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)


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.




(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).


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





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


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 (

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




I'm still just being a terrible blogger. I'm so busy trying to catch up. So here's a quick video of Pina Bausch and co doing a beautiful dance to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I'm personally doing my own rites of spring, so I thought it was appropriate.

Pina Bausch is a modern dance choreographer that I have been studying off and on for the last year. Her work is obscure and often hard to follow, but I really love her take on movement. She also incorporates a lot of dance for film and land art, which I really love. If you just do a Google image search on Pina Bausch, you can see her striking continuity throughout her various works. Her aesthetic is very strong and feminine. The costumes she uses are Grecian and with tonal shades as a common motif. She tends to work with natural elements like water and flowers a lot.

She's a genius.

I'll say more about her eventually, but for now. Here's a small taste.






Today is the birthday of my grandmother Tess, (Bagtazo's namesake), so it's got me thinking about age. In my youth Tess often climbed the avocado tree in our backyard, using a bamboo stick she had split at the end to yank the fruit from the tree. Now at 83, she can no longer climb a tree, but back then when she did, I wondered how she was able, since I knew plenty of healthy people younger than her who were physically incapable.

Anyone who has seen how people in the Philippines climb palm trees to get fruit might understand how a woman in her 60s could still climb an avocado tree, but for most people in the US, a senior citizen who can climb a tree while wielding a stick with complete confidence is almost unheard of. Especially in the 80s and 90s. Fortunately for me, I think this means I have good genes, but I surely don't innately possess this skill because I am without a lifetime of practice.

So in effort to remind myself of the life-long dedication required in movement, I thought I'd share a film clip of Russian Prima Ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya dancing in the "Dying Swan" scene from Swan Lake in 2009 at age 61:

Plisetskaya was born in 1925, seven years before my grandmother, and was still performing ballet almost up to her death this year in 2015. Plisetskaya started dancing at age 9, which means she danced for nearly 80 years! And just think... at the time of this film, when she was 61, Pisetskaya was able to cambre forward and backwards while in half splits. All because she had the practice. (It does also help that she never injured herself to the point where movement became an issue, but my point is that she practiced so much that she prolonged her ability to move well beyond the average age).

So next time you let 3 weeks slide because perhaps you were busy getting married, going on a honeymoon and then doing market week... remind yourself of this beautiful video of Maya Plisetskaya moving with the grace of a swan. Because even when nearing death, her grace was a result of regular practice in movement as much as it was a result of her being an extraordinary dancer.

Courtney Cady, 2015




In the early stages of design, I often study art history. This time around, I frequently looked to Bauhaus, a Modernist art movement that spawned from art schools in Germany, and eventually spread throughout Europe in the early 20th Century. My initial impression of Bauhaus was limited to architecture, typography, and design. And then I delved deeper, learning that the group's ethos combined art forms, similar to the American Arts and Crafts movement of the same era. This philosophy, which discarded academic traditions by giving equal weight to various arts, resulted in a multi-disciplinary corpus of work.

Most standard art history timelines omit mention of Bauhaus, and yet the group's work impacted society to such an extent that fonts developed by Bauhaus designers are still used today. Not to mention the returned interest in Bauhaus graphic and textile design, which is happening contemporarily. I also think that the current trend of calling oneself a “maker” indirectly adopts one of the core principles of Bauhaus, namely its attempt at uniting creativity and manufacturing. In melding these two components, Bauhaus was able to encompass various art forms, and so beyond architecture and graphic design, came textile and costume design, as well as dance, performance and theatre.

It is with the latter that I am most intrigued. Partly because many of the participating artists were female, but also because of the bizarre and beautiful nature of the work.

In 1922, Oskar Schlemmer, a professor in the Theatre of Bauhaus debuted Das Triadisches Ballett (The Triadic Ballet) in Stuttgart, Germany. Schlemmer used the human body as a medium, experimenting with pantomime and ballet with this performance, which toured Europe through the mid 1930s. By incorporating costumes that reduced the human figure to geometric, formalist shapes, Das Triadisches provided strange and humorous imagery via dance and dress. 

The Schlemmer Theatre Estate describes Das Triadisches Ballett choreography and color settings, stating that the origin of the title, "Triadic Ballet" derives from the division of the acts:

The first part, which takes place on a stage dressed in lemon yellow colors, is a comedic burlesque. The subject of the second part, on a stage dressed in pink, has a festival/ceremonial air. Finally, the third part is developed in a mystical/fantastical way before a totally black background. Three dancers, two men and a woman, perform twelve dances of alternating forms.

The costumes deliberately limit the participants’ freedom of movement due to the weight of the materials they are made from, their forms, and the masks worn. They are walking architectural structures that move in a comic fashion, playful, sharp, and clumsy across the entire stage. For his figurines, Oskar Schlemmer took advantage of the new technologies of the era, “the scientific apparatus of glass and metal, the artificial members that are used in surgery, the fantastic military and diving uniforms."

I often draw from military costume for inspiration, and so I am especially intrigued by Schlemmer's style in military design. It goes to show that artists can share influences with dissimilar results. I also really love working within certain restraints, like using a Polaroid camera instead of a digital, or in this case dancing in restrictive costumes. If dancers can perform a ballet without restriction, what happens when the artist places themself in a box? Schlemmer's approach in designing the costumes before the choreography explored just that.

