PRINT October 2008


SINCE 1964, Merce Cunningham has been staging what he terms “Events”: productions that assemble fragments of dances from throughout his company’s historical repertory, repurposed for specific venues, from Grand Central Station to Persepolis. On the occasion of Cunningham’s continuing series of Events taking place at upstate New York’s Dia:Beacon—where his dancers and musicians have performed amid works by Nauman, Serra, and Warhol, among others—Artforum asked art historian Douglas Crimp to reflect on this newest offering from the choreographer, whose capacity for creating beauty even while challenging traditional modes of spectatorship has made him one of the foremost artists of the postwar era.

Merce Cunningham, fourth Beacon Event, 2008. Performance view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York, July 5, 2008. Emma Desjardins. Photo: Anna Finke.

Each person is in the best seat.
—John Cage, “2 Pages, 122 Words on Music and Dance,” 1957

THE MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY’S third Beacon Event was dedicated to Robert Rauschenberg, who died less than a week before. Rauschenberg had been Cunningham’s regular set and costume designer and stage manager from 1954 to 1964, and during that period he designed some of the company’s most memorable productions, including Minutiae, 1954; Antic Meet and Summerspace, both 1958; Story, 1963 (a different set, constructed of material found on-site at the venue, for each performance); and Winterbranch, 1964. In one of a series of conversations with Jacqueline Lesschaeve collected in her 1985 book, The Dancer and the Dance, Cunningham spoke of the quality of Rauschenberg’s lighting (Rauschenberg had no training in lighting design): “When Bob Rauschenberg came with us on tour [in 1964], his lighting was remarkable, he lit as a painter lights, as a painter paints. He would wash something with light, but not in respect to some drama. He would just light. And I always thought that simply marvelous, the way a day is.”¹ The Beacon Event dedicated to Rauschenberg (the third of eight that Cunningham’s company will perform at Dia:Beacon) was indeed “the way a day is,” but very dramatically so. It was staged this past May in Bruce Nauman’s Indoor Outdoor Seating Arrangement, 1999, which had been installed indoors and out on the south side of the Dia:Beacon basement, where three garage doors open to the outdoors. (Nauman had designed the set for Cunningham’s 1970s dance Tread. It consisted of ten industrial pedestal fans positioned across the front of the stage, half of them oscillating, half stationary, all blowing toward the audience.) A transparent tent protected a large outdoor dance floor from the spring rain while allowing it to be flooded with daylight. Nauman’s Seating Arrangement, four banks of aluminum and wood bleachers, accommodated spectators. Two sets of bleachers framed the outdoor stage east and west. A third was placed at the back of the much smaller indoor stage. (At sixteen by twenty feet, slightly less than a quarter the size of the outdoor stage, the indoor stage was close to the size of a nightclub dance floor—like those Cunningham tap-danced on in his early career as a performer.²) The fourth bank of bleachers flanked the east side of the indoor stage. Sitting there, you saw right past the performing dancers to a staging area where other dancers rested, shed or donned their outer practice garments, stretched, and prepared to enter the outdoor stage to the south or the indoor one to the east. Watching them not dancing but doing what dancers do during intervals offstage called to mind the entr’acte of Cunningham’s 1968 Walkaround Time. About halfway through that Duchamp-inspired work, the dancing stops and the house lights come on, but the curtain stays up and the dancers remain onstage. They loll about in warm-up clothes, chat among themselves, exercise, practice steps. After an interval of seven minutes, the choreographed dancing resumes with Cunningham jogging in place while taking off one shirt and pair of tights and putting on others, never missing a beat.³ You are free to leave your seats during this intermission, and when I saw the work performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1970, most people did. But Charles Atlas’s 1973 film of Walkaround Time makes it clear that the entr’acte is part of the work.

The costumes for the third Beacon Event, designed, like the others, by Anna Finke, were unitards in a rainbow of vivid colors with stylized floral patterns printed on them. From the knee down they became dark brown, as if the dancers were, like Daphne, rooted in the soil. Dark, earth-tone practice garments were designed to be worn over the unitards at times, depending on whether the dancers were cold from the spring weather or warm from strenuous dancing, although there were moments when the warm-up clothes would have interfered with the effect of the dance, and in those cases they weren’t worn. Generally, the dancers performing on the indoor stage were dressed in shades of red and orange or wore their earth-tone outer garments, while those on the outdoor stage were costumed in bright blues, greens, and lavenders, though this wasn’t invariable, since all fourteen dancers danced at one time or another on both stages. Still, there is little question in my mind that Cunningham made choreographic decisions in relation to the differences between the two stages: one small, the other large, one inside Dia’s dark basement and dimly spotlit, the other outdoors and daylight bright. The sequences inside were densely packed, slow, earthbound, and often supported or otherwise partnered, while those on the outdoor stage tended to be expansive, fast, airborne, and danced solo or in unison, canon, or completely independently.

