With its historic acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection earlier this year, the Walker marked the beginning of a new era in its more-than-50 year relationship with the legendary choreographer. The collection comprises hundreds of works by a roster of leading visual artists who created sets, props, costumes, backdrops and other decor for the company.
Cunningham Fellow Abi Sebaly has been providing a sneak preview of some of the objects here on the Walker blogs (while throwing in some recipes with impressive art-historical pedigrees), and the first exhbition featuring works from the collection, Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg, is set to open November 3.
Dance Works I is part of a larger showcase of events, The Next Stage: Merce Cunningham at the Walker Art Center, which fittingly includes some of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performances on its Farewell Legacy Tour.
In leading up to that “Next Stage,” it also seems fitting to look back and chart some key moments in the decades-long association between Cunningham and the Walker. Thanks to Walker archivist Jill Vuchetich and marketing intern Ashley Monk for finding, scanning, and uploading the artifacts below, and for a couple more blog posts in the coming weeks. Click on any image for a larger view.
Cunningham’s relationship with the Walker started with a cold call of sorts, via US post, in 1948. An enterprising sort, Cunningham — who was then performing as a soloist with composer John Cage, before founding the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953 — wrote to the Walker’s then-director Daniel S. Defenbacher regarding a possible tour stop in Minneapolis in the winter of 1949.
The handwritten note on the letter above ( “? nothing else in letter”) indicates that Cunningham may have forgotten to enclose his promotional brochure; in any case, one eventually arrived at the Walker “under separate cover,” as they used to say. Click on the second image to read commentary on Cunningham’s “gifts as a lyric dancer” from the Herald-Tribune‘s esteemed dance critic (and poet and novelist), Edwin Denby:
While Cunningham’s Twin Cities debut took place at a YMCA in the late ’50s, the Walker’s first presentation of this “leading figure in the contemporary American dance” occurred on February 13, 1963. The Walker facility at that time lacked a theater, so the performance, which included John Cage and ” ‘far-out’ pianist ” David Tudor, took place nearby at The Woman’s Club:
That 1963 performance was an apparent success, as Merce & Co. returned the following year. This time they performed in the brand-new Guthrie Theater, which was to host many Walker dance and music programs. The 1964 program, as in 1963, included Antic Meet — a piece that will also be performed during the Company’s final Twin Cities performances November 4 – 6, 2011. Note Cunningham’s statement at the end of the program, which seems simple and forthright today, but was quite radical at the time.
In 1967 the Walker brought Cunningham to town to offer a series of local classes:
And in 1969, he visited (and performed) as an artist-in-residence, the first of nine such engagements. The poster for that performance featured art from Jasper Johns, who by then had replaced Robert Rauschenberg as Cunningham’s primary artistic collaborator on Company productions.
Stay tuned for posts featuring artifacts from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s.