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DANCIN' FEATS Immersed in Merce at the MCA
by Lauren Warnecke
2017-02-15

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Through April 30, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago ( MCA ) highlights the life and work of an iconic U.S. choreographer: Merce Cunningham ( 1919-2009 ).

The "Common Time" exhibit is presented in partnership with Minnesota's Walker Art Center, which opened a simultaneous exhibit Feb 8. The sprawling displays span a combined 42,000 square feet and feature Cunningham in the context of his many collaborative partners, who created music, set pieces, backdrops, and costumes for his works, as well as the many advances Cunningham spearheaded through the use technologies such as motion-capture video to create and document his dances.

In the Chicago exhibit's opening presentations Feb. 11, curator Lynne Warren and the Walker Center's Philip Bither and Joan Rothfuss were on hand for a tour of the MCA's fourth floor, and dance fans will find recognizable set pieces like Robert Rauschenberg's 1958 massive speckled backdrop from "Summerspace," Frank Stella's primary-colored rectangular banners created for the 1967 premiere of "Scramble" at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, and Andy Warhol's whimsical mylar pillows, which bounced about in Cunningham's "RainForest" in 1968.

Cunningham first made his mark as a dancer, working for the Martha Graham Dance Company before breaking off to form his own company in the early 1950s. Today he is recognized as one of the greatest and most prolific American choreographers in modern history, having produced hundreds of works with a radical approach to dance and choreography. Until Cunningham, most choreographers built dances directly to music, either working closely with a composer or designing steps that accompanied existing musical scores.

"Common Time" refers to Cunningham's philosophy that artistic mediums could be created independently and convened in a performance space, having in common nothing more than the time at which they occur. Dances were created in silence, as a "dance for dance's sake"—that is, with no specific narrative behind it. Cunningham's artistic collaborators, in a sense, weren't collaborators at all. Members of the design team were often given free license to create whatever they wanted, with few rules or specifications. In a way, this liberated the artists to do what they do, and created a performance experience whose mediums held equal weight.

It was a tenet Cunningham shared with composer John Cage, his life partner for more than five decades and most frequent artistic partner. Cage is perhaps most famous for a work called "4'33," which has no music or deliberate noise and is, indeed, four minutes and 33 seconds of whatever sounds the audience makes as they ( typically ) writhe in discomfort. He and Cunningham reveled in the random, employing chance in both the creative process and performance, creating an enormous challenge for the dancers.

By today's standards, the Cunningham technique appears balletic, and this is on display in video artist Charles Atlas's "MC9," an immersive installation showing film clips that span 35 years and fill an entire room of the exhibit. Cunningham employed turned out legs, leotards and tights, and rigid, regimented positions and postures. But any ballet dancer will tell you that a Cunningham work—sometimes referred to as "ballet off its axis"—is exceptionally hard, unforgiving, and something no ballet class can prepare her for. The legs go one way while the torso goes another, requiring a locus of control that is unlike any other dance technique. Former Cunningham dancer Paige Cunningham Caldarella ( no relation ) confirmed this at the press preview; showing bits of choreography spanning from "Summerspace" ( 1958 ) to "Interspace" ( 2000 ), she pointed out the difficulty of a Merce dance. His process might be random, but his expectation was precision. Caldarella said the most beautiful moments were those in which the dancers "honed" in on a way to make a seemingly impossible movement work in their bodies.

Throughout his seven decades as a choreographer, Cunningham's spirit of innovation and fearlessness for pushing the envelope are the mark he left on the field, not to mention the countless dancers and dancemakers who now carry the torch and continue to expand the definition of dance. His aesthetic was crystal clear, but Cunningham wasn't afraid to change, and the exhibit shows his artistic evolution. The balance between preserving Cunningham's legacy and further evolving the field are apparent in "Common Time," with five avant-garde performance events incorporating the latest technology complementing the retrospective exhibit.

The "Common Time" exhibition is open at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Ave., through April 30, Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Tuesdays 10 a.m.-8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays.

General admission is $12, with free admission on Tuesdays for all Illinois residents. Special performance programs affiliated with the exhibit are available for an additional cost. For more information on these programs, visit MCAChicago.org . Merce Cunningham's works are also meticulously archived by the Merce Cunningham Trust, online at MerceCunningham.org .


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