Merce Cunningham

An installation of Merce Cunningham’s dancing is surely a contradiction in terms. Cunningham’s own notes and notations, a videotape, and photographs spanning much of his career provide some approximation of Cunningham and his dance company’s vitality and precise movement. “You have to love dancing to stick with it,” Cunningham wrote in Changes: Notes on Choreography. “It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold. Nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.” Starting from nothing is the most difficult of positions, but it permits activity. As a nondancer I find it all too easy to fall into the trap of passively viewing dancing as a sort of spectator sport; the installation’s complexity required some active figuring out how a dance moves.

Sheets of paper mounted on the wall were drawn from Cunningham’s notes, written in pen and markers, from nine productions ranging from Suite by Chance, 1952, to Summerspace, 1959, to Torse, performed in 1977 at the Minskoff Theatre. Grids, words, stick figures, numerical combinations and arrows were used at times for various purposes, ranging from timing movements to mapping out their progression in space. Each dance was represented by about five sheets of paper, arranged without particular indication of the order in which they were written or the order of events they describe. These are, after all, notes toward a performance, not a formal system of dance notation.

Brief statements accompanying each piece listed music and set design credits, as well as giving credit due to any chance operations used in planning choreography. The notes’ easy passage from grids to sweeps of arrows to words scattered over the page—the alterations of terseness and expansion resemble the poetic technique developed by Charles Olson at Black Mountain College, where Cunningham first began working with groups of dancers in 1953.

The videotape, titled Blue Studio: Five Segments, is one of a number of tapes co-produced by Charles Atlas and Cunningham, the most well-known of which is Cunningham’s contribution to WNET-TV’s Dance in America series, presenting sections from major pieces in the Cunningham repertoire.

Blue Studio is a far more intimate piece, using video itself as its “set.” Extensive utilization of chromakey as well as mirrors in real time allowed Cunningham’s movements to be transposed against various realities: Caracas, a solid blue background, among members of his company, and, near the tape’s end, several images of himself dancing among, though not with, each other. (Each image was separately keyed onto two-inch tape and played back over a monitor in the dance studio for Cunningham to pattern himself by.) Throughout Blue Studio Cunningham developed a vocabulary of movement: from walking, to intimate hand gestures, to large movements of the body. By the end the vocabulary could be demonstrated simultaneously by the same performer, concentrated, in total silence. Now and then a frog, a monkey, and a small dog, each moving in its own way, were chromakeyed in—surprising as Cunningham usually doesn’t work with untrained dancers.

In a statement on hand at the gallery, Cunningham proposed a video-based system of notation more useful for dancers than traditional forms such as Labanotation. Two monitors, he suggested, would be necessary. One monitor would represent the dance performed, while the other presented stick figures or whatever shape seemed appropriate, moving in depth and registering details of space and body as the choreography deemed necessary. Blue Studio’s virtuosity in performance and in post-performance production indicated, beyond possibilities for notation, new ways for dancers to present work and (literally) to work with themselves.

Seven photographers’ representations of Cunningham bear witness to a metamorphosis not so much in Cunningham as in styles of photography. Barbara Morgan’s 1940 photo of Cunningham in mid-air leap toward the half-supine Martha Graham in Letter to the World is the starting point for this Cunningham and Company from different eyes. Duane Michals moves in on a blur; Max Waldman shows tense interactions among dancers; Jack Mitchell poises Cunningham tensed on ground and in mid-air; and James Klosty spreads Cunningham and his associates outside the studio.

Barbara Baracks