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Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham, Root of an Unfocus, 1944. Performance view, Studio Theatre, New York, April 5, 1944. Merce Cunningham. Photo: Barbara Morgan.

AS DANCE INCREASINGLY ASSUMES CENTER STAGE in today’s cultural landscape, contemporary choreographers have added the art museum to their regular circuit of venues. But Merce Cunningham was, as usual, ahead of the curve. In 1964, at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts in Vienna, he launched the first of hundreds of what he called Events: unique programs that collaged extracts from his repertory and were devised for a particular setting, and which he would continue to create over the next forty-five years. Cunningham’s pioneering intervention into the museum context was predicated on the strong connections he had with the contemporary art world and its leading proponents, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Morris, who designed memorable sets and costumes for some of the choreographer’s greatest works. Now Cunningham will receive his largest museum exposition to date, in “Common Time,” organized by the Walker Art Center (and copresented with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago), which has long been aligned with the choreographer and his company through multiple residencies and the acquisition of the vast Merce Cunningham Dance Company collection of some forty-five hundred artifacts and more than one hundred and fifty choreographies.

For all their brilliance and specificity, Cunningham’s collaborations were famously hands-off: Like the costumes and sets, the musical compositions—by such luminaries as John Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Pauline Oliveros—were created independently of the dance movements. Yet Cunningham’s partnership with film- and video-makers proved the exception, in that the recording of his live performances evolved, in close dialogue with Charles Atlas above all, into the making of innovative new works specifically for that medium: “dance for camera.” These, in turn, shaped the choreography of subsequent works made for live performance. Of course, Cunningham’s own corporeal presence would also have far-reaching effects in fields other than dance. What Yvonne Rainer so aptly characterized as the “unassailable ease” of Cunningham’s dancing inspired many who witnessed him in his prime, in leading roles he devised for himself. Even later in life, as he calibrated his movements to his aging body, he continued to be a compelling performer—inspiring much younger artists, such as Tacita Dean, to engage with him in his final years.

Fittingly, the Walker’s ambitious survey focuses on the choreographer’s multidisciplinary collaborations and beyond, including works by the several generations of visual artists attracted to what Douglas Crimp terms the “radical anti-narrativity” of Cunningham’s work—and to the nonhierarchical, open structures of his compositions, which were typically dispersed across a given space or, unforgettably in his last pieces, across a series of stages. In addition to eight site-responsive Events, the exhibition at the Walker will feature commissions from several rising stars working in this cross-disciplinary terrain, such as a durational dance and installation piece by Maria Hassabi. Cunningham’s expanded field for dance rolls onward and outward.

Lynne Cooke