SpeakEasy: An informal audience discussion following Saturday evening performances. The Merce Cunningham conversation was led by Walker tour guide Barbara Davey and local choreographer Justin Jones. This blog incorporates participants’ comments and questions, offering an opportunity to continue the discussion in an online forum.
Dance is an ephemeral form, but with each end, there remains a potential, the possibility of another performance yet to come. This weekend’s visit to the Walker Art Center by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is a different case. Nearing the end of their 2-year legacy tour following Cunningham’s death in 2009, these performances will be the company’s last appearances in Minneapolis. As the curtain falls each night, there is therefore a finitude, concluding a long series of performances in Minnesota stretching back to 1948.
The Legacy Tour takes the spectator on a voyage back in time, starting with 1998’s evocative Pond Way, followed by 1968’s dynamic Rainforest, and concluding with the young Cunningham’s playful Antic Meet (pictured above) from 1958. This selection, specially arranged for the Walker, enables audience members to see costumes in use whose originals are currently on display. Highlighting the Walker’s long relationship with Cunningham, this recent acquisition of the company’s costumes and set pieces brings with it a range of compelling questions regarding the problem of archiving and preserving performance, a challenge described by Susannah Schouweiler as “catching lightning in a bottle.” These pieces are themselves art, as is the performance and its residue. Do you remove the make-up stains from costumes to maintain their integrity as objects, essentially erasing the dance in the process? A museum can commission, but how can an institution “own” this fleeting experience wherein performers and audience members gather in a space together?
Cunningham emerged from the era when Modern Dance was new and choreographers forged movement techniques that bore their names – Horton, Graham, Limón. Maintaining a rigorous dedication to technique, his incorporation of chance into choreographic methods would inspire the next generation. Now a few decades later, what impact have the changes in technology, broadening of the dance field, or postmodern de-emphasis on the singular empowered author had on today’s choreographers? Could another Cunningham appear, or is his life and impact tied to the particular span of history he inhabited?
Merce Cunningham’s remarkable 70-year career in dance and his renown as a choreographer, performer, and developer of his own movement technique place a heavy responsibility on his dancers. Superimposing this legacy on their bodies, do we efface their individuality to transform them into a representation – into “Cunningham Dancers”? The responsibility is even greater now as audience members come with high expectations, anticipating the memory of their last Cunningham concert. The intimacy of the McGuire Theatre perhaps helps to counteract this denial of individuation. We see these dancers up-close, and can appreciate both their strength as unique performers as well as their commitment to this legacy.
Appropriate for the Walker’s cross-disciplinary reach, the pieces presented here feature noted contributors to the fields of music and visual arts. Created independently, the elements of design, music, and dance coalesce onstage, coexisting in space and time rather than driving one another. Roy Lichtenstein’s backdrop depicts his signature style while extending the stage into an undifferentiated, meditative space. Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds function as set pieces, obstacles, and at times, as floating performers. Robert Rauschenberg’s costumes highlight Antic Meet’s humor and lightness. Musical scores by Brian Eno, David Tudor, and Cunningham’s life partner John Cage highlight the evolution of experimental music over the latter half of the 20th century.
A frequent collaborator, Cunningham strove to disentangle dance from external influences such as narrative, climatic build, or the dictation of music, using chance as a choreographic means of separating movement from the manipulations of human emotion. Dance stands alone and the spectator is freed to see the dance without the imposition of additional layers of meaning or interpretation. The spectator is presented with a realm of activity that Cunningham has compared to nature’s combination of discrete components in a single location, “heavy and light, little and big, all unrelated, yet each affecting all the others” (Merce Cunningham, 98).
As the curtain descended on Antic Meet, dancers continued to scramble through their sequences, disappearing while leaving behind a sense of perpetual motion. It seemed fitting to conclude the performance on this note, with a glance back to the beginning of an active career, arbitrarily cut off in time, but resonating long afterwards.
More on Walker blogs:
Read Penny Freeh’s blog about the performance.
Learn about the Walker’s history with Merce Cunningham.