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Merce Cunnningham danced with a chair on his back in “Antic Meet,” 1958, New York City.

Photo provided by Richard Rutledge,

Merce Cunningham

Mark Seliger, Associated Press

"Minutiae" (1954) A Merce Cunningham dancer performing "Minutiae" against the backdrop of Rauschenberg's work of the same name, one of the earliest and largest freestanding combines he created.

Photo provided by Herb Migdall,

A New York treasure lands in Minneapolis

  • Article by: MARY ABBE
  • Star Tribune
  • March 17, 2011 - 7:14 AM

In a coup for Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis museum has acquired a multimillion-dollar trove of objects created for a New York City icon, the late modern-dance pioneer Merce Cunningham.

Some of the 20th century's greatest artists are represented in the collection, which includes costumes that Robert Rauschenberg made out of parachutes, leotards painted by Jasper Johns, silver Mylar pillows designed by Andy Warhol, a gigantic backdrop of comic-book dots concocted by Roy Lichtenstein and a collapsible chair that Cunningham himself wore strapped to his back as he danced in one piece.

Cunningham had a long association with the Walker, which first hosted his troupe in 1963 and staged one of his last and more monumental events in 2008 at a St. Cloud granite quarry, where 4,000 people watched four performances featuring 15 dancers and a symphony orchestra.

"No other artist has been with the Walker from the earliest days through today, and no other has had as profound an effect on our concept of what dance can be," said Philip Bither, the museum's curator of performing arts.

Walker officials declined to say what they paid for the hoard, which includes at least 150 major objects and perhaps thousands of smaller items. In November 2009, however, six paintings and drawings from Cunningham's personal collection of works by some of the same artists fetched $7.1 million at auction. The Walker's acquisition comes from the Cunningham Dance Foundation, which has overseen the dancer's estate since his death in July 2009 at age 90.

"You can say that [the price] was a significant contribution to their $8 million goal," said Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander, referring to the foundation's Legacy Plan, which would preserve and disseminate Cunningham's innovative ideas through education, documentation and a final two-year tour by dancers he trained. The company will disband after its final performance Dec. 31, and the approximately 40 dancers, musicians and administrators will receive severance pay from the fund.

The Walker plans to mount a show of material from the collection in November, to coincide with performances Nov. 4-6 by the Cunningham troupe.

Aiming for happy accidents

A riveting dancer with an astonishing leap in his youth, Cunningham was heralded for a magnetic stage presence and physical prowess that admirers compared to Fred Astaire's. As a choreographer, his mix of virtuoso movements, chance patterns and novel staging brought him international fame for having "reinvented the dance," as Mikhail Baryshnikov once said.

Like the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, who a century ago hired the likes of Picasso, Braque and Matisse to design sets and costumes, Cunningham collaborated with many of his era's leading artists, who typically produced their work independently. Dancers generally did not see their outfits or the stage furniture until dress rehearsal or even the first performance, introducing an element of whimsy and chance, which Cunningham loved.

Dating to as far back as 1942, the collection features pieces by about 30 artists, including fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, sculptor Ernesto Neto and younger talents from the troupe's final decade. The big items could stand alone as sculpture or paintings, but some -- a door, a refrigerator box, a napkin and eating utensils -- make sense primarily in the context of performances. To aid interpretation, the foundation is preparing "dance capsules" containing digitized films, videos, interviews and other documentation for 50 of the 200 dances that Cunningham choreographed.

Most dance and theater sets and props are trashed, painted over or cannibalized for other productions, but the Cunningham Foundation realized that its collection needed special treatment. Still, "we didn't have the same perspective in preserving the material that a museum would have," said executive director Trevor Carlson. "I mean, we were traveling around with a Rauschenberg in a duffel bag."

The foundation approached the Walker because of its commitment to Cunningham and its practice of mixing dance, film and performance into gallery shows. The Walker already owns drawings by Cunningham, set pieces by Johns, a Tacita Dean film of Cunningham and material by composer John Cage, the dancer's longtime companion.

The collection is so huge that the Walker only has space to preserve the most important, unique and informative items. Duplicate material -- extra costumes, for example -- may be lent or rented by the foundation to dance companies that are reviving Cunningham dances, or given to college and university museums for study. There already is a Cunningham archive of programs, reviews and other documentation at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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