^ PHOTOGRAPH by Oscar Bailey, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Dilley, and Albert Reid in RainForest, performance at State University New York at Buffalo College, March 1968. Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection
The summer of 1969, my mother was working a co-op job in the administration office at the Merce Cunningham dance studio in New York City. She was just 20 years old and looking for new experiences in the dance world. Having been trained in the Martha Graham technique of classical modern dance and she was looking for something new and different to challenge her. Merce's choreography was known for its randomness and unique movement vocabulary and presented her just that opportunity. She found the position through the jobs office at Antioch College (Yellow Springs, Ohio). It was perfect because after work, she was able to take classes at the studio in the evenings. She remembers Merce Cunningham as "very spritely and quick." Often his choreography would be a random series of movements that was strung together by chance, sometimes having been organized by the roll of a dice. Additionally, he juxtaposed his dances with John Cage's experimental music, which many times was not heard by the dancers until right before a performance. Sounds like a challenge to me!
Talking to mom this week, I heard her come alive with memories and anecdotes of the colorful characters she met and experiences she had. This conversation simultaneously clarified a few of the stories I had heard over the years. I remember the name "Merce Cunningham" from growing up, but I didn't know about his creative collaborations and inspirations from the art world. The year before, Merce had premiered RAINFOREST, a 15-20 min piece which would become famous for the stunning set design by Andy Warhol. Warhol had been inspired by NASA's use of shiny mylar which he later used to produce his 1966 show Silver Clouds at New York's Leo Castelli gallery.
Merce recalled “I was with Jasper Johns at an exhibition and Andy's pillows were just piled in a corner. I immediately thought they would be marvellous on stage because they moved, and they were light, and they took light. So I asked Andy and he said, 'Oh sure.' via Phaidon.
^ PHOTOGRAPH of Andy Warhol, courtesy of washingtonblade.com
I also learned, from talking with mom, about Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Merce taught as a visiting professor. At BMC artists were encouraged to push discovery and free the mind of traditional restraints. "The college fostered extreme experimentation through creativity and interdisciplinary coordination. As the college's history page states, it "attracted and created maverick spirits." I am fascinated by this place now and look forward to learning more about it and the artists that were a part of it.
After doing a little more research, I found this piece, BEACH BIRDS, by Merce Cunningham which premiered in 1992. It was created for eleven dancers wearing sweet and graphic, birdlike costumes and was designed so that each live performance could be slightly different. The "super-real" imagery is probably why I like the piece so much. There is definitely an odd but striking modernity to the figures and shapes the dancers make and an expertly designed serendipity to the movements. The random and instinctual flutters are so well composed and performed you really think you are observing birds in nature. I liked that I knew I was watching dance, but I also felt like i was seeing something very new and untraditional. The music which accompanies the piece by Merce's long time partner, John Cage, adds so much depth to the experience. Watch below.
^ An excerpt of the FILM by Merce Cunningham, Elliot Caplan 1993, 35-mm film adaptation of "Beach Birds," a dance work originally choreographed for the stage.
You can see a complete version of the piece filmed by John Cage, here.
There is a bit of a "Merce Moment" happening ~ a comprehensive exhibit (that I am dying to see) of the choreographer's artist collaborations is opening at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, called Merce Cunningham: Common Time. It's running from February 8, 2017 – July 30, 2017. I might just have to settle for the book.
There is very successful film below that gives a lot of background and imagery of the man, the dancer, his choreography, and his collaborations.
v PHOTOGRAPH by Annie Liebovitz of Merce Cunningham // FILM by Walker Art Center.