Examples of these indoor/outdoor binaries (which, I hasten to add, are not absolute, nor do the sequences on each stage begin and end in sync with one another): Near the beginning of the forty-five-minute Event, Lisa Boudreau, Brandon Collwes, Julie Cunningham, Rashaun Mitchell, Robert Swinston, and Andrea Weber danced a tightly configured sextet on the inside stage. They continually changed partners but always stayed densely clumped together. (I wondered if this sequence was an excerpt from Scramble, 1967, but maybe I just thought so because that title and the dancing suggested to me a more fluid, orderly, and clearly choreographed version of Simone Forti’s 1961 dance/sculpture Huddle.) While this was taking place, Holley Farmer, Jennifer Goggans, and Koji Mizuta burst forth onto the outdoor stage. Mizuta held his arms aloft and the women grabbed onto them; he shifted his arm positions and so did they; and, their arms constantly changing configurations as they went, all three circled the stage with fast footwork, skips, and jumps. They ran and leaped and changed directions, covering the whole space of the stage. At one moment, Goggans let go of Mizuta’s arms and hopped on one foot all the way around the other two dancers and back into place, and then the three of them were off again. I don’t remember if they were actually smiling, but their dancing beamed with delight. Their allegro trio became the very image of spring, the dance equivalent of the grove of flowering crab apple trees that were the first thing you saw walking from the Beacon train station as you headed downhill toward the museum.

Sometime later in the Event, there were contrasting duets on the two stages. Inside, Brandon Collwes lifted Lisa Boudreau and held her aloft, took a step, balanced on one leg and performed beats with his working foot, then took another step. (The same duet had appeared in the previous Beacon Event.) The sense of weight, effort, and concentration of the slow forward walk contrasted with a breezy duet outdoors: Julie Cunningham and Daniel Madoff, holding hands, ran in wide circles around the stage, periodically stopping their forward momentum to swoop back in the opposite direction so that Madoff could support Cunningham in balances on half toe, after which they resumed their running in the same direction as before.

The Event ended with ensembles inside and out. On the small stage, a lineup of five dancers facing east watched as two others, in front of them, performed a succession of adagio movements. In a sort of tag-team routine, every so often one of the dancers on the line came forward, tapped one of these two, and took over his or her part. Outdoors, another group of seven dancers danced in fast-paced unison movement, with lots of those quick Cunningham jetés that seem to come from nowhere and go nowhere—just up, then down, maybe change direction, up, down. The music stopped, and the dancing stopped on both stages, on a dime.

No matter from what vantage you watched this Event, you could see the dancers on the outside stage fully illuminated, even if relatively far away, while those on the inside stage were either backlit and silhouetted or partly obscured by the jambs between the garage door openings or by the four musicians (David Behrman, Miguel Frasconi, Marina Rosenfeld, and Richard Teitelbaum) grouped around the doorjambs beside a path made of Marley dance flooring that ran between the two stages. On the other hand, if you sat indoors, you might be extremely close to the dancers, nearly close enough to reach out and touch them. (It can be disconcerting to see a dancer performing that close up.) In a riveting duet there, Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber, side by side, knees slightly bent and balanced on the balls of their feet, stepped forward methodically. They thrust their hips in one direction, then the other, but Weber did so by moving her hips and both knees in the same direction while Mitchell’s knees splayed slightly apart. Weber’s manner of doing the movement looked “right,” anatomically logical; Mitchell’s seemed not exactly wrong but slightly peculiar. In the position he was in—up on half toe, one foot in front of the other—if you push your hips rightward, your knees would seem to have to move rightward with them, but no: When Mitchell swayed his hips, one knee bowed in one direction, the other in the other. The two dancers seemed to be demonstrating that this one movement sequence, whose slow, bent-knee balances require such extraordinary control, can be done in slightly varying ways. It’s a small detail but just the kind of nuance that these Events made it possible to see. (I moved between two banks of bleachers to watch this sequence from both straight on and the side, only to realize that, at different moments in the dance, you were given the opportunity to see it from both angles even if you didn’t move.) From the lower rows of the bleachers at the back of the indoor stage, details such as this were framed in your peripheral vision by the large-scale movement on the outdoor stage. Or the detail/frame situation might be more or less reversed. If you sat at the top of the back bleachers, the dancers on the nearby indoor stage, backlit by the brighter outdoor stage, became choreographed shapes without detail, while the dancers sixty feet away on the outdoor stage were so fully illuminated that details of their dancing came through clearly. Realizing this, I thought about a question I often ask myself when I buy tickets for dance performances: Do I want to sit close up so I can see individual dancers perform their movements? Or farther back so I can see the overall shape of the choreography? Is it the dancer and her dancing or is it the dance that I most want to see?

Cunningham implicitly poses this question, but he also renders it irrelevant by making the dance, as such, impossible to see. What you see is dancing. You see it moment to moment, now here, now there, this dancer or that, these dancers or those. The Beacon Events made this essential fact of Cunningham’s practice more obvious to me than ever before. It must be said, though, that a Cunningham Event is not a Cunningham dance. It is a performance of portions of different dances put together for a particular occasion—often, though not always, an occasion for which a proscenium theater is not available. “Put together” can mean both one sequence after another and one sequence alongside another—say, a duet from one dance together with a solo from another. And some new material might be made specifically for the Event. For example, for the third Beacon Event, Cunningham made a new trio as a farewell gift for Lisa Boudreau, who was retiring from the company after that performance.

