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Merce Cunningham Dance Company finishes out last tour

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Merce Cunningham in Antic Meet
The chair strapped to Merce Cunningham's back is on display at the Walker Art Center.
Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform for the last time at the Walker Art Center this weekend.

One of the great innovators of American dance, Merce Cunningham died two years ago, and his company is doing a final tour. At the same time the Walker is launching a series of exhibitions of sets and costumes designed for Cunningham's company by some of the great visual artists of the 20th century.

Sage Cowles befriended Cunningham in the early 1940's in New York. She used to hang out with Cunningham and his loose-knit group of friends, artists and intellectuals living the bohemian life.    "I met him when I was 17, and we were both going to the School of American Ballet," Cowles said.

"With not a penny in their collective name," she said. "And so if anybody had an extra soup or something, 'Come over for supper.' It was a shared friendship because they were all working very hard at whatever it was they were imagining."    And this particular group imagined a lot. Cunningham was working with Martha Graham and developing his own movement style based on rigorous discipline in combination with chance elements, such as like rolling dice or flipping coins to determine how a dance would play out.

Robert Rauschenberg train
The exhibit at the Walker Art Center includes a train built out of boxes and old chairs which delivered the dancers on stage. Robert Rauschenberg built the train for just one show.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

His creative and life partner John Cage was to soon redefine musical composition. Others in the group, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, were about to launch their own assaults on the visual arts world. Sage Cowles had a career dancing on Broadway and television before moving to Minneapolis to become a huge supporter of dance. The new Cowles Center is named for her and her husband John.

But this was before any of them were famous and it was only natural that they would share and collaborate. As Cunningham prepared a dance, Cage might write the music, and Rauschenberg, who became Cunningham's stage manager, might design the costumes and sets. 

Much of this was done separately. The dancers rehearsed in silence and often only first heard the music on opening night. Cowles said it was heady stuff.    "For me one of the exciting things to go to a first evening was I was seeing a collection of artists reveal a complete collaboration of work that was happening right now," Cowles said.

Those collaborations kept coming throughout the seven decades Cunningham ran his company, which amassed a large collection of works by some of the great visual artists of the time.

And they were made to be used, said Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation.   "These were not precious objects to us," he said. "In the sense, that they were working materials."   Carlson is leading a tour at the Walker Art Center showcasing a new exhibit of sets and costumes called Dance Works 1 Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg. 

Robert Rauschenberg design
Robert Rauschenberg designed this set for MCDA in 1954 when he was not only set designer, but also stage manager. Even at a time when Rauschenberg's pieces were fetching tens of thousands of dollars, the company used to strap this piece on the roof of their Volkswagen microbus as they moved it between venues.
Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

Carlson points out an abstract panel Rauschenberg built for a dance piece called Minutia. It's worth a great deal of money and museum practice would call for white-gloved curators to handle the piece in climate-controlled conditions. But Carlson admits the Cunningham Company used to strap this Rauschenberg original to the roof of a VW microbus and drive in all sorts of weather to the next performance.

Walker curator Philip Bither chimes in: "Sometimes when these concerns were raised with Merce, like 'Should we heavily insure them or take better care or something, didn't he say 'Well I'll just ask Bob (Rauschenberg) to make another one?' Because they were really all friends."

"And he (Rauschenberg) did" Carlson laughed.

The Walker announced the acquisition of Cunningham artifacts in March this year. At the time curators anticipated getting about 150 objects, however Bither said the number is closer to 2000.

Aside from sets, there are costumes, such as some deceptively diaphanous dresses made from army surplus parachutes — which are in reality are so heavy their momentum sometimes threatened to pull dancers over.

Walker Art Center
Walker Art Center Researcher Abi Sebaly works on the conservation of items in the new collection of Merce Cunningham artifacts.
Walker Art Center/Gene Pittman

It will take years for Walker staff to catalog, conserve and research the collection, Bither said. Two more Dance Works exhibits are planned. In 2015, the center will host a major retrospective and symposium based on the collection. They have only just begun to scratch the surface, Bither said.

"Of course we think of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage and David Tudor and things, but there were dozens of fantastic artists he collaborated with."      The show is called "The Next Stage: Merce Cunningham at the Walker Art Center" to point out this is not an end but a transition, Bither said. The dance company will disband after a final performance in New York on New Years Eve, but a major part of the Cunningham legacy will now rest in Minnesota.