Merce Cunningham Trust

Collaborating with Visual Artists


In June of 1958 when I asked Robert Rauschenberg if he could design something for a new dance I was making, then untitled, but later to be called "Summerspace", he asked me what the dance was about. I said, "It has no center point." This seemed to be sufficient for him, for later in the summer he turned up at the Connecticut College School of the Dance in New London with a backdrop that became the pointillist setting for the dance. He also sprayed the costumes on the dancers in the backyard of the house I had rented for the six-week session, using the same pointillist technique and adding something unique in terms of dense patches of color to each individual costume. The result on stage was, when a dancer paused and was still near the large backdrop, there was a kind of camouflage as with a quiet bird or animal in the woods.

Rauschenberg had not seen the dance previous to this time, it now being three or four days before the first performance. Equally so with the composer, Morton Feldman, who arrived in New London around the same time. Feldman had been composing the music in New York City; Rauschenberg designing the set in South Carolina, and I was working on the dance in New London. We came together, hopefully in good faith, our collaboration having been separate individual doing work and bringing it together as three distinct components, no one dependent upon the other, but acting interdependently at the same time.

This was not the first time Rauschenberg and I had worked together -- the beginning was in 1954 with a dance called "Minutiae" -- but this was, I think, the first time that such a separation of the elements before performance had taken place.

And it was this dance, made up of elements constructed in the main so far apart from each other, that opened up to me the possibility that disparate things brought together can produce an energy and a life that might otherwise be missed, left to one's own intention, and that the images could be enlarged to allow for a kind of theatre not previously utilized.

That same summer I made a second dance, called "Antic Meet," for which Rauschenberg devised costumes and props in a way that to me theatrical wonder.

Working with a budget which was limited, perhaps non-existent is a better work, he came up with a basic set of black leotards and tights to which he added numerous props, clothes, objects. Here, although he had not seen the dance, I had told him something of the sequence I had in mind, there were fourteen in all I think, like vaudeville sketches. I remember telling him that in one dance, a duet I did with Carolyn Brown, I wanted to wear a chair strapped to my back. He thought for a moment and then said, "If you have a chair, can I have a door?" "Certainly."

For one of the dances he made four ingenious dresses for the women -- there were six dancers in the work, four women and two men -- out of white nylon parachutes. They looked like French couture at its most extraordinary. He showed me a fur coat he'd picked up someplace. "Could you use it?" "Absolutely."

And again a collapsible flower, any use for that? I found one. It was hidden up my sleeve during the first sequence and pulled out at the end to blossom abruptly to the delight of the public and the disdain of one of the dancers.

There were a number of dances after these two over the six years that Rauschenberg continued to work with us, and even shared our nomad touring life for three of them.

There is for example in the exhibition here in the Museum a work of his called "Story," a two-paneled painting from 1964. It was part of or rather the set for several performances of the dance "Story" that I made that year to be performed on a world tour the dance company was involved in. Rauschenberg was with us as stage manager, designer, technical director and what else that there might be to do with a small company with little funds and a lot of hope.

The painting of the painting was the set for the dance during several performances in London. My premise for the dance was a body of material, movement sequences which were altered in order each time it was presented, and further that the dancers had liberties about how few or many times they did certain movements, and again had possibilities as to changes in tempo and space.

I had asked Rauschenberg if we could have a set and costumes which changed each time, which were "made up" so to speak out of the theatre situation we found ourselves in. He agreed to the idea, and although out of expediency, this was modified in the case of the costumes, the set did change. The painting changed from evening performance to evening performance like a slowly moving landscape.

When Jasper Johns became the artistic advisor for my company, he suggested the idea of having different artists do the decor for the new dances. One of the first he proposed, this was 1967, was Frank Stella, and upon be asked Stella agreed. I can't remember if Stella came to look at the dance while I was working on it. Perhaps he did briefly. I remember he asked how many dancers were involved. "Five women and three men", I answered. He came up with a set that consisted of 6 two-dimensional frames, each a different length and height, the lowest being one and one-half feet high and sixteen feet long, the highest was sixteen feet up and four feet wide. Each frame had a single band of color -- purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red; low to high. Each frame was mounted on wheels to be movable, the result being that during the dance the dancers could shift the formation of the space, and the frames with their bands of horizontal color would cut the bodies differently and change the spectator's perception of the dance action. This dance, called "Scramble," was also arranged to change its order from performance to performance, and equally so, we shifted the components of the set each time, whenever the performing space permitted. Its freest use was in the gymnasiums where we have performed, and there the six frames could be separated and seen singly or combined. Since I feel movement seen in different contexts takes on a different expressive quality, this flexibility was enlivening and useful rather than forbidding. It can spur the imagination rather than leave it in its own fixed grooves.