Merce Cunningham, second Beacon Event, 2008. Performance view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York, January 12, 2008. Lisa Boudreau, Brandon Collwes. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

THE IDEA OF THE “EVENT” arose from having to make the best of a difficult situation during Cunningham’s 1964 world tour, between engagements in Venice and Mannheim, Germany. The company had given a single performance at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on June 18 (Rauschenberg’s Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale would be announced the day after the performance, and the company appropriately performed Antic Meet, Summerspace, and Story), and then moved on to Vienna. Gerhart Rindauer, director of the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts there, had invited Cunningham to perform at his institution, and Cunningham, eager for additional performance dates, accepted. Now known as the Zwanz’ger Haus, the museum’s glass-and-steel building was designed by Karl Schwanzer for the Austrian Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, then dismantled and reconstructed in Vienna’s Schweizer Garten in 1962. The building had no theater, so Cunningham was offered a large open space on the pavilion’s ground floor. Knowing that performing works from the regular repertory would be impossible without a stage, Cunningham devised a continuous presentation of excerpts in a sequence arranged for the occasion. Performed on June 24 to the percussion parts of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, 1961–62, and lasting about ninety minutes, the work was called Museum Event No. 1. David Vaughan, Cunningham’s longtime archivist, who was with the company on the 1964 tour, describes the situation:

The audience sat on three sides of the space and in a gallery above it. The fourth side was a glass wall looking out on the museum’s sculpture garden, where people could be seen until dusk (the performance began at 7:30 PM), when the glass began to reflect back the lights that Rauschenberg had directed onto the performing area. At one point Rauschenberg himself walked across the back of the space, festooned with umbrellas.

Since that first Event in 1964, nearly eight hundred Events have been performed in museums, gymnasiums, on temporary outdoor stages, in Grand Central Station, the Piazza San Marco, the ruins at Persepolis, and in regular proscenium theaters such as New York’s Joyce and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as in Cunningham’s studio in the New York artists’ housing complex Westbeth. Events do not have titles (the early ones have numbers, but even the numbering was halted long ago) and they are not listed in the chronology of Cunningham’s works. They often don’t have their own costumes (though the Beacon Events do), and the music is improvised, usually by a number of musicians working together. Events are truly pièces d’occasion, each one unique, even site-specific; but Events have also become one of the characteristic forms that Cunningham’s choreography takes, and, because of their use of ready-made dance passages and their adaptability to different sites, the Events occupy Cunningham and his dancers nearly as often as complete repertory works do.

To create these new assemblages, Cunningham raids his repertory for bits and pieces of choreographic material. He thereby destroys the unity of a dance, insofar as a dance is a distinct work exhibiting stylistic and expressive continuity. But in spite of the fact that Cunningham’s dances are recognizable one from another, that each one explores a particular movement vocabulary and suggests specific themes, moods, and meanings, the dances themselves also challenge unity. It is well known that one of Cunningham’s chief innovations was to make the relationship of the various aspects of dance theater essentially serendipitous. Dancing, music, and sets and costumes are separately and autonomously conceived and come together only in formal performance. Thus they cannot add up to a deliberately constructed whole. But this disjuncture of dance, music, and decor is only the most obvious way that Cunningham’s work sets itself against totality. His dances are also entirely decentered. An easy way to understand this is to compare a dance by Cunningham to the stage picture created by classical ballet, in which the corps de ballet is symmetrically arrayed to create a frame around soloists and principal dancers. The clear intelligibility of this picture is temporal as well as spatial, in the structure of a ballet pas de deux, for example. Following the structure of the music to which the ballet is danced, thematic material might first be presented by the corps, after which the principal couple arrives to develop the theme in an adagio, followed by a series of solo variations by the principals and demi-soloists. Then the entire ensemble returns for a coda, in which once again principals and soloists are framed by the corps. Cunningham’s dances have nothing in common with this. First, his company has no explicit hierarchy but instead is made up of distinct individuals who are treated essentially as equals. Even if Cunningham’s dances divide into solos, duets, trios, and larger ensembles, it is also the case that all of his dancers dance any and every configuration. (When Cunningham was still dancing, he performed a disproportionate number of solos; in the early days his solos were also disproportionately demanding, while later he choreographed solos for himself that were geared to his decreasing technical facility.) Men and women are given the same or similar material to perform, although Cunningham has remarked on the differences between the types of movement characteristic of each sex. (“Women so often, to me, have a kind of continuous quality, which can go on really for quite a long time, where with the man so often it seems in spurts, up and down.”⁵) Much of his partnering is conventional to the extent that men support and lift women, but the reverse also occurs, and sometimes men partner men and women partner women. In perhaps the most typical partnered relationship in Cunningham’s work, the two dancers cling to and lean away from each other, each depending equally on the other for his or her equilibrium.

Cunningham removes hierarchy not only from the dance company but also from the dance. His stage has no center: Every part of the space is given equal importance. And his stage has no directionality: His dancers do not play to the audience. (“The dance isn’t directed to them, or done for them. It’s presented for them.”⁶) As early as 1968, writing about Suite by Chance, 1953, Cunningham outlined these facts: “The dancer is at a given point in the dancing area. That point in space & or that particular moment in time concurrently is the center for him and he stays or moves to the next point to the next center. Each dancer had this possibility. So, from moment to moment and from point to point, the dancers moved separately.” And: “In applying chance to space I saw the possibility of multidirection. Rather than thinking in one direction i.e. to the audience in a proscenium frame, direction could be four-sided and up and down.⁷ Decentering is a function not only of disregarding the frontality of the proscenium and the dispersal of the dancers throughout the performing space, each constituting his or her own center, but also occurs at the level of technique, as Cunningham explained to Jacqueline Lesschaeve:

In classical ballet there are certain positions that you do—épaulements—which have to do with twisting the shoulders, with or against the leg action. But all of my work comes from the trunk, from the waist, nearest the hip, and you tilt it or you twist it in every direction. It doesn’t come from the shoulders, but from much farther down. Further than that, I relate it to or against the leg. Say my leg is out there, I turn to that leg, or away from it—against it. I tilt to it or against it. I have eight directions that I use, to open the space up all the way round. My feeling was that the “épaulements” come from the fact that on a proscenium stage you are moving to and from the public and the épaulements were done in order to give a sculptural effect.

