Theater archives

Past Present


Dancers and choreographers tend to be unconcerned with what came before them; they live in a sweaty present of creative ferment, occasionally glancing toward the future. They, along with Merce Cunningham’s admirers, can glean much from the company’s new History Matters evenings—a mix of information, reminiscences, archival footage, and live performance.

Last week, the studio was packed with people revisiting the 1970s with Cunningham, Ellen Cornfield, Valda Setterfield, and company archivist David Vaughan. Illuminating facts surfaced in many guises. From 1973 to 1975, the company’s only New York performances were events presented in the studio. In that decade, Cunningham and filmmaker Charles Atlas began to adventure with a movie camera (the bleached-out condition of footage from Westbeth [1975] ought to make us all the more grateful for a project to film some recent Cunningham dances with more up-to-date equipment).

The program offered such visual pleasures as a black-and-white movie of Setterfield, Charles Moulton, and a rascally interloper (Cunningham) in Signals, and a segue from the 1979 dancers in Atlas’s film of the marvelous Locale to their live 2007 counterparts, while the panel provided insights into process and company life (Valda, suffering partial amnesia after a car accident, read detective novels for therapy; Merce placed books in brown paper bags around the studio for her to find). Cunningham explains how space—whether that of a small studio or a camera frame—affected his choreography, and how technology enlarged his vision. Countering remarks about how fiendishly difficult Torse was to perform (evident from the space-slicing trio executed by Emma Dejardins, Daniel Madoff, and Rashaun Mitchell), he remarked equably that even when you can’t learn or do a certain movement, in struggling with it, “you find out something about your dancing that you hadn’t known before.”

Cunningham at 88 is an ongoing force of nature. Green World: Merce Cunningham, the first semi-annual, book-format publication from 2wice (previously a journal), pays homage to that fact with gorgeous double-page photo spreads of stones, leaves, peacock feathers, water, etc., and green interiors to its French-fold pages. For Katherine Wolkoff’s camera, Cunningham placed blue-clad dancers in the gardens of a Florida estate that mimics a Renaissance Italian villa. They blossom from shrubbery, lean out from behind topiary, and counter the vertical thrust of marble columns. A 1959 comment by Cunningham prefaces the book: “Art, if it communicates anything, must have its communication in that place where the rational and the irrational do their intriguing and giddy duet; that area of response to nature where the action of nature, in all her twists and turns, is the evoking hand.”

That, in the best sense, is history, and it matters still.