The massive Walker Art Center exhibition dedicated to dancer Merce Cunningham goes far beyond dance.
Which makes sense, because so did Cunningham. He and his longtime partner, John Cage, gathered avant-garde artists and thinkers from across the art world. Cunningham, who died in 2009 at age 90, believed that “music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time” — thus the show’s title, “Merce Cunningham: Common Time.” Likewise, visual art and film could stand separately and together, an approach that drew other artists to the pair.
“He and John Cage’s ethos was a precursor to the explosion of interdisciplinary practice that we’re seeing in museums and art centers all over the world now,” said Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator of performing arts.
For the dance geek, the galleries and a host of related performances offer ways to dig into Cunningham’s legacy, with never before exhibited moving images, stage pieces and costumes. But the show is broader, with works by some of modern art’s biggest names. Then there are musical concerts, films and, yes, dance performances. No matter your art interest, a Merce adventure awaits.
“Even if you think these abstract ideas and this rigorous, avant-garde work might not be for you,” Bither said, “there are ways in.”
If you love music
Composer John King, who grew up in Minnesota, first got John Cage’s attention in the early 1980s by sending him music made with fishing tackle. That led to a close relationship with the Cunningham Dance Company and a front-row seat to musical history. This month, King curates “Music for Merce,” a two-night performance featuring longtime collaborator David Behrman, composer Christian Wolff and Radiohead drummer Philip Selway, who worked with Cunningham on the buzziest project in the dance company’s history. In 2003, Radiohead and Icelandic group Sigur Ros performed with “Split Sides,” a piece that used a roll of the dice to determine the choreography, sets, lighting and music. The end result? There were 32 possible combinations.
In Cunningham fashion, King invited these musicians “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. Some will be “very challenging for the ears,” King said. Typical. Also expect some real-time composing, surprising collaborations and, yes, a few rolls of the dice.
Music for Merce: 8 p.m. Feb. 23-24, Walker Art Center; $22.40-$28, $50 for both nights, 612-375-7600, walkerart.org
If you love dance
You love dance? Then this will be easy. To get the full Cunningham experience — dance, design, set and music — check out France’s Ballet de Lorraine performing “Soundance” and “Fabrications” at Northrop auditorium. There are few dance companies performing full-scale Cunningham works, especially in the United States, said Patricia Lent, a former Cunningham dancer now with the Merce Cunningham Trust. “So it’s a big deal for work of this caliber to be coming to the United States, and certainly the Midwest.”
Of course, the Midwest is where “Fabrications” was born. Co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center, it premiered at Northrop 30 years ago. Star Tribune critic Mike Steele praised it, saying that “seeing a Cunningham dance is like having a veil lifted from the eyes.” This re-creation will feature the original, dramatic backdrop — by Dove Bradshaw — as well as the electronic score, by Brazilian composer Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, who plans to return to Northrop to re-create it live.
Ballet de Lorraine: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16, Northrop, Mpls.; $28-$55, 612-375-7600, walkerart.org
If you love visual art
Where to start? This exhibition includes “Silver Clouds,” floating Mylar pillows designed by Andy Warhol, rainbow-colored sets created by Frank Stella and luminous, sculptural pieces by Jasper Johns. But most striking might be the massive backdrops that painter and sculptor Robert Rauschenberg created for Cunningham’s performances. Rauschenberg had met composer Cage in the early 1950s, when he was starting out as an artist. He became the dance company’s first art director and went on to design sets and costumes for Cunningham and other choreographers.
The troupe saved set pieces, rather than painting them over, realizing they needed special treatment. Still, the dancers were “traveling around with a Rauschenberg in a duffel bag,” as a onetime manager put it.
One colorful 11- by 37-foot drop, called “Immerce,” amplified years of Cunningham’s “Events,” performances that popped up in unexpected spots — gymnasiums, galleries, on a beach, in Grand Central Terminal. During “Common Time,” the large-scale work won’t simply hang in the gallery. It will be used as Rauschenberg had intended: as a backdrop to live performance.
During the two-day event celebrating the exhibition’s opening, dancers from the final Merce Cunningham Dance Company will stage “Events” on a newly built stage within a gallery. The half-hour collages, drawn from decades of Cunningham choreography, will be paired with music from Minnesota musicians.
Events in the Perlman Gallery: Feb. 8-9, March 30-April 2, April 6-9, Walker Art Center; free with gallery admission, walkerart.org
If you love film
Cunningham created dance for the camera. And at many points along the way, filmmaker Charles Atlas was the man behind that camera.
Over four decades, Atlas made 39 Cunningham films, a dozen with Cunningham as co-director. The pair played with the form — or even created one. Rather than staying static, the camera moved with and around the dancers. In 2008, Atlas used five cameras to capture Cunningham’s “Ocean,” a 90-minute opus at a granite quarry in Waite Park, Minn. The resulting film, which Atlas finished editing after Cunningham’s death, will be shown Feb. 9 at the Walker.
In March, Atlas will be creating something new: Working with Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, two dancers in the final iteration of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he will edit live a piece called “Tesseract,” which the Walker describes as a “live dance/technology hybrid.” It utilizes 3-D video, “which Cunningham never really worked with,” Bither said, “but I’m sure he would have.”
“Ocean”: 6 p.m. Feb. 9, Walker Art Center, free with gallery admission. “Tesseract”: 8 p.m. March 16-18, Walker; $22.40-$28, walkerart.org