I’m not sure “sculptural” is right here. I think rather that the effect of the épaulements in ballet is pictorial. Indeed, as David Vaughan has suggested, it is Cunningham’s technique that results in a sculptural effect:

Cunningham’s treatment of the stage—or any other performing space he uses—as a “field” in which no one area is more “important” than another is among his most significant innovations, together with his insistence on the independence of dance, music, and decor, and his rejection of literary and psychological pretexts for dancing. I am surprised, though, that few writers have commented on his extraordinary use of space in the sculptural sense, the way he changes the space around the dancers by the shapes their bodies make. The configurations of arms and legs and bodies at different heights and angles continually astonish us by their beauty and originality, especially in his duets.

But this “use of space in the sculptural sense” does not necessarily make the dance easier to apprehend, because we still look at a dance from a particular vantage point and therefore see it more or less as a picture. This is true even when, as was the case with the Beacon Events, you can walk around the dance, because unlike a work of sculpture, a dance doesn’t stay put; by the time you walk around to look at the other side, the dance will have changed.

Cunningham’s challenges to coherence also extend to a dance’s development through time. His choreography has no readily discernible structure: Movement sequences begin and end and blend into one another unpredictably, and they may be arranged sequentially or simultaneously. Different dancers onstage together dance their separate parts at different rhythms; sometimes even unison material is phrased by each dancer slightly differently, so only the overall count—the beginning and end of the unison section—is the same; and rhythm can change at any moment, such that a dancer may change tempo from one phrase to the next. One reason, of course, that the structure of any given dance is indecipherable is that it might have been arrived at by chance procedures, which has been one of the many ways that Cunningham has determined movement combinations and sequences ever since he made Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three in 1951.¹⁰

The effect of all of these innovations on the spectator is to make the dance as a whole impossible to see. Cunningham’s choreography provides no focal point, no guidance about where or how to look. You have to decide for yourself. At any given moment, there might be two, three, or more things happening at the same time—some here, some there—so you must choose. Of course, there is occasional relief from this decision-making obligation: Perhaps there is only a single solo downstage right, and so you watch that solo. But then another dancer might appear upstage left and begin to dance a second solo. Which one do you watch? Do you stay with the dancer you’ve been looking at? Or do you find out what the other one is going to do? Do you look back and forth from one to the other, trying to catch a little of both? Or do you try somehow to get both dancers in your sights at once? You have to make up your mind. But then here comes a group of six more dancers, and one of the soloists you’ve been watching joins them to form a septet while the other soloist carries on what she was doing. Perhaps you’ve seen enough of that solo to satisfy you, and the septet is danced in unison, which is always easy to enjoy, so you figure you’ll watch that.

When Cunningham began making dances like this more than half a century ago, it was an enormous break with existing choreographic practice, and audiences were nonplussed. Without necessarily realizing it, people had accepted the fact that choreography would make their decisions for them. In following its dictates, they were more or less assured that they wouldn’t miss anything. But Cunningham no longer afforded that assurance. On the contrary, his audiences were made aware of the fact that they would miss things, maybe even most things. They were, in short, made aware of their inability to see totality, aware of themselves as having the limitations that a single subjectivity entails. They could see only partially, and they therefore had to grapple with the fact that just as Cunningham challenged the coherence of a dance, he also implicitly challenged the coherence of the spectator. Indeed, there is a kinesthetic analogue, in the performer’s body, to the latter challenge: As is clear from his remarks on ballet épaulements above, Cunningham pulls the dancing body apart such that, to the extent that it’s possible, head, arms, trunk, and legs move separately from one another. If Cunningham thus makes his dances impossible to see whole, how much more so the Events, which further fragment the already fragmentary dances. “When we first did the Events in New York,” Cunningham remembered, “they were difficult for people to see. In the Brooklyn Academy there was a great difficulty with the audience—the public just walked out and made a big uproar.”¹¹

That was a long time ago. Now the Events are one of the ways we expect to see—and are delighted to see—the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Is it our eagerness to follow him wherever he leads us that keeps Cunningham upping the ante? The Beacon Events—four so far (the fourth took place this past July), four to come—pose a fresh challenge to seeing totality: They spread the dancing over two, and in one case three, stages, with the visible relationship between the stages increasingly attenuated over the course of the four Events. (Cunningham had used multiple stages only once before, for an Event in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London in 2003.)

 Merce Cunningham, third Beacon Event, 2008. Performance view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York, May 18, 2008. Foreground: Andrea Weber, Brandon Collwes. Background: Emma Desjardins, Daniel Squire. Photo: Anna Finke.

