A New Survey Highlights Merce Cunningham's Collaborative Career

In this two-part series, CGN intern Jacqueline Lewis shares her insights into the new Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition and accompanying performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Lewis has been a dancer for most of her life; she took her first dance lesson at two years old, and she began training with the Lou Conte Dance Studio at the age of sixteen. The second part in the series, which focuses on the Centre Chorégraphique National-Ballet de Lorraine's recent MCA Stage performance, will be published Friday, March 10, 2017.


On view now through April 30 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are two simultaneous presentations of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. They are the largest surveys to date of Merce Cunningham and his multiple artistic collaborations.

Cunningham, who was a prolific choreographer, determined that “music and dance and art could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.” The MCA successfully demonstrates this idea in the exhibition, which displays these three aspects in a cohesive yet distinct manner.

In order to create these multidimensional works, Cunningham collaborated with artists spanning diverse artistic fields of expertise. Even though he was primarily a choreographer and dancer, Cunningham believed that all facets of performance were equally important. He did not prioritize dance over the set design or the music since they all worked together to create a cohesive work of art. In fact, Cunningham believed that dance did not have to be deliberately connected to music so he would often ask composers for music without showing them the choreography.

One of the first galleries in the exhibition at the MCA immerses the viewer in performance videos that continuously change on screens to a musical score that does not match any of the dances. The installation allows the viewer to experience the disjointed connection that Cunningham strived for in his music and dance compositions.

The videos are projected in a long, dark gallery solely dedicated to excerpts of choreography. The screens hang at different levels and angles, which envelopes the viewer in Cunningham’s world of dance and allows them to experience the intricacies of his style from the inside. The movements are strong, sharp and full of classical technique with a new twist.

Cunningham famously used the element of chance in his choreography, and often consulted the Chinese book of chance, I Ching, when creating movement patterns for his dancers. Later in his career, Cunningham choreographed with the help of computer programs, which gave him the opportunity to test human physical limits. He would create a seemingly impossible movement with the software and then see how closely his dancers could mimic that technique. Cunningham dancers can attest to the physical and mental demands of these techniques due to their almost inhuman nature.

Common Time also includes a room dedicated to Cunningham’s notebooks, company fliers, costumes and photographs, most notably one that depicts him and Martha Graham. This room, along with a timeline on one of the walls, allows viewers to gain an appreciation of the man behind the synergistic works that light up the exhibition space.

Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, and studied dance in the small town throughout his youth. He applied to Seattle’s Cornish School (now Cornish College for the Arts) as a drama major but changed it to dance after taking a life-changing course with former Martha Graham Dance Company member, Bonnie Bird. Around this time, he met composer and visiting lecturer John Cage, who would become immensely influential to Cunningham’s artistic philosophy. 

After college, Cunningham danced with the famed Martha Graham Dance Company until the summer of 1945 when he left to pursue his own work. He created The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) in 1953 while at Black Mountain College. His company ran from then until 2011 after which it performed a legacy tour, which had been planned by Cunningham before his own death. This tour celebrated almost sixty years of work.

Along with archival materials, the exhibition also features a set design installation consisting of movable chairs, bicycle frames, ropes, sails and can tins created by Robert Rauschenberg for Cunningham’s performance, Summerspace (1958/77).  The inclusion of the chair acknowledges Marcel Duchamp and his Bicycle Wheel readymade, thus connecting Cunningham’s work directly to the visual arts. 

In another gallery, Jasper Johns’ set design for Walkaround Time (1968/85) is on display. By 1968, Jasper Johns became the artistic director of the MCDC and considered himself a curator of ideas. He reached out to Marcel Duchamp and inquired about using some form of The Large Glass for stage décor.  Also known as The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, the work is a glass sculpture fused with other materials such as wires and lead foil. The Large Glass is transparent, allowing the viewer to look through it, and Duchamp, who must have found the piece to hold a great deal of importance, worked on it for about eight years. Jasper Johns was permitted to recreate The Large Glass in a way that allowed dancers to move around sections of the work while others hung above the stage. The transparent quality of the pieces heightened audience perception and gave the illusion of the dancers living within the décor itself.

Finally, in what will most likely be a visitor favorite, the exhibition presents a gallery dedicated to Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, which were used as stage décor for Rainforest (1968). Adapted for the dance, the helium filled balloons floated around the dancers while some remained on the ground to be kicked. The set design became a living organism that could respond and mutate based on chance encounters with dancers. Now, museumgoers have the opportunity to interact with the “clouds,” too.

The cross-disciplinary programming of the MCA and the Walker provide an ideal platform to explore Cunningham’s own multi-dimensional, collaborative approach.  Common Time is an immersive experience incorporating audio, painting, video, sculpture, technology and fashion.  Accompanying the exhibition are a number of performances including Music for Merce and Ballet de Lorraine: Works by Merce Cunningham and Others.  More information on these events and the exhibition can be found here.

Top image: Installation view, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, MCA Chicago. Feb 11 – Apr 30, 2017. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.