Tacita Dean

Tacita Dean talks about Merce Cunningham and Craneway Event

Tacita Dean, Craneway Event, 2009, still from a color anamorphic film in 16 mm, 1 hour 48 minutes.

In April 2007, the Berlin-based English artist Tacita Dean filmed Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS . . . (six performances, six films), a series of 16-mm portraits of the legendary choreographer performing to John Cage’s 4'33". In November 2008, Dean worked with Cunningham again to film the making of one of his Events—this one in the craneway of a former Ford Motor factory in Richmond, California. Cunningham passed away in July. The public premiere of Dean’s Craneway Event will be presented November 5–7 by Performa and Danspace Project at Saint Mark’s Church in New York.

SOME TIME AFTER we worked together on Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS, Merce asked me to collaborate with him on an Event. Through CalArts, Merce and Trevor Carlson, the executive director of his company, had found this huge space in Richmond—a former Ford factory.

I didn’t want to film the performance but the rehearsal. I couldn’t even stay for the actual Event. I filmed for four days—the first day it was raining and Merce just looked at the space. The next three days, the dancers came. There were pelicans everywhere, and the craneway was surrounded by glass. It was stunning light. Coincidentally, we filmed November 3–6 last year, exactly the same days that the work is premiering at Performa this year. It’s taken me exactly a year to do it. Obama was elected on the first day in the film, but I resisted putting in any reference to that.

Merce was open to whatever I chose to do. My interest was more in Merce at that point than it was in the dancers—my history with old men! I wanted to film him, which is why I chose to film the rehearsal because during the performance he recedes a bit. At the end of the film, the dancers do a run-through of everything they’ve been working on, and only then does Merce fall asleep. He was totally present and active throughout. The company kept him active. It was a shock when he died. I really believed he would go on for another few years.

There is also no music in the rehearsal. I liked the idea of the dance happening in silence. The music he uses is usually created separately from the choreography, so the dancers dance by counting. I also liked it that the dancers weren’t in costume but are wearing their own clothes. I asked them to wear the same clothes every day, because I thought I was going to cut the film as one day, which is how I’ve done things in the past. But in the end, the light was so different that I actually made it three autonomous days, which accounts for the length: It’s 1 hour 48 minutes.

Tacita Dean, Craneway Event, 2009, still from a color anamorphic film in 16 mm, 1 hour 48 minutes.

I’ve been working on it for months. It was a huge and daunting project, as I had seventeen hours of footage. With film, every camera magazine is only ten minutes, and then you have to change it, so there are hundreds of shots and no continuum. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I edited it alone on my film-cutting table using magnetic tape for the sound, which means you have to continually mark everything to keep the film in sync. The sound and image are separate, and the moment you lose sync it’s a nightmare: It’s just the sound of footsteps, which could be from anywhere in the film so it’s nearly impossible to find sync again.

Merce told me I didn’t have to be faithful to the chronology of the dance, which was very liberating but, in the end, I was quite faithful. The Event had three stages on which the dancers dance simultaneously, so as a viewer you never have a composite view, which is the same in my film: no single perspective. The actual Event is always broken up.

There is not a single shot in this film that does not have movement because I needed to keep the film active as it is so long. I had rolls and rolls of the most beautiful footage of the sun setting on the walls and floor, but in the end I decided not to use it. For a cinematic audience, it’s probably uncomfortable as there’s little narrative drive, but considering the longueur of some of my other films, for an art audience this one is actually quite easygoing.

The dancers all knew what they were going to be dancing before they arrived. The rehearsal was about siting the choreography in the space. Merce tuned it, changing the dancers’ positions and the way they faced. To some extent, choreography is opaque to a nondancer, but what I liked is that Merce seemed to be working pictorially.

There are two places in this film where I use jump cuts because I wanted to include a succession of moments, once on Merce and once on the dancers. On the second day, he gets very active. He starts scrutinizing their transitions, saying things like, “Take her off now. Put her down now!” Then the camera cuts between the dancers, as I didn’t want to break the tension. On those occasions, I break my stylistic norm. I don’t often pan in my films. Pans annoy me. I don’t mind if they are going somewhere. But I can’t stand the pan for no reason, just taking in the whole scene. I like things to happen within the frame; I prefer to wait for it. It’s an aesthetic thing.