Inspired by choreographer/dancer Merce Cunningham and his collaborators, the Creative Arts Program of Midwest Special Services, an organization that provides individualized programs and supports to people with intellectual and physical disabilities, recently facilitated an Event called Happenstance. Participants at MSS prepared dance/movement, visual art, music/sound, costumes, film, and animation. Just as Cunningham and partner John Cage worked using what they called “chance procedures,” these artists created work mostly independent of each other and came together on June 10 for a performance piece that happened by chance. The Event was held at the Show Gallery in Lowertown, St. Paul. Artwork, costumes, film, and animation for the Event were displayed in the gallery through June 18.
The process of creating Happenstance began with the artists taking a tour of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. The Walker tour guides did an excellent job designing a tour that was informative, relevant to their project, and accessible. MSS artists got a good sense of how Cunningham and his collaborators worked together. Some artists were so inspired that they broke into spontaneous dance along with the films!
Inspired by what they saw and heard, artists returned to their respective MSS centers and worked with MSS art facilitators and staff to create art in the medium of their choice. During the week leading up to June 10, all of the dancers gathered for a dress rehearsal at the gallery. That was the first time they saw the artwork, tried on their costumes, and heard the music they would be dancing to. This process was in keeping with Cunningham’s way of working, though the order of the choreography was not changed in any way (which is something that Cunningham himself may have done; he would flip a coin not long before the performance to determine how the choreography would be organized) to make it more accessible to MSS artists.
The Walker exhibition is what inspired me to suggest and direct the project. I’m familiar with Cunningham and his collaborators, having studied his work and seen his company several times while living in New York City and doing graduate studies in visual art, dance, and performance. I performed in Cunningham’s Westbeth studio and was fortunate to have met him twice—once at a talk with Trisha Brown at Lincoln Center and the other time after the Ocean performance in a quarry just outside St. Cloud, Minnesota. Even though Cunningham’s choreography is technically and intellectually demanding, I find his philosophy of making art to be quite accessible.
The philosophies held by Cunningham and Cage concerning art and music work well with MSS artists who are all adults with intellectual and physical disabilities. Cunningham’s interest in everyday movement and Cage’s interest in sound lends itself perfectly to what MSS artists do every day. They have unique ways of moving, due to the nature of their physical challenges. I think Cunningham would have been fascinated by their movement and perhaps would have wanted to try it out himself—especially when one considers his later films and performances that he created when he was older and using minimal movement, including Tacita Dean’s film STILLNESS, which was on view as part of Common Time, as well as Cunningham’s performance with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Occasion Piece.
Sound is not only music for MSS artists, but for some it is necessary as a sensory tool. It is a part of life and a source of comfort and stability. Some MSS visual artists really work as dancers, moving their whole arm as they created circle upon circle with the energy of a young dancer! Others work along the same lines as Cunningham’s longtime collaborator Robert Rauschenberg and consider everyday objects as art and are fascinated and like to play with the various properties of art materials.
Looking at the work of Cunningham and Cage and their collaborators has made me look at the artists I work with at MSS in a whole new light. Within Cunningham’s and Cage’s approach to making art there is a kind of mindfulness—paying close attention to everyday movement and sound. And when I look at MSS artists with mindfulness, I see their everyday movement as the movement of dancers, their sounds as simple and complex musical compositions, and their art as a new way of seeing beauty in everyday life.
Note: Merce Cunningham and the Merce Cunningham Trust are not involved in this project. The Merce Cunningham Trust was informed of the project and Ken Tabachnik, its executive director, replied by saying, “It sounds very interesting and that you are doing interesting work. We are always glad to hear of Merce’s influence spreading, especially beyond the traditional presentation of choreography. We want to wish you the best of luck and hope that your project and showing go well.”
There will be one other Happenstance Event to be held at the Eagan MSS Center (3265 Northwood Circle, Suite 180, Eagan, MN 55121) on Friday, July 28 from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. The event is free, and the public is invited to attend.