You’d never mistake Merce Cunningham for a traditionalist. A tap dancer growing up, the striking, hollow-faced innovator of postmodern movement is credited with creating some of the most influential and radical dance-theater works of the mid to late 20th century. He did so until his death in 2009, at the age of 90. But he didn’t do it alone.
“Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (concurrently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis), is an eye-opening look at the cross-collaborative, multidisciplinary artists who were instrumental to Cunningham’s repertoire and the legacy that emerged from it—more than 150 new works since the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was founded at Black Mountain College in 1953. The MCA carved out 12,000 square feet of space up on the fourth floor to house a collection of set pieces, music, archival video footage, costumes, and documents from artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Pauline Oliveros, and Charles Atlas, each of whom worked closely with Cunningham throughout his career; the collection dates back to the 1950s and until the early 2000s, when Cunningham was making work well into his 80s. Yet even for those familiar with Cunningham’s history, “Common Time” is immense and insightful.
Cunningham’s artistic philosophy is on full display: the idea that “music and dance and art could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.” It’s this principle from which the exhibition derives its name, and the concept that distinguishes the Cunningham style during the post-World War II era.
Considered a break from the traditional model of dance making, in which the choreographer takes ownership of all aspects of the creative process, Cunningham’s belief was that a coexistent relationship was a recipe for avoiding artistic boredom. For example, one of the quirks that came to define the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was that the dancers sometimes heard a piece of corresponding music for the first time while onstage—the performance became as spontaneous as it was planned. Much of what the exhibit highlights is the extent to which the Cunningham principle succeeded.
“Common Time” induces an incredible, and in some ways subtle, realization of the scope and quality of the composite artistry of several of Cunningham’s masterpieces. For a work called Antic Meet (1958), Rauschenberg designed costumes, displayed in the exhibit, using fur coats and dresses made of parachute fabric; the material was reportedly so heavy that the dancers were dumbstruck when they put them on for the first time, since the outfits hampered their movement. A room filled with Mylar balloons, bouncing peacefully from wall to wall, is borrowed from Andy Warhol‘s installation Silver Clouds. Cunningham saw the work at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1966 and later asked Warhol for permission to use the balloons for a piece called Rainforest (1968), in which the dancers negotiated “free-wheeling anarchy through floating decor that cannot be controlled,” as former New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff once described it. The MCA also set up listening stations to take in scores by composers like David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, and Cunningham’s longtime collaborator and future life partner John Cage, who famously composed the fragmented score of the choreographer’s first solo performance, Root of an Unfocus (1944), which laid the foundation for Cunningham’s “common time” practice.
Of course, dance is a significant part of “Common Time.” At the press opening on February 10, the MCA invited local choreographer and former Cunningham company member Paige Cunningham Caldarella (no relation) to give a brief demonstration of choreography from three Cunningham pieces, including the popular Sounddance (1975). Without the music, Caldarella described the evolution of Cunningham’s technique, which looked progressively more challenging with each passing era. (This is one of several live demonstrations that the MCA has planned during the course of the exhibit, which runs through April 30.)
Most memorably, a portion of the gallery is dedicated to an 18-minute video installation called MC9 by video artist Atlas, who began working with Cunningham as a production assistant in 1974. The compilation includes excerpts of 20 pieces that Atlas made in association with Cunningham, intermixed with single colors and vintage film-leader countdowns. One of the videos features a much older Cunningham (nearly 90) standing at a barre and gesticulating his arms and gyrating his legs, as though he’s conceiving a future dance. He’s frail but surprisingly nimble, energized from head to toe. v