There’s this scene in Beginners, the 2010 rom-dramedy by Mike Mills, where the main character (Keegan Boos)’s whimsical mom (Mary Page Keller) bends her torso in a room at LACMA’s Ahmanson Building, stretching like a tree in strong wind, contorting in a kind o f exaggerated Heisman, as she mimics the posture of expressionist David Smith’s geometric “Cubi XXIII.” After being scolded by security, she goes, “What? You’re not allowed to interact with the art?” This scene and its implications seem to sum up artist and legacy alike in the decades-long career of dancer and choreographer Mercier (Merce) Cunningham, whose work combines independent art forms interacting with one another simultaneously, narrated by the language of movement. In other words, Cunningham seeks to create collages (a term he frequently used to describe his work) and make ostensibly unrelated arts collide. Common Time—an immersive exhibition produced concurrently at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (on view through April), showcasing Cunningham’s transformative ouervre now pivotal in the annals of American dance—invites spectators to interact, to adhere, to bend with the work.
Cunningham’s connection with the Walker began in 1963, when then-Director Martin Friedman commissioned a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), and this relationship lasted over 25 years. While this was one of many measures Friedman took to establish the Walker’s reputation as a world-renowned force in contemporary art, it was also a timely one: Five years later, Cunningham was profiled by The New Yorker in a feature that occupied over 40 pages of top-dollar magazine real estate.
In 2009, Cunningham died at the age of 90, leaving behind scores of choreographic output. Common Time spotlights 4,300 pieces—film, sculpture, costumes, textiles, ephemera, some indecipherable notes. The list of collaborators throughout runs the gamut from Warhol to Radiohead’s Phil Selway (“RainForest” and “Rambert,” respectively), but also includes several Cunningham disciples: Robert Rauschenberg, Carolyn Brown, Jasper Johns, Robert Morris, and so on. Rauschenberg regarded the MCDC as his biggest canvas.
Cunningham comprised half of one of the great artistic partnerships of the 20th century, à la Diego and Frida, Abrohimović and Ulay, Simone and Jean-Paul. He and his lifetime collaborator/romantic partner John Cage met in 1937 at Seattle’s Cornish School. Cunningham/Cage introduced a stochastic concept in their creations, sometimes flipping a coin to determine movement or body part, or using accompaniment systems dictated by the ancient Chinese divination text I Ching, or Classic of Changes.
Common Time spans seven galleries, the Walker’s McGuire Theater, the Walker Cinema, and public spaces. There are plenty of opportunities to witness Cunningham’s choreography thanks to multiple projections throughout the gallery. One of his early solo works, “Changeling,” is characterized by a kind of planned haphazardness, interspersed with effortless yogic poses—a testament to the dancer’s athleticism and skill, what Martha Hill called “Nijinsky-like.” The costumes on display are typically leotards and tights of remarkable, off-primary colors that bleed and run (“Changeling” has the artist decked in fire hydrant-red, evoking Picasso’s sad and nomadic saltimbanques), often tattered; Rauschemberg called these colors “impure mixings.” A key element of the exhibition includes scheduled live dancers within the galleries who painstakingly perform Cunningham’s choreography. These are intentionally drawn out, punctuated by