Focusing on the extraordinary costumes that Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo created for Merce Cunningham’s 1997 dance Scenario, this exhibition explores the collaboration between the Japanese fashion designer and the legendary choreographer. The show is the third in a series showcasing the Walker’s Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection—the single largest acquisition of visual art in the Walker’s history.
Curator: Betsy Carpenter
Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham / Rei Kawakubo
Rei Kawakubo first started designing under the name Comme des Garçons in 1969, and formally founded her Tokyo- and Paris-based fashion label in 1973. Known worldwide as an avant-garde designer whose aesthetic is constantly evolving, she shared similar creative philosophies with Merce Cunningham, including interests in engaging multiple artistic disciplines and aggressively pushing the boundaries of the unknown.
Although partnerships with other artists were integral to Cunningham’s artistic vision, his invitation to Kawakubo was the first he’d made to a designer of haute couture. As with all of his colleagues, he embraced chance, giving Kawakubo free reign to create the costumes and stage design for his dance Scenario (1997). She had initially declined but changed her mind while creating her notorious spring/summer 1997 Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body collection, which insiders later dubbed the “lumps and bumps” show.
Kawakubo has spoken of the impetus for that body of work: “Fashion was very boring, and I was very angry. I wanted to do something extremely strong. It was a reaction. The feeling was to design the body.” Like the runway pieces, the costumes she subsequently made for Scenario also featured down padding that formed irregular bulges on the dancers’ hips, shoulders, chests, and backs. The garments altered the performers’ proportions and sense of their own bodies as well as their balance and spatial relations to each other, radically affecting movement itself.
Also responsible for Scenario’s stage and lighting concepts, Kawakubo, with designers Takao Kawasaki and Masao Nihei, created a stark white, fluorescent-lit setting. “I was interested in the defiance and fusion of the dancers within a limited and fixed white frame,” Kawakubo explained. “I didn’t want a ‘stage’ feeling, but more like a room, which the audience would feel they shared with the dancers.”
Dance Works III presents a selection of Kawakubo’s costume pieces from the Walker’s Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection in a gallery designed to evoke Scenario’s original setting, along with the extraordinary electronic score for the piece, Wave Code A–Z, by Cunningham company musical director Takehisa Kosugi. Also included are rehearsal and performance photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, video interviews with company dancers, documentary photographs and ephemera, and runway footage from the collection.
This show is the third in a series of research exhibitions drawn from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection. (Other shows focused on Cunningham’s collaborations with Robert Rauschenberg and Ernesto Neto.) Although Kawakubo’s Scenario costumes have been exhibited on multiple occasions, including the Walker’s 1998 exhibition Art Performs Life, typically they have been presented in the context of her other fashion designs. With the recent acquisition of the Cunningham Archive, primary documents and opportunities for research will undoubtedly contribute to a deeper understanding of this unprecedented partnership that not only yielded extraordinary costumes, but also reimagined their relationship to the stage space.
—Curator Betsy Carpenter, visual arts