Posts tagged Site Specific Performance
MOVEMENT STUDY: MERCE CUNNINGHAM - FILMDANCE, COLLABORATION + COMMON TIME
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It took me three years to write this article, and now that LACMA in Los Angeles is doing an exhibition on Merce Cunningham, I feel compelled to finish it. The reason I’ve taken so long is because Merce Cunningham’s body of work is immense and I just couldn’t figure out how to reign this article in. Plus, I mostly used books for this research so it took me forever. But rather than write a 500 page essay, I decided to focus on my favorite aspects of his work, and split this article into mini chapters, so apologies in advance for the fragmented essay, I just really want to get this thing out already!

A pioneer in choreography, Merce Cunningham pushed the envelope with modern dance, giving birth to new dance forms that moved away from traditional ballet (though his technique is still very rooted in the structure ballet requires).

Having first caught Martha Graham’s eye in the late 1930s while in college at the Cornish School in Seattle, WA, he was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York City in 1939 where he danced for six years. As early as the 1940s, Cunningham was creating avant garde dance in collaboration with his life partner, John Cage. The two explored how dance and music could exist independently of one another rather than create dance movements dictated by the rhythm of its music.

In 1953, Merce Cunningham started his own dance company, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, creating what is now known as the Cunningham Technique during his time teaching at Black Mountain College outside of Asheville North Carolina (if you read these articles you know I’m obsessed with everything that came out of there).

Film Dance

My favorite aspect of Merce Cunningham’s work is known as filmdance. Because Cunningham wasn't happy with the way his choreography had been portrayed through film when television first started broadcasting dance performances, he created filmdance, which was dance performed with the screen in mind. It seems filmdance was also extremely important to Cunningham himself, as I found in a piece he wrote called Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries, in which he lists as the third "event" as the beginning of his work with video and film in the 1970s. (Common Time, Fionn Meade)

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Around the time television started dominating the way in which people consumed dance, Cunningham opened his Westbeth New York studio in 1971, where the filmdance was born. His first filmdance was self-titled Westbeth, and was filmed over weekends in the Fall of 1974. (During this time, site-specific performance was just starting, and naming his first piece Westbeth was no coincidence). The amazing thing about the Westbeth studio was that it had been made for television filming, which is one of the reasons Cunningham was drawn to the space. In New York, many large rooms have columns obstructing the open space, but this studio was originally Bell Telephone Labs in the West Village, which happened to be the studio where the first television transmission had taken place sometime in the early 1930s.

During my studies on the Westbeth performance, I ACTUALLY FOUND THE FIRST RECORDING of its performance!

Below is a 30 minute video and at the time I found it, it had 40 views. If you have the patience, try watching the whole thing, and if you don't still watch some of it because HELLO this is the first recording of Merce Cunningham's film dances. OMG

The early filmdances weren’t yet perfected, so it wasn't until his third filmdance, Locale (1979-1980) that film was shot continuously with no cuts. Being the collaborator that he was, Merce Cunningham hired filmmaker Charles Atlas to join his technical staff when he opened the Westbeth studio, and it was Atlas who played a large role in honing in on how to best film these filmdances.

In addition to the studio being perfect for filmdance, Westbeth had an office whose windows looked out onto the city streets. Many of the movements Cunningham used during this time were based on the movements of pedestrians he saw moving about New York City from his office windows. This is why though some gestures in Cunningham’s work seem odd for dance, they are still somewhat familiar.

Merce Cunningham + John Cage

From press images of Root of an Unfocus, 1944. Barbara Morgan

From press images of Root of an Unfocus, 1944. Barbara Morgan

Now, to go back to the beginning since Cunningham’s story is long and super interesting, I’d like to discuss some of the dance events that led Cunningham to his film dances. While dancing with The Martha Graham Dance company, Cunningham held his first solo performance, which was in collaboration with his partner, John Cage. Experimental in nature, the performance Root of an Unfocus in 1944 was Cunningham’s first public performance where dance and music worked independently of each other. The dance was created after Cunningham realized, “Music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.” Regarding this performance, Cunningham later stated, "The main thing about it–and the thing everybody missed–was that its structure was based on time in the same sense that a radio show is. It was divided into time units, and the dance and music would come together at the beginning and the end of each unit, but in between they would be independent of each other. This was the beginning of the idea that music and dance could be dissociated, and from this point on the dissociation in our work just got wider and wider" (Common Time, Meade).

