In 1966, Andy Warhol presented Silver Clouds, a new work featuring rectangular Mylar balloons, at Castelli Gallery in New York City. Meant to represent his retirement from painting as he turned his attention to filmmaking, the piece attracted the attention of choreographer Merce Cunningham, who immediately recognized how it might complement his own dances. The result was RainForest, which debuted two years later with an electronic score by experimental composer David Tudor.
Currently, Silver Clouds idles on the floor and ceiling of LACMA’s BCAM lobby as visitors make their way to " Merce Cunningham, Clouds and Screens," on view through March 31, in anticipation of the choreographer’s centennial year, 2019. Timed to coincide with the inaugural L.A. edition of the Frieze art fair in February, L.A.-based choreographer Jennie Mary Tai Liu will present a commissioned performance in response to the new exhibit.
Once visitors move past the clouds, they come upon the screens — suspended or wall-mounted, featuring excerpts from dances made by Cunningham. Collectively they are known as MC9, (Merce Cunningham to the 9th power), a nine-channel video installation of 21 clips from filmmaker Charles Atlas, official videographer of MCDC (Merce Cunningham Dance Company), from 1974 through 1983. Joining the company, his first responsibility was to inflate Warhol’s balloons for RainForest. One of his last was compiling MC9 as an homage to the groundbreaking dance maker around the time of his death in 2009.
“I call him the gold standard in collaboration. Even though I was way younger than he was, he allowed me to be an equal in the creation of the pieces,” Atlas tells L.A. Weekly. In addition to his time with MCDC, Atlas collaborated with Cunningham over a span of 40 years, striving to integrate the camera with the movement of dancers, citing Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain), Charles Walters (High Society) and Mark Sandrich (Top Hat) as influences.
“Atlas carefully designed the position of the screens at various angles and heights, making it impossible for the view to remain still, closely choreographing our visit,” curator Jose Luis Blondet explains. “He inserted, also, personal photographs of Cunningham as a child, footage from the studio, and rehearsal materials he produced for a PBS documentary on Merce.”
“My main goal was that people would know that Merce was a man, not a woman,” Atlas says about the movie. “Often, I would say I worked with Merce Cunningham. And people would say, ‘Oh, I know her,’ more often than you’d think! They see the name and they pretend to know the work.”
Cunningham gave Atlas unfettered freedom, allowing him to block camera moves first, then choreographing his dancers around them. “We wanted to do something different. So we started out pretty much full body in the very first pieces we did. And then we matured, and tried to use film language more,” Atlas says. “We decided on cuts but basically we worked on the moving shots, because the camera determined the space.”
A giant of modern American dance, Cunningham began his career in the late 1930s when he was invited to dance with Martha Graham’s cutting-edge company and moved from Centralia, Washington, to New York City. His first solo concert in 1944 was to the music of composer John Cage, who became his lifelong partner. As a teacher in residence at North Carolina’s legendary Black Mountain College, where cultural luminaries such as Josef and Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Walter Gropius, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Franz Kline, Willem and Elaine de Kooning and Allen Ginsberg taught or studied, Cunningham formed his dance company in 1953, including legends like Paul Taylor and Viola Farber.
He sometimes choreographed based on chance, using the Chinese method of I Ching to determine the order of his steps; likewise Cage in his collaborative scoring. Suite by Chance (1953) is a dance decided by a coin toss. Others, such as The Field Dances (1963), include providing a dancer with a list of moves performed in no particular order at a tempo of their own choosing. For Cunningham, movement, music and design were all distinct aesthetic entities brought together during the “common time” of performance.
“Many times the music accompanying Merce Cunningham’s choreography was unwelcome by critics and spectators, and many said it was better to watch the performance and ignore the music,” says Blondet, surveying the gallery of screens, which he first encountered at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where Cunningham and Cage enjoyed a 25-year collaboration beginning in 1963.
Other collaborators through the years include the most celebrated American artists from midcentury onward — Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, David Tudor, Rei Kawakuba from Comme de Garçons, Tacita Dean, Bruce Nauman and Frank Stella, as well as more current names like Gavin Bryars, Radiohead, Sigur Rós and Sonic Youth.
Another longtime collaborator, Robert Rauschenberg, has a pair of shows at LACMA through Feb. 10, "In and About L.A." and " The 1/4 Mile," a series of panels completed over 17 years, stretching a quarter mile.
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Rauschenberg’s Panel 57 includes a cutout of a figure with a chair attached to its back, referencing a costume he designed for Cunningham’s 1958 piece Antic Meet. He also designed outfits for 1958’s Changeling and Night Wandering, filmed in 1964, screening in the adjacent gallery in BCAM near the work of another collaborator, Richard Serra’s large-scale 2006 steel piece Band. Both films, shot in black-and-white, stand in stark cinematic contrast to Atlas’ dance-integrated camerawork.
“MC9 is a testimony to the greatness of Cunningham and the innovative work developed by Atlas to define the center of dance, camera and performance,” says Blondet, pausing to look at a later test sequence. In it, Atlas’ camera focuses on Cunningham’s feet in what is probably one of his last performances. He’s seated, wearing impossibly fluffy slippers, and silently tap-dancing.