The following year, 1968, there were two works, "RainForest" and "Walkaround Time", decorated by artists who remained essentially unfamiliar with the dances until they were presented.

The first, RainForest, had the helium-filled pillows of Andy Warhol as its set. Warhol, when asked about using the pillows, said "Oh, sure", and made no further stipulation. So Johns devised the number of pillows to be used, as well as the costumes. The number of pillows always depended on the size of the playing area. Some of the pillows we suspended by fish line and weights, those filled with the most helium. The line was to prevent them from disappearing the flies of the theatre. The others with less helium, were lying free on the floor and moved as they might -- sometimes floating off stage and on several occasions into the audience. To me, they were like animals or dancers; when it was cold they moved little, remaining inert; when it was warm either via the temperature or the lights, they enjoyed moving. Never quite the same environment from one time to the next; little way to judge ahead how to act with them. The scene, although basically the same, was always enough unusual. The dancers had to evolve a technique as to how to act with them. If you kicked them incorrectly they could burst with a loud retort, but if pushed via the shin or the arm they gracefully responded.

During the same Festival at the University of Buffalo we gave the first performance of "Walkaround Time." Johns had suggested the possibility of using Marcel Duchamp's "Large Glass" as the basis for a decor. And when Duchamp consented, Johns proceeded to solving the construction various sized transparent vinyl-plastic rectangles on which would be printed enlarged parts of the images from the "Glass." Four of these rectangles ended up standing on the floor of the stage and three were suspended. They were separated throughout the stage space. Duchamp's only request was that they be assembled at one point during the dance. They were, at the finale. The five rectangles resting on the floor were moved, to the rear to be under the three hanging and to approximate the Glass.

The construction of the vinyl boxes was complicated and involved new processes so their completion was greatly delayed and I had no idea of the exact size until the day before the first performance. They were somewhat different in shape than I had expected, but I had left the choreography fluid enough to change. One standing rectangle was eight feet wide by eight high by two thick and took up a fair amount of that particular stage. Fortunately, it was transparent, they all were, so action could be seen through the object, as with the "Glass" itself.

Old habits die hard in the theatre; new ways of doing things are suspect, naturally costly, and too difficult. I have at times worked with artists for whom the theatre was unfamiliar, but also for whom new methods or techniques of construction were familiar and welcome, even if sometimes difficult to solve, certainly on theatre terms. They have always solved them, often taking up to the last minute, and sometimes at the expense of the dancers' inner calm.

One of the pieces designed by an artist was "Canfield," given first in 1969. For this Robert Morris made the set and costumes. Again this was a dance in which the three elements, the movement, the music by Pauline Oliveros and the decor were devised completely separately. Morris put us in grey costumes and there was a grey scrim at the back of the stage. At the front of the stage he placed a steel bar one-foot-wide hanging suspended from proscenium top to floor. On the side of the bar facing the audience it was painted grey. On the side facing us was a bank of lights top to bottom, like airplane lights. The bar, which could be thirty feet high depending upon the height of the proscenium, moved slowly via a motor, stage right to left and back again for as many number of times as needed to cover the length of the dance which varied from show to show. If the proscenium was forty feet wide, the bar could take five minutes to traverse it, and if the dance lasted one hour and a half, its maximum, the bar would crisscross the stage eighteen times.

During this, and onstage behind the bar, the dance was continuing in its own spaces and on its own times. When the bar passed in front of any dancer or dancers, the light would magnify that particular moment, and although the dance was not related to the bar's movement, the "light-up" was frequent due to the shifts and changes of the dance which totally countered the regularity of the bar's momentum.

The costumes and drop contained a paint substance intended to make them luminous when light hit them, as with the highway signs when struck by car lights, but fabric, at least then in 1969, was not the same as metal and gradually through wear and wash, the costumes lost this power.

We had done a dance called "Tread" with fans across the front of the stage. Johns phoned to Bruce Naumen to ask if he would do something for us. He said, "yes". Later another phone call. What would it be? "Well, I'd like to have fans." "OK". Another phone call. "How many and where?" "Oh, about a dozen and across the front of the stage. The kind that swivel." Collaboration in the electronic age.

As we began to go on longer tours, and the economics of running a dance company took on Everest proportions, practicality pulled some of this down. Getting freight and personnel around the work, not to speak of cost, was becoming uncertain enough to bring about new necessities. We began to give more Events in order to accommodate this present situation.

The "Events" that we present, so called after the first one given in the 20th Century Museum in Vienna on that same world tour in 1964, allow us a latitude in what we present that have opened out our possibilities as to where we might perform. Incidentally during that first one, Rauschenberg appeared halfway through the "Event" disguised or magnified into a kind of animal made out of brooms, sticks of wood and other objects he found available in the Museum. He stood quietly in view for about five minutes and then quietly left.

