Four dancers in bright unitards are twisting, gliding and strutting their way through an airy gallery in Minneapolis. They're former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and they're performing movements the choreographer created.
For seven decades, Cunningham delighted his many fans — and perplexed and mystified others. He died in 2009 at the age of 90. Now, a new exhibition at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center celebrates his dance legacy, and explores his impact on modern music and visual art.
Back in the gallery, the performers stick to a Cunningham tradition: The music they're dancing to is totally new to them. In fact, the musicians — a vocalist and a double bass player — are improvising much of the 30-minute score.
"It's still considered radical, the idea that people don't move to the music, or on a beat, or don't build their dance forms — the choreography — around the music itself," says Walker Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither.
Cunningham was always looking for new ways to move — that's why he used what he called "chance operations" in his choreography. He rolled dice or tossed coins to decide how to combine different movements and phrases, then practiced the combination over and over. Rashaun Mitchell danced with Cunningham's company for more than a decade. He says, "We would rehearse a piece for months in silence to the point where it would just be imprinted in our muscle memory."
Mitchell says those rehearsals were vital when it came to performing on an entirely new set, to an unknown score. "I think that's the lesson that I learned the most from working with him, was sort of to be open to the unknown."
In an appearance at the Walker a year before he died, Cunningham explained that his chance operations were a way of opening himself up to possibility. Filmmaker and frequent collaborator Charles Atlas agrees that Cunningham's motivations were more internal. "He was certainly aware of presenting things to an audience, but that wasn't the main thrust of the work. It wasn't audience-oriented; it was more working things out for himself."
Cunningham's first performance at the Walker, in 1963, was the beginning of a decades-long relationship. After he died, his company shut down in accordance with his wishes, and the Walker bought his archive of sets, costumes and choreography notes — some 4,500 items. The collection is so big that it fills eight galleries in Minneapolis, and more at a simultaneous show at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.
A number of those pieces are by some of the best-known artists of the 20th century. Cunningham and his life partner, composer John Cage, believed in collaboration, so painter Robert Rauschenberg became the company's first stage manager (he was succeeded by Jasper Johns) and Andy Warhol designed sets.
Walker curator Philip Bither says Cunningham's collaborations had a real impact on the art world. "Dozens of visual artists and dozens of composers — the way they thought about their own work and the way they made sculptures or installations or paintings changed after working with Cunningham."
Many of the artists Cunningham influenced are still working, and Bither says that helps keep the choreographer's work relevant. Silas Riener, who danced with Cunningham for four years, now has a company with fellow dancer Rashaun Mitchell. Riener says he'll never forget what he learned from Cunningham. "I've never been so intimately familiar with another artists work," he says, "and so he feels present to me constantly."
Riener and Mitchell are collaborating with Charles Atlas for the Walker show. Atlas is creating his first 3-D film, and for part of it Riener and Mitchell will dance as the film billows around them. It's pure Cunningham: Try something new and see how it works out.