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