The "Events," which are comprised of dances from the repertory, or parts of them, as well as movement sequences made particularly for them, are mostly given in non-proscenium spaces, open as a gymnasium. We have used the Stella set, and the Warhol pillows on different occasions. During an "Event" in Persepolis in Iran a number of years back, one pillow floated away into the night sky.

The conventional way for an artist to design for the theatre has been, in general, to make frame in which the stage action can take place usually with some kind of emphasis toward the stage action. We have acted somewhat differently within the boundaries, it is true, that the theatre presents. One of the purposes here is to not force a fixed point of view or idea through the dance, which is then framed by the decor and enforced by the music, but rather the possibility of discovery through the coming together of supposedly disparate things. We are not expressing a particular idea or feeling, but rather asking a question. Not to refurbish what we already know but to wonder about areas we don't.

In general, I have wished to let the movement of the dancers be seen clearly and not disguised. This has led to a simplification of the costumes to a basic unitard and the designer has chosen the color scheme. I remember Jasper Johns coming to my studio and displaying a set of one piece garments he had just dyed to be used in the dance "Exchange," and when I commented on how beautiful they were he answered they were "just polluted colors".

Johns did the set for a work I made for twenty-six of the dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet in 1973. This was an evening length work called "Un jour ou deux" presented at the Opera by the Festival d'Automne. When I asked Johns in New York if he would do it, he hesitated for a moment and then said "Yes".

It was a complicated work involving the full resources of the Opera House. Mark Lancaster, Johns' assistant came to Paris several weeks before the opening to supervise the making and dying of the scrims and costumes. The scrims were varying greys and depending upon the light, could be opaque or transparent.

The costumes ranged from black through greys being slightly different for each dancer. There were two scrims, one at the front of the stage, which was raised shortly after the dance began, and the second, half-way back, which stayed down and cut the vast stage into two spaces. Behind the second scrim the stage was used to the back wall of the stage. The scrims set my working space and also presented a question as to how to get dancers on and off the space without conventional wings. It was solved by using diagonal entrances. The light on the scrims was constantly changing going from opaque to transparent and back again, and it gave the stage space a continuous flexible feeling, the full area remaining as undefined as a universe. It was striking in that large 19th Century Opera environment.

Mark Lancaster has since become our artistic advisor. Lancaster, being a painter, has given us color and shapes in the costumes that are sometimes like exaggerated dance practice clothes, and in the sets a look to the stage that is both open and defined. With "Squaregame" for example, made in 1976, I asked him for four bags, like large bean bags that could be used to define the square the dance would roughly take place in, and also the bags should be able to be thrown in the air and caught easily. He complied and further added a white linoleum floor and a totally open stage, no wings and no back drop, so the dance takes place in this white square in a large area, almost like a boxing ring.

Lancaster has also been involved with designs for our film and video works. In "Fractions," made first as a video piece in 1977, he designed the panels, like solid color paintings, to be placed around the dance space, vertically supported, and changed as needed from one section of the dance to another. He also designed the costumes, eight leotards, made in such a way as to appear different from each other in both black and white and color, as the dance was shot partially in each.

When "Fractions" was transferred to the stage, the panels were kept but flew from the flies, and they were lowered in pairs at separate points in the dance to the floor level and then pulled up enough to allow the dance to continue under them.

As the mention of the "Fractions" video tape indicates, we have embarked on a different form of visual adventure -- namely, putting dance on camera, making video and film works.

Since 1974 when I became interested in working with the camera and dance, we have made nine works, one of which will be shown here this evening.

At the time I began to be involved with video, there was little dance being on the television, and what I had seen did not hold much dance interest to my eye. But I wondered about the possibilities, since the video was a visual medium, and there was certain to be more dance on the screen in the future, given the increase of public interested in watching dance programs. So what kind of ideas could one find.

My co-worker in this area has been Charles Atlas, who was and is a filmmaker, and was also part of the Cunningham Company technical staff. We did a lot of talking about cameras and possibilities and in 1974 managed to obtain three black and white still cameras, and deck and monitor and a special-effects machine to allow for cutting one camera to another and for dissolves and wipes. All this I had to learn about, being totally without experience in the field. Atlas was patient, and as we were able to do our work in the dance studio in Westbeth, our New York headquarters, it alleviated questions of studio rental and travel to and from. We merely got the cameras out of the way when the hour for the dance classes came each day.

We have collaborated on nine works up to January of this year. Two of these were made with our original black and white cameras on half inch tape; the remaining seven, either on film or tape, have involved color cameras.

