Traces of Genius

Merce Cunningham in rare stillness

In the revelatory exhibit at Lincoln Center on Merce Cunningham, there's a photograph taken by Radford Bascombe of a duet in Cunningham's 1956 Suite for Five. The choreographer, kneeling, bears Carolyn Brown on one shoulder. She's posed as if in a just-launched swan dive, and they both gaze into the distance with fearless intensity.

It's in part that awareness of each passing moment in space and time that makes Cunningham's dances so remarkable, yet the camera's frozen moment also shows that to Merce, stillness is a form of motion. He's also committed to forward thrust in aesthetic terms. Several statements that hang above this fine exhibit (co-curated by Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Michelle Potter, and David Vaughn, and designed by Donald J. Vlack) end with "I do not think of each dance as an object, rather as a short stop on the way."

Adventurousness pervades the show. Here—amid the photos, posters, programs, films of Summerspace in 1958 and in 2000, Eliot Caplan's video documentary Cage/Cunningham, costumes by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—are insights into process. Cunningham's notes attest to his chance manipulations. A piano "prepared" for John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes" reveals that the composer's process for these early works didn't involve simply throwing a handful of stuff on the strings. Each screw is meticulously placed, and, when they weren't in use, he kept them in labeled and filed envelopes. There are also lovely instructions for the singer of his "Song with Electronics" that involve following a southerly journey on a New England map, turning the map sideways, and letting the now-horizontal route suggest a melody—tempo to be decided by the singer. You can even feel the power of Cunningham's ingenuity when confronted with costumes he designed and made for some early solos. I like to imagine him sitting down with needle and thread to create the outfit for his 1944 Root of an Unfocus; an appliqué of black lines fans out from a curious sort of badge on the back of a brown twill shirt. He and dancer Valda Setterfield knitted the multi-sleeved sweater he wore in Antic Meet.

Merce Cunningham in Antic Meet (1958).
photo: Richard Rutledge
Merce Cunningham in Antic Meet (1958).

The last corner of the exhibit features an echt Cage-Cunningham experience. Six video monitors show Cunningham works, plus a fixed-camera image of a country road that few cars use. Pushing buttons that control the sound coming through your headphones, you can decide to watch, say, a woman dancing, very beautifully, a solo in Biped to the sound of a passing automobile.

 
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