In 1968 Das Triadische was reconstructed and performed in a thirty minute piece for German television by Margarete Hasting, Franz Schömbs and Georg Verden. The re-performance of this work was a major feat because it is said that about eight minutes of the original score by Paul Hindersmith remained at the time of reconstruction, and that if Schlemmer had made a more detailed record of the choreography, it no longer existed. Everything was pieced together from notes, mostly from the archive of Schlemmer's 1938 costume and design exhibition at MoMA. Thus the performance and the costumes may not be completely accurate, given these circumstances. It is unclear to me whether the costumes were reconstructed entirely at that time since a few of the original costumes remain in the archive, but there is record that some had to be remade from Schlemmer's drawings.

Regardless of whether the re-performance is entirely accurate, the work is incredible. It is funny to me that what was "modern" in the 1920s was just as modern in 1968, and remains modern today. Generally, what was once experimental later becomes the norm, though in this case the experimental elements of the work with regard to costume and movement remain.

Schlemmer's original work influenced the costumes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), providing evidence that his designs were seen as futuristic from the start:

And in 1974, David Bowie appears as Ziggy Stardust wearing a costume designed by Kansai Yamamoto which closely resembles a costume from Das Triadisches


In both cases with Metropolis and Bowie's attire, the costumes are viewed as 'cutting edge,' despite being variations of Schlemmer's ballet costumes from the early 20th Century.

In 1977, Das Triadische was reproduced again, this time by German choreographer Gerhard Bohner. It looks like Bohner's version toured through the 80s because I found a funny review from 1985 in the New York Times on the piece, basically calling his version total shit.

Finally, in 2014 Das Triadische was performed yet again in Berlin, this time based on Gerhard Bohner's reconstruction. But since Bohner's work received such poor reviews, I'm not sure what resulted from the latest iteration.  

Being passed down in an almost folkloric way, Schlemmer's work has been preserved verbally and through imagery, leaving reperformances open to interpretation. While still relatively unknown, Das Triadisches has invariably influenced aesthetics, even at the end of the post-modern era. 

Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo, 2015





Two years ago I was in pain to the point that I couldn't get out of bed. After numerous tests, I learned that the cause was due to an irreversible nerve issue in my brain. While searching for a remedy, I read that neuroscientists say with my condition, the brain responds well to movement, as long as the motions are not associated with pain or treatment for the pain. This made me realize that I could do ballet as therapy. I had danced for 17 years during childhood, but stopped in my 20s because I thought everyone was too square.

Since rekindling my interest in ballet, I've discovered choreographer, Michael Clark on the recommendation of a friend. Michael Clark's work is often referred to as "anti-ballet" or "post-punk ballet," which sounds like the best form of ballet I could think of.

In the 1980s Clark formed his own dance company after a brief stint with Ballet Rambert following his studies with the Royal Ballet School in London. Clark had danced since he was four years old, beginning with traditional Scottish dance in the town where he grew up. In the early days, his company performed with post-punk groups, The Fall (my fav), Wire, and Leibach. Their wardrobe was made by another of my favorites, Leigh Bowery, as well as designers Bodymap and Trojan, who later became known for their 'club kid' fashion in London and New York.

Among these, I find his work with The Fall and Leigh Bowery the most influential. In 1983, filmmaker Charles Atlas made a faux cinema verite film about Clark called Hail the New Puritan, in which some of Clark's best work was captured (in my opinion). The film is titled after The Fall's song "The New Puritan," and includes three dances to music by The Fall, with company members clad in Leigh Bowery costumes.

I think I love this work so much, in part because of the dances themselves, but also because of the conceptual art surrounding the movements. Clark remarks on this work in an interview saying, "It was easy provocation with costumes or props--like the middle finger, or costumes with bare asses, or dildos on stage. It was often about extraneous things, not necessarily about the dance. But back then these gestures were important, because ballet is so rigid." Beyond bringing a flexed foot to ballet, Clark's 'extraneous things' provoked timely statements regarding gender, 'normative behavior,' corporate advertising, and sexuality that went beyond a 'fuck you' to classical ballet.

Clark continued in this vein through the 90s, until he hit a wall and took a break for three years. (Leading up to this he had become a heroin addict, sort of on accident, as he had wanted to do a solo piece for The Velvet Underground's, Heroin, and thought it "disingenuous" to not do heroin during this process).

I find relief in knowing that someone so prolific had to stop to take a break, even if it was to kick heroin. That makes Michael Clark more human to me. People like to posture as if they're only their work, especially in creative industries, and I know from experience how difficult it is to put one's ambitions aside in order to take care of yourself. In this type of work, your creations consume you, and so to put this on hold, even for a good cause, is something like death.

In 2001, he resumed his work in choreography, returning with homages to Stravinsky, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, The Stooges, and David Bowie.

Clark's last production came in 2013, and so I'm not sure what else he's working on, but I can't wait. I'm surprised that with how well-received his work is, he is not better known. Much of his productions are difficult to find on the internet, despite the media coverage he gets afterwards. However, there is a contemporary documentary on him that I highly recommend, as well as dozens of reviews on his various performances.

I think the best thing about being a designer, for me, is that I get to continuously study, and find out about new things as part of my process. Learning of someone whose work combines fashion, ballet, post punk, conceptual art, and performance art makes me giddy--the way I felt when I discovered these subjects independently of one another in my youth. Plus this growing knowledge of my creative predecessors will undoubtedly influence my work, which is what designing, to me, is all about.

Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo, 2015