Merce Cunningham and John Cage

Merce Cunningham and John Cage

Cage & Cunningham met in Seattle in 1938 where Cunningham was studying dance at Cornish School. Cage was the new dance accompanist and composer there. (Cage had just moved from Carmel, CA with his then-wife). Cage was exploring the "simultaneousness of music" and would break down time in terms of ‘divides of time and space,’ drawing on the floor to demonstrate his guidelines. Cunningham saw Cage’s approach as a strict way to guide movement in ways that the traditional relationship between dance and music had not before.

Cage was a very interesting man himself. At the age of 19, Cage dropped out of college and went to Bauhaus school in Dessau during 1930-31. Being exposed to Bauhaus' interdisciplinary approach to art, Cage returned home to create music from unconventional instruments such as anvils and car parts in the late 1930s. By the 1940s, Cage had created new sounds with what he called a "prepared piano," lodging screws or rubber between piano strings to affect tonal changes. The avant garde approach John Cage took with his music was a perfect fit for the way Merce Cunningham wanted to explore dance, and so the two became collaborators, eventually leading to their relationship as life-partners.

John Cage’s “Prepared Piano”

John Cage’s “Prepared Piano”

Following Cage's first use of “chance in music” in 1950, Merce Cunningham tossed a coin to determine the outline for a sequence of isolated movements through the use of chance, and then pieced them together for "unexpected results." Through the use of chance, Cunningham was able to achieve movements that he had thought couldn't be done. The impact of John Cage’s perspective can be seen throughout the arc of Cunningham’s creative life. Complimenting one another so well, the result of their more than 500 collaborations is impressive.

Black Mountain College

After leaving the Martha Graham Dance Company, Merce Cunningham spent three "formative summers" at Black Mountain College in 1948, 1952 and 1953. To me, Black Mountain College is like the Bauhaus School of the United States. So many important artists came out of Black Mountain College. Also due to WWII, some artists of the Bauhaus School ended up in the US, eventually teaching at Black Mountain College as well, and with them, they brought their interdisciplinary approach.

One such Bauhaus artist, Josef Albers, worked at Black Mountain College from 1933 - 1949. (I love him, read this article I wrote on Albers a while back if you care to). In 1948, the same year that Cunningham and Cage first visited the school, Albers invited them back as teachers and performers in the school’s Summer Sessions. That year’s summer session is now considered legendary, as heavy hitters of the American art world all convened there before many of them earned the fame they have today. (For a good article about this summer session, go here).

Robert Rauschenberg

During their time participating at Black Mountain College, Cunningham and Cage were still based in New York, where Cage was teaching at the New School. And as I mentioned, in 1953, Cunningham formed his company, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Being the collaborator that Merce Cunningham was, he hired the company’s first art director, Robert Rauschenberg in 1954 after working together at Black Mountain College. Cunningham asked Rauschenberg to make something for 'dance area' something "he could move through, around, and with” and from there, Rauschenberg created amazing sets and costumes for Cunningham dances for several years.

ROBERT RAUCHENBERG FOR MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY

ROBERT RAUCHENBERG FOR MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY

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(I ran a piece on Rauschenberg’s role with the Cunningham Dance Theatre a while back. If you’d like to read that, go here).

COMME DES GARCONS

After forming the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Merce collaborated with many others, including Rei Kawakubo, the designer for Comme Des Garcons.

COMME DES GARCONS FOR MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY

COMME DES GARCONS FOR MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY

COMME DES GARCONS FOR MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY

FILMDANCES

Here are some of my favorite videos I’ve found on the internet of Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s FilmDances

Merce Cunningham lived until 2009 and I will say that not attending one of his workshops before his death is one of my few regrets in life but at least his work is memorialized in Cunningham Technique courses all over the world.


Courtney Cady, ©2018


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Merce Cunningham Trust

Merce Cunningham: Co:mm:on Ti:me, 2017. Walker Art Center

Changes: Notes on Choreography, 1968. Merce Cunningham

Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, 2013. The MIT Press

Black Mountain Studies Journal (blackmountainstudiesjournal.org)

Arts Summary: Merce Cunningham Common Time at Walker Art Center, 2017


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FEMALE STUDY: MEREDITH MONK'S ORDINARY OBJECTS

I'm in design mode again, and this time I've been referencing performance artists working in the 1960s and 70s to help me shape the tone of my next collection.