Collaborating with the camera, particularly, I suspect when the collaboration involves dancing, is like handling a live animal that isn't necessarily domesticated. Tantalizing, if often impossible. The camera takes what is in front of it without discrimination. That's OK. But to get dancing in front of it and keep it there, without loss of some basic element like an arm or a leg is something else.

Atlas and I in our work together have attempted to put dance on the screen in such a way as to keep the energy of the movement alive, and at the same time to use the cameras as a moving force itself. I feel that a dance made for the stage and then filmed or taped as such rarely works.

Stage space and camera space are two different worlds. One is static with the parameters fixed; the other, more limited in size sometimes, but flexible and a situation where the space itself can change. The two spaces function differently for the eye. The stage, as you look at it, goes from wide at the front to narrow in the rear; the camera just the opposite -- its rectangular shape narrow at the front and widening out on all four sides moving towards the back of the space.

These dances are not choreographed and then later filmed. They are works that are choreographed specifically for the camera and almost with the camera in hand. Each angle and movement and shift of position is rechecked in the camera to keep it in view. Perhaps it doesn't matter; but when it clicks, the picture and the timing between dance and camera, it is a relief.

In each of the works we have made, Atlas and I have attempted to look into areas that we felt were still unknown to us. With the first one, entitled "Westbeth" after our studio in which it was made, everything was unknown to me but one sequence out of the 6 it comprises, for example, involves five dancers each doing different movements, and all five dancers remained in full figure throughout the five-minute sequence. Two still-cameras were used.

"Blue Studio" made in 1975, in which I appear alone, was involved with the various possibilities that the then existing National Educational Television laboratory provided. Chromokey was used as well as various possibilities of multiple figures, the figures all being myself.

"Locale," made in 1979 and using 14 dancers, brought us into contact with the steadicam, the dolly and the crane -- sets visible to the performer, but invisible to the spectator, although the results would be.

The steadicam is a camera suspended in front of the operator in such a way that he can move, not necessarily easily, but smoothly, and be involved in the dance action in a fluid way. [not for too long at a time, as the mechanism in its present state, is still somewhat cumbersome and fatiguing to wear for any long period].

The film to be presented this evening is called "Channels/Inserts." It was choreographed and filmed in January of 1981 and the final editing completed in February of 1982. The long stretch between the filming and the final editing was not entirely due to the complication of the editing. Atlas, who did the editing, also traveled with the dance company as production manager, and the periods given to editing were frequently broken off by tours.

"Channels/Inserts" was made in Westbeth, again. The title refers to the movie technique of inserting an action in the middle of another, so the spectator has the sense of two actions going on during the same time, one seen and one continuing in the imagination. In order to make this clearer I wanted to use other parts of our Westbeth quarters, rather than staying in the one large studio space where Locale was filmed. So I looked about. We have a second smaller studio; that was possible. The small stage-like platform in the large studio could be isolated with the camera, a second space. Then there were the corridors and the office space, which once the desk and files and other paraphernalia were removed, could also be used. In other words, to take a previously designed set that had not been designed for us, but for other uses, and see if we could act with it in our independent way. The question of how to light such areas, and equally how to maneuver the camera within them was formidable. It also posed some new choreographic problems for me. How to keep dancing active in such small and, in particular during what we call the corridor sequence, such tightly divided spaces. Like making dances in an elevator.

This work was shot as a film but we also used video tapes on each camera to allow for instant replay. I wonder, without that, the replay possibility immediately after a shot, if all this would have held much interest for me. With film and the necessary laboratory developing time between taking and seeing, one's interest can go elsewhere.

In the editing Atlas looked for ways that were not simple cuts to go from one sequence to another, and that he hoped would give a sense of the simultaneity of the actions. The editing processes involved were extremely complex and necessitated a great deal of hand work, drawings to show the shifting from frame to frame, sometimes inside a frame. A frame lasts one/24th of a second' you can imagine the amount of labor.

Here by the way, as with most of the dances I have made whether for stage, gymnasium or screen, the music has been added as another layer after the dance is completed and without necessarily any reference to it. The music for "Channels/Inserts" by David Tudor was laid on after the film was near the final editing.

In all of this my interest in dancing itself does not abate. It is that that concerns me -- how to keep it alive in whatever form it takes, on the stage, throughout a basketball court, in a hall surrounded by paintings and sculptures or on a television or movie screen.

The animus provides in all its myriad forms is its special energy -- energy which can be seen and shared and can become expressive in different ways to different people.

In my work the hope has been to keep this special character, amplifying it in as many ways as I could imagine and at the same time to allow other forms of energy, visual and sound, to appear with it, not in competition, nor as enhancement, but as partners sharing in what I think of as a series of adventures. Thank you.