Camille LeFevre on teaching and writing arts journalism

Stage Beauty: The Walker’s acquisition of Cunningham sets

During a recent theater tour, I was astounded to learn that much of the scenery painstakingly created for each new show (at least those with limited runs) is simply, and often by necessity due to space and storage limitations, trashed after the show closes. Certainly not every backdrop or flat, architectural staircase or balcony, chair or curtain is a masterpiece worth saving. Yet often, in dance anyway, such components of a stage performance are considered artworks—extremely valuable ones, at that—worthy of museum exhibition and conservation.

Choreographer Ralph Lemon’s movement pieces with stunningly complex art objects by Nari Ward come to mind, as do dance artist Bill T. Jones’s collaborations with artist Keith Haring on sets. Of course the late-choreographer Merce Cunningham was the master and precedent-setter of collaborative methods based purely on chance, with score, movement, lighting, costumes and décor (as Cunningham called the visual art or sets on stage) created wholly independent of each other.

The components only came together on opening night, often after a roll of the dice determined the sequence of choreographic phrases for the dance portion of the work. Such “chance operations,” as Cunningham called this technique, freed the viewer’s imagination to conjure serendipitous connections between the components of a work.

Last week, the New York Times and then the Star Tribune announced that the Walker Art Center—which has long supported Cunningham’s choreographic works—is in the process of an important acquisition: upwards of 150 sets, costumes and art objects created for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company by such collaborators as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

If you’ve ever walked around Johns’ inflated plastic pillow-like structures for Cunningham’s “Walkaround Time” at the Walker, which are painted with images from Marcel Duchamp’s iconic “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” you know the thrill of experiencing—up close and personal—the resonance of a remarkable “set” that’s appeared on stages around the world with arguably the most flawlessly articulate modern dancers in America.

The singular set also moves slightly with your breath and the air currents generated by other visitors walking by, creating a kinetic experience of art history. Duchamp was a long-time friend of Cunningham and John Cage (a composer and the choreographer’s lifetime collaborator and partner), which Johns (another Cunningham-Cage collaborator) celebrated in his transparent objects. Also encapsulated in this work are the artists’ infamous collaborative methods, integral to the development of modern and post-modern art and performance.

The Walker, as noted in the New York Times article on the acquisition, will use the collection to “experiment with bolder ways of integrating dance and performance into the world of object-based art.” Such de-siloing of the arts is what Cunningham, Cage and their collaborators were about, particularly as the traditionally rigid boundaries separately the disciplines of theater, dance and performance art continue to dissolve.

Among the stage works you’ve seen recently, whether “theater” or “concert dance,” which performances include “décor” worth saving? Should performance companies make a more concerted effort to save sets or scenery? If so, how might they accomplish such conservation efforts financially?


March 28, 2011 Posted by | Miscellany | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Of Programs and Archives

After a theater performance recently, as the applause died down and we began collecting our belongings, a friend who had accompanied me said, “Are you recycling your program? Oh, that’s right: You always keep your programs because you’re a critic.” Which led me to thinking. Why do I keep the paper programs from the theater, dance, opera, music and other performances I attend?

Sure, they’re a necessary reference while crafting a review, particularly for the names of the costume or lighting designers, the music list, or an obscure but helpful bit of bio. But I also keep programs from performances not reviewed. And things are getting a bit out of hand.

Scattered around the basement are bulging envelopes bursting with programs from years, even decades past. In the wood file cabinet next to my desk, the half a drawer allocated to programs is overflowing with paper; sometimes bits of programs even migrate to other drawers…yes, it’s a mess.

“But I might need to reference a program someday,” is my plaintive response to my own question: Why are you keeping this stuff? So until performance companies start downloading their programs to my iPhone as soon as my tickets are confirmed (is anyone doing this yet? Hint, hint), I’m going to continue keeping my programs and stuffing them into drawers.

Unless, of course, I get organized and donate all the old programs and press kits, along with the thousands of reviews, previews, features, news items articles and other articles I’ve written, to the Performing Arts Archives at the University of Minnesota.

The archives, which are located in the Andersen Library next to the law school on the West Bank, came to my attention in 2009 as I was writing an article on the exhibition, “Houlton’s Legacy: The Magic of Dance,” on view in the Anderson Library Gallery. The exhibition was created from material on Minnesota Dance Theater—photographs, costumes, articles, founder Loyce Houlton’s drafts of her autobiography; much of it rescued from a dumpster and given to the archives for safe keeping.

I met with then-curator Deborah Ultan Boudewyns, who asked me to look through the archived material and help identify people, places and dance works. Houlton’s era was before my time (although I remember her firing and MDT’s short-lived merger with Pacific Northwest Ballet), so I could only provide the name of a rehearsal space in one photograph and the title of a dance work in another.

Nonetheless, as Boudewyns and I worked carefully through piles of fragile materials, I marveled at how bits and pieces of a creative life could spark recognition and conjure memory. During the opening reception for the exhibition a few weeks later, Gary Peterson (now executive director of the Southern Theater) whispered that I really needed to gather all of my materials together—which would, in effect, provide a historical perspective on the past 20 years of dance in the Twin Cities—and that he was going to begin bothering me to ensure I did so.

Well…still not done. Sorry, Gary. But the archives of New Dance Ensemble (the Merce Cunningham-inspired company, co-founded by Linda Shapiro and Leigh Dillard in the 1990s, on which I cut my teeth as a critic), have been submitted. Materials from James Sewell Ballet and JAZZDANCE by Danny Buraczeski are in the archives, as well as the papers of Gertrude Lippincott (a choreographer and dance educator).

The archive also includes materials from the Guthrie Theater and At the Foot of the Mountain; and the papers of theater director, writer, and administrator Robert Corrigan, and of playwright Frederick Gaines. The Minnesota Orchestra and various scenic backdrops are also part of the archives, along with film posters.

So, what’s holding me back? My reluctance to just dump boxes of musty, mildew-y paper on the gracious, diligent staff of the archives: I really should organize it all first. And the fact that, well, I’m not done yet. Who knows what I’ll be doing, writing about, reviewing, editing in the next 20 years.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pull your archives together and submit them. The staff at the Performing Arts Archives would love to hear from you.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | Miscellany | , , , | 2 Comments