Lately my main focus has been on Judson Dance Theatre, which was a repurposed church that housed a number of avant-garde dance and performance artists working between 1962-1964 in Greenwich Village, NYC. With the help of Choreographer Robert Dunn and composer John Cage, performers at the Judson Dance Theatre worked to re-envision modern dance by eliminating its compositional constraints to incorporate ordinary gestures, which effectively created what is now known as postmodern dance.

Among the artists working in the Judson Dance Theatre, Meredith Monk's early work with site-specific performance, and her postmodern approach to dance and music has really struck me. While pioneering an interdisciplinary approach to performance, Monk incorporated everyday movements and sounds in her work with a classic postmodern stance. However, Monk took her work beyond traditional postmodernism by combining her interdisciplinary approach with consideration for the venue her performances were held. This unique technique made for some very interesting work, especially while she was in her early experimental phases.

VIDEO: 16 MILLIMETER EARRINGS, 1966
(This video is unable to play on other sites, so click this link link to view)

16mm Earrings was one of Monk's first interdisciplinary pieces. The original performance was held at the Judson Church in 1966 which included sound loops that echoed in the theatre, and incorporated smells of formaldehyde and burning tires to provoke all of the senses of the viewers. The above video was a re-performance made in 1979 in effort to document the work. 

16mm Earrings was a sort of 'coming of age' work where Monk explored her sexuality, and began to form her own artistic identity outside of the influence of her postmodern predecessors at the Judson Dance Theatre. In an interview Monk explains her aim with the piece:

With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally. By reading [Wilhelm Reich’s 1940] The Function of Orgasm, I could objectify it. It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all; it was just the opposite of someone like Karen Finley. It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.

This distinctive interpretation of what 'ordinary objects' meant is what sets Monk's work apart from her contemporaries. Likewise, her willingness to reject minimalism in her theories and her aesthetic was a departure from her predecessors, making her work it's own niche of avant-garde.

After working with the Judson Theatre, Monk formed her own vocal ensemble. As Monk worked into the 1980s, her performance pieces pushed the limits of what she was accepting and rejecting from postmodernism even further, creating a number of bizarre, but provocative pieces. (I once read in an interview with David Lynch that in the 80s, the highest compliment one could give another person in regards to their art, was that it was "weird." Well Monk definitely wins the weird award for her work in the 1980s.)

The amazing strangeness I speak of can be seen here in Monk's Turtle Dreams(Monk doesn't allow her videos to be embedded on other sites, so please click this link to watch)

Turtle Dreams was recorded for television in 1983, and incorporated Monk's interpretation of postmodern movement, as well as her own music, which took multi layered vocals and minimal droning instrumental music to set the mood for the entire piece. I really love the gloves on the synth player, as well as the expressions on the performer's faces. It's hard for me to believe that this actually aired on television, it's just so strange. 

But what makes this piece important, to me, is that Monk uses sounds and lyrics that aren't generally considered 'musical' as one of the focal points of the piece. What might seem like uncommon sounds though, are actually basic noises that all humans make outside of speaking formal language. And the common, however non sequitur lyrics or words stand out as odd or unlyrical, despite their being used in everyday language.  This combination makes for an almost oxymoronic juxtaposition that the viewer is left to sort out on their own.

What also strikes me as significant about Turtle Dreams is that the performance was made with the camera in mind. This approach, which is known as dance for film, is a matured version of site-specific performance that is basically a side effect of the ubiquity of motion picutres at the time.

During the 1980s Monk also filmed two features, Ellis Island and Book of Days. Again using an interdisciplinary approach, Monk uses her personal sound and movement techniques, as well as a dance for film approach.

Excerpt from "Book of Days," 1988

Book of Days isn't easy to find in full length, but of the excerpts I've seen, it's my favorite of the two features Monk made because of her use of 1980s anachronisms in a "medieval" period piece. I also really like her application of dance for film. The movements go in and out of frame with intention, which is like a way of directly breaking the fourth wall, without the performers actually interacting with the audience. 

However bizarre Monk's work might seem, I find her to be extremely influential, any strangeness aside. All the Portland art school 'weirdos,' the non-burners in Oakland, and everyone at the Smell in LA and Weird in NY circa 2002-2010 can thank Monk for her ability to take the ordinary and obscure it. Without her contributions to postmodern art, pop culture of the late 1990s through the millennium wouldn't quite have the flavor it does. 


Courtney Cady ©Bagtazo 2015