THE FIRST BEACON EVENT took place on September 30, 2007, in the large skylighted gallery devoted to Andy Warhol’s suite of silk-screen Shadows, painted in 1978 and immediately acquired by the Lone Star Foundation, the precursor to Dia Art Foundation. How appropriate that Cunningham would have chosen the Shadows for a dance Event: Warhol famously quipped that they could be used as “disco decor.” Furthermore, reusing a work by Warhol whose subject is as evanescent as dance itself is something Cunningham had already done forty years earlier. In 1968, Cunningham asked Warhol if he might use, as a set for his dance RainForest, the Silver Clouds, which Warhol had made two years before as a mock end-of-painting gesture (“as if the paintings were just leaving the wall and floating away”¹²). For RainForest, some of the helium-filled aluminized Mylar pillows were secured to weights at various heights at the back of the stage, while others, only partially inflated, floated freely around the stage. They were quite literally in the way of the dancers, and the dancers set them in motion by dancing right into them or simply by stirring the air around them. When I first saw the work, in 1970, a few of the pillows floated out into the Brooklyn Academy of Music auditorium while the dance continued onstage. Cunningham and Warhol also crossed paths at an important early Event. In 1967, Warhol was invited by Fred Hughes, who would eventually become Warhol’s assistant but was then working with Jean and Dominque de Menil, to bring the Velvet Underground to Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, where Cunningham’s company would be performing Museum Event No. 5 on a platform built on the lawn, all as a benefit for the company.

Seventy-two of Warhol’s Shadows are hung edge-to-edge around the periphery of an 8,400-square-foot gallery at Dia:Beacon. Cunningham had two stage platforms constructed to the height of the bottom edge of the Shadows in the northwest and southeast segments of the space, each flanking the row of support columns in the center of the gallery and connected to the other by a small bridge. David Behrman, John King, Takehisa Kosugi, and Christian Wolff, the four musicians playing for the Event, were situated on either side of the bridge. A few seats were placed on the north side of the northwest stage and the corresponding south side of the southeast stage, but audience members were encouraged to walk freely about in the remaining area. Although it was difficult to move in the narrow space along the long sides of the stage rectangles, since the museum had to keep people from brushing against the paintings, there was plenty of room in the two large areas of the gallery not taken up by the stages, and the majority of spectators gathered there. Most people stayed put. I moved frequently. But however you played it as a spectator, you could see the dancing close up and/or far away. “And/or” is crucial. If, for example, I looked at the southeast stage from its north edge, the other stage was behind me, so I saw roughly half of what was going on at that moment, close up. But if I watched the Event from the north side of the northwest stage, I could see what was taking place on that stage close up and simultaneously see what was taking place on the southeast stage at a distance. Often, just as I moved from one place to another to watch a specific dance passage, that passage came to an end and the dancers dispersed, some of them running to the stage far away from me, some regrouping with different dancers on the stage close to me, and some exiting the stages temporarily to rest in an area alongside the stage (right next to some members of the audience). The inability to be where you thought the action was most interesting might have been frustrating, but it wasn’t. You realized soon enough that you couldn’t possibly see everything; some dancers were too far away or obscured by what was close up. But more important, how you saw any portion of the dance depended on your own position with respect to the configuration of the stages and the choices you made moment to moment with your body and your eyes—where to go, where to look, whom to look at, whether to look at close-up details or faraway patterns or relations between the two. Depending on where you looked you saw not only dancers dancing but also dancers resting, musicians working at their equipment, other audience members, and Warhol’s paintings beyond all of these people. If anything, the predicament was not seeing too little but seeing too much.

Cunningham made the second Beacon Event—performed in mid-January of this year—for the largest of Dia:Beacon’s galleries, two very long, corridor-like rooms, each 39' by 287', that mirror each other. (In fact, the Beacon galleries occupy not one but two buildings, which share the wall between these two spaces.) These galleries housed Walter De Maria’s stainless steel floor reliefs of the Equal Area Series, 1976–77 (since replaced there by his Silver Meters, 1976, and Gold Meters, 1976–77, and Imi Knoebel’s 24 Colors—for Blinky, 1977). Two Marley floor stages were placed directly on the gallery floor, each right in front of the ten-foot-wide doorway between the two galleries. Spectators sat or stood in front of each stage, opposite the doorway. In contrast with the Event in the Warhol Shadows gallery, almost no spectators moved about during this one. Theoretically they could, and again they were encouraged to do so, but obviously the best place from which to see the dance was at the front of one of the stages, and moving from one stage to the other meant walking all the way out of one gallery and around to the opposite one, a journey about half the length of a football field that would take you away from the dance for several minutes. Because the stages extended about ten feet in both directions beyond the width of the communicating doorway, you could see only one stage in its entirety. Your view of the other stage was not only somewhat distant but drastically truncated, similar to the way that a proscenium frame and stage wings appear to cut off a dance that, in so much choreography, appears to continue beyond it. (In a documentary on Cage and Cunningham, Frank Stella, who designed the set for Scramble, 1967, says, “I guess the worst thing about dance is that you get so tired of them running into the wings. I mean you want to just shoot them every time they go in there.”¹³) You could see that the dancing on your side was unlike what was taking place on the opposite side, and when you looked over there, in addition to fragments of dance sequences, you also saw the spectators just opposite you, which had an uncanny effect, like looking in a mirror. You saw others looking at the dance, and sometimes they watched a part of the dance that was beyond your own line of sight; you could only see the dance reflected, as it were, in the concentration or elation or puzzlement on the faces of the spectators opposite you. So, unlike the first Beacon Event, the second made the dancing on the far stage at least partly impossible to see. What you could see was that things were happening that you could not see. Or, of course, you could choose to watch what you could see very well right in front of you and ignore the other stage. And/or you could watch what was right in front of you and simultaneously watch fragments of what was farther away; and you could watch these two things in relation to each other, because, after all, they were in your line of sight. As your eyes darted here, then there, following the dancers, choosing where to look, you became aware of something else, something that was already noticeable in the first Beacon Event but that began to seem more crucial in this one. You couldn’t see the dancing without seeing all sorts of other things: The audience members across from you; two of the four musicians—George Lewis, Fast Forward, Zeena Parkins, and John King—who played at tables positioned at the sides of the two stages near the wall between the galleries (like parts of the dance, two of the musicians were not in your range of vision); and the dancers on your side of the wall who weren’t onstage at the moment. But does “onstage” really mean only the Marley floors that demarcated the space where dancing took place? Does the dance consist only of the obviously choreographed, technically skilled movement? Is the dancer running off the stage still dancing? Is a dancer stretching or wrapping herself in a blanket right in front of your eyes something you aren’t meant to notice? How could you not notice? Is there some sort of visual editing process whereby you can determine that this belongs to the dance while that doesn’t? What about what you hear?

