fragment.
“It’s all about openness and acceptance,” King said, “and trust.”
Cunningham and Cage’s ideas about chance and collaboration inspired all kinds of artists. But Cunningham’s choreography excited visual artists, in particular, who studied his minimalism and use of space onstage, said artist Thomas Rose, a retired University of Minnesota professor.
His dance stripped away story, music, “all the characteristics that were familiar,” arguing that the body’s movement had meaning enough, Rose said. Cage, too, peeled back layers, showing that silence, too, is as important to music as the notes.
“He was breaking paradigms,” Rose said. “A lot of people don’t like it, still. People still walk out of Cunningham performances.”
Bither, the Walker curator, argues that the pair’s ideas have aged well, especially in relationship with “the kind of collagelike, multi-screen life that we live in.”
Work that was at one point “so radical and hard to connect with” now feels almost neoclassical, he said. “I think audiences who thought they maybe didn’t care for Merce’s work will be surprised by how, in some ways, it seems really quite accessible and beautiful.”
That work will surface on screens and stages throughout the exhibition. Inside one gallery, dancers from the final iteration of Cunningham’s company will perform “Events,” a take on the hundreds of collagelike performances the company staged in unexpected places. New work, too, will pop up. Dancers will slink through the galleries, part of a performance by New York-based Maria Hassabi. Filmmaker Charles Atlas, also of New York, will do a live mixing of dance and film.
Because Cunningham loved to push boundaries, the Walker steered clear of artists “utilizing Cunningham technique to make Cunningham-looking work,” Bither said. Instead, he asked himself: “If Merce and John were around today, who would they be looking at and saying, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ ”
Merce Cunningham: Common Time
What: An interdisciplinary exhibition on the late choreographer Merce Cunningham.
When: Feb. 8-July 20.
Where: Walker Art Center, Mpls.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168