Merce Cunningham, third Beacon Event, 2008. Performance view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York, May 18, 2008. Rashaun Mitchell, Daniel Madoff. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

LATE IN THE AFTERNOON at the final Sunday afternoon performance of the fourth and most recent Beacon Event, this past July, I leaned against the balustrade on the terrace above the Robert Irwin garden and watched the dancing on the stage at the north end of the gallery against the backdrop of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse II, 1996. Sun streamed through the clerestory windows in what had originally been the loading dock of the onetime factory building. Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, and Holley Farmer danced an adagio trio. The music, created by Newton Armstrong, Maria Chavez, David Linton, and Stephan Moore, each working inside one of four Serra sculptures, emanated both from inside the Torqued Ellipses and Torqued Spiral and from loudspeakers outside the gallery facing toward the stages at the north and south ends of the two-hundred-foot-long space. At this moment, about halfway through the Event, the music seemed to soften to a continuous drone. When the drone abruptly stopped right at 5:00 PM, I realized that what I’d been listening to just then wasn’t music made by any of the four musicians improvising for the Event; it was Max Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon, 2005, a sound work permanently installed at Dia:Beacon. Then, from behind me, I heard the sound of cawing: “Arrh . . . arrh . . . arrh . . . Artschwager.” This was one of Louise Lawler’s Bird Calls, 1972/81, an audio work in the Irwin garden.

I had moved out onto the terrace to watch the end of the dance. Earlier I’d been standing just opposite, next to the opening of Torqued Ellipse II. I’d gone there, where there was only enough space to accommodate a few spectators, on a mission to look inside each of the sculptures to check out what the musicians were up to. Standing there at the corner of the dance floor, I could look to my right and watch David Linton make an amplified staccato sound by pulling a string of cheap beads out of a drinking glass, look straight ahead and watch Daniel Squire and Holley Farmer balancing on half toe beside each other, or look to my left at the dancers standing right next to me preparing to join or replace Farmer and Squire onstage. After a while I noticed something I wouldn’t have expected: What was taking place on this stage seemed to be very clearly directed toward the people sitting and standing on the terrace. And then I remembered that earlier, when I was watching the performance at the other end of the Serra gallery, I had also felt the dance was directional, but in this case aimed at people standing along the wall opposite the windows. And, indeed, the stages were themselves oriented in just this way: Although they were the same size, the long sides of the north stage were parallel to the terrace while the long sides of the south stage paralleled the walls. In addition, this Event had a third stage, a ten-by-ten-foot dance floor near the back wall of the gallery between Serra’s Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997, and Torqued Ellipse I, 1996. This stage could only accommodate solos and duets, and they could only be seen from one position, standing between the two Serra sculptures. Audience members paused there to watch one dancer or another—for example, a short solo made for Emma Desjardins and danced by her three times during the course of the Event—as they walked back and forth between the larger north and south stages. This directionality of the stages struck me as contradictory. Why would Cunningham abandon his commitment to what he called “the possibility of multidirection” in an Event that was so spatially pulled apart—where you couldn’t even see one stage from another? Two possible answers: “Multidirection” is merely one option among others, another of which is traditional frontality. Or: Even if the dancers perform “toward” the majority of spectators, other viewers, standing in a different part of the space, will be able to see what the dancing looks like from the “back” or the “side.”

After I realized that the dancing on the north stage was directed toward the terrace and went over there to watch it, and following the “lull” in the music that I just described, the four musicians began to bring up the volume as the number of dancers onstage kept changing. There were four, then five, six, seven, eight, nine, then only four again—a trio and a solo. Then six, seven, then only two—a duet. Now nine dancers came onstage to dance in unison alongside the continuing duet. Then the two joined the other nine and all eleven danced in unison, very clearly “facing” the audience on the terrace. The music reached a crescendo and the dance came to a rousing end—a finale worthy of Petipa or Balanchine. The audience cheered. Someone said to me, “But there are so many dancers here. How many are there on the other stage?” “Three,” I answered. I’d seen the end of the Event on the south stage the day before. The timing had been a bit “off,” and the cheers from across the gallery rang out a few seconds before the three dancers stopped their slow, measured trio. And that’s just what they did: They simply stopped. The applause was less fervent, but not because the dancing had been any less terrific. Cheers follow more certainly upon crescendos and finales. Of course, the musical crescendo resounded at the south end of the gallery, too, but it didn’t register as such because the dancing was so understated. Our experience of what we see and hear is relational, contextual, even if subliminally so. Hence Cunningham’s enduring interest in trying out his dance material in new combinations, new spatial environments, and with new music.

The question of contextuality seems to me one way to think about Cunningham’s exacting technique, achieved only by highly accomplished dancers working day after day in his classes. The off-balance balances, often on half toe, sustained for astonishing durations; the articulation of different parts of the dancer’s body against one another, in different directions or tempos (no doubt intensified recently by Cunningham’s use of the Life Forms computer program); the quick changes of direction and rhythm; the precise timing without musical cues—these characteristics make Cunningham’s choreography utterly distinctive and identifiable, no matter what specific range of movement he explores in a particular dance. (Cunningham’s choreography is often called classical, but this seems to me a misnomer, even if we can still see in it classical ballet’s turnout and plié and identifiable positions and steps, like attitude, arabesque, relevé, jeté, and so forth.) How else but with this marked technique could we see the dancing so clearly in relation to something else—to Serra’s sculptures? The Irwin garden? The roar of the Metro-North train as it zooms by? Maria Chavez’s electroacoustic turntable sounds? Other spectators moving about on the other side of the stage? Dancers not dancing? Cunningham professes a completely democratic interest in movement (“My own ideas about dancing have always included both the possibility of pedestrian movement at one end of the scale, virtuoso movement at the other end and everything in between”¹⁴), and I have no reason to doubt him. But everyday movement is not for him dance—or not yet dance—as it would become for the Judson dancers who were his successors. In this respect, Cunningham seems to me to align himself with the dance critic Edwin Denby when he writes in his famous 1965 essay “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets,” “For myself, I make a distinction between seeing daily life and seeing art. Not that seeing is different. Seeing is the same. But seeing art is seeing an ordered and imaginary world, subjective and concentrated. . . . There is nothing everyday about art. There is nothing everyday about dancing as an art. And that is the extraordinary pleasure of seeing it.”¹⁵

Perhaps it would add something to our pleasure in seeing the Events if we could identify which passages came from which dances in the repertory; in this way, we might see how different they look in their new contexts. But it’s also likely that such recognition would work against seeing what the new context does to the movement by allowing us to cling to familiarity: “Oh yes, that’s from Suite for Five, that’s Fabrications, that’s Loose Time, that’s Xover.” It seems to me, on the contrary, that Cunningham wants his Events to foster radical openness, discovery, present-tense seeing, not identification of something already “known.” Unquestionably, some movements are easier to remember than others. For example, on my way around from the “back” to the “front” (the side facing the terrace) of the north stage in the Serra gallery, I stopped briefly at the “side,” where I watched two easy-to-identify things: first a lineup of dancers who held up their fingers according to their place in the line, one finger for first, two for second, and so forth. A dancer changed her place in the line, held up a different number of fingers to signal where she was now, and the other dancers adjusted their held-up fingers accordingly. Seeing this from the side, I could just barely make out what was going on. Then a group of dancers began to move to a rhythm signaled by Rashaun Mitchell, who made loud gasping sounds with each intake of breath. After a few moments, his gasps sped up to double time, and so did all the dancers’ steps. It was an unusual moment in which the rhythm of the dance, normally perceptible only in the movement itself, was also audible. I later learned that both of these moments came from Signals, which I had seen in 1970. Of course, I didn’t remember it from so many years ago, but the singularity of these passages makes them easy to recognize from written descriptions. Another type of movement in these Events was easy to grasp: movements that were still, positions assumed and held as tableaux vivants. I remember especially Koji Mizuta lying on his side, knees and elbows bent, arms held rigid to frame his face, which he composed into a mask. “Even when we are still we are moving,” Cunningham says. “We are in action when we are still.”¹⁶ If silence is always filled with sounds, stillness is always full of motion. We have only to be alert to it. John Cage: “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear.”¹⁷

 Interior of the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna.

COINCIDING WITH THE THIRD and fourth of Cunningham’s Beacon Events, Dia:Beacon showed Tacita Dean’s Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008. For this intricately composed installation, Dean filmed Cunningham performing Cage’s famous composition six times. In each, he is seated, perfectly still. After twenty-eight seconds, Trevor Carlson (the Cunningham company’s executive director) counts down with his fingers to the thirty-three-second point, the end of the “first movement,” whereupon Cunningham breaks his pose and takes a slightly different one. Again he holds still, this time for two minutes and forty seconds, the length of the second movement. Again Carlson signals, and again Cunningham assumes a new position and holds it, this time for one minute and twenty seconds. That’s the performance. But what a performance! I don’t think there’s a single sitter among Andy Warhol’s nearly five hundred Screen Test subjects who was able to hold so still in front of a movie camera as Cunningham did on these six occasions. (Of course, Warhol’s Screen Tests are projected at silent speed, eighteen frames per second, which exaggerates the sitters’ motion.) The self-possession of Cunningham’s resolute stillness seems to me the equivalent of his young dancers’ prodigious technique. He is so utterly serene that within and against his motionlessness we become aware of a wealth of other movements—the film’s jiggle as it works its way through the projector, our fellow spectators’ shadows as they inadvertently walk into the projection beam, the flicker of light from some of the five other projections. And, of course, the sounds—the recorded ambient sound in Cunningham’s studio, the mechanical sound of the whirring 16-mm film projectors, the clickety-click of the celluloid as it runs through the film gate.

STILLNESS is every bit as spatially demanding for the viewer as were Cunningham’s Beacon Events. Dean installed the six projections throughout the vast northwest basement gallery amid its forest of seventy-eight support columns. The screens are positioned at right angles to one another, so you have to traverse much of the dark basement space to see all of the films (you have to be careful not to walk into a column). Entering from the north staircase, you come first to a small transparent screen through which the film is projected from behind. Deflected by a small mirror at a forty-five-degree angle to both projector and screen, the image is a bust-length, life-size close-up. Cunningham appears life-size in all six films, a feat that Dean achieved by calibrating the distances from projectors to screens, which vary in size. In some cases, that distance is very great, which results in a loss of image clarity, a loss compounded by the shifting and ambiguous spatial locations of Cunningham and Carlson vis-à-vis the camera and the studio mirror in the six films, by the cloudiness of the studio mirror, by the deterioration of Dean’s films as they move, day in and day out, through the projectors. In STILLNESS we see time’s inevitable passing, frailty, mortality.

To anyone who has seen Cunningham perform over his extraordinarily long artistic life, Dean’s STILLNESS is especially poignant. Cunningham’s opportunities to dance were few and far between and his audiences shamefully small when he was at the height of his physical powers in the 1940s and ’50s. By the time he achieved anything like the recognition his work warranted, he was in his midforties, still an unforgettable performer but not young for a dancer. In the ’70s and ’80s, his company members were half or a third his age, and he began for the first time to make roles for himself that were technically less demanding than those for his dancers. Even as arthritis took its toll, Cunningham continued to dance. “To enjoy watching him is to enjoy the pleasure of ruins . . . ,” wrote Alastair Macaulay (never especially forgiving of less-than-perfect dancers’ bodies) in 1988. “[T]here isn’t a lot left he can do.”¹⁸ That depends, I suppose, on what is meant by “do.” For the Lincoln Center Festival’s celebration of his eightieth birthday in 1999, Cunningham made Occasion Piece for himself and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he cheerfully danced alongside the superstar ballet dancer (and Baryshnikov, at fifty-one, gamely took on the challenge of Cunningham’s choreography). The last time I saw Cunningham dance was in 2001, when he did Chair Solo in a guest performance for Richard Move’s Martha@Town Hall in New York. Unable to do much with his legs and feet, Cunningham made the most of his hands, head, and face.

When John Cage died in 1992, Cunningham was making a dance called Enter (a title characteristically derived from computer language) for the Festival d’Automne in Paris. He made two solos for himself, about which he quipped, “I stand still in one part, and in the other I try to move.” According to David Vaughan, the standing still was, in fact, a performance of 4'33“: “The three static positions that he took at different points on the stage in the first entrance were held for lengths of time that corresponded to the three ‘movements’ of Cage’s 4'33”.”¹⁹ Two years later, at SummerStage in New York’s Central Park, Cunningham’s company performed another version of 4'33" for a program in tribute to Cage. Again, the duration of each movement of the Cage piece was marked by the dancers’ stillness. Asked whether she thought Cunningham’s performances for her STILLNESS were meant as an homage to Cage, Tacita Dean replied, “That’s a very personal question. You’d have to ask Merce. But I think he’s definitely thinking about Cage. There’s something in the power of that stillness.”²⁰ As I said, in STILLNESS we see time’s passing, frailty, mortality. But we also see equanimity.

Douglas Crimp is Fanny Knapp Allen Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester, New York.


1. The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (New York: Marion Boyars, 1985), 173.

2. Cunningham recalled the nightclub stages of his youth when I asked him a question about “seeing the audience seeing” at a conversation with the choreographer conducted by Dia curator Lynne Cooke following the second Beacon Event, and he mentioned it again in an informal conversation we had in the Dia:Beacon garden during the third Event.

3. “The idea of the middle part [of Walkaround Time], the entr’acte, comes from Relâche, where there is an entr’acte, with a movie in it. I wanted to make a long piece so I wanted to have an entr’acte, so to speak, to break it up in the middle. The entr’acte lasts seven minutes” (Merce Cunningham, in The Dancer and the Dance, 114).

4. David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997), 139.

5. Merce Cunningham interviewed by Charles Atlas for Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance, DVD, directed by Charles Atlas (2000; New York: Winstar TV & Video, 2001).

6. The Dancer and the Dance, 172.

7. Merce Cunningham, Changes: Notes on Choreography (New York: Something Else Press, 1968), n.p.

8. The Dancer and the Dance, 62.

9. David Vaughan, “Retrospect and Prospect” (1979), in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), 124–131; 129.

10. See Remy Charlip, “Composing by Chance” (1954), in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, 40–43.

11. The Dancer and the Dance, 174.

12. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol ’60s (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980), 149.

13. Frank Stella, interviewed in Cage/Cunningham, DVD, directed by Elliot Caplan (1991; West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 2007).

14. The Dancer and the Dance, 152.

15. Edwin Denby, “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets” (1965), in Dance Writings, eds. Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (New York: Knopf, 1986), 548–556; 555–556.

16. The Dancer and the Dance, 129.

17. John Cage, “Experimental Music” (1957), in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 7–11; 8.

18. Alastair Macaulay, “The Merce Experience” (1988), in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, 173–178; 178.

19. Vaughan, Merce Cunningham, 265.

20. Tacita Dean, interviewed by Robert Ayers,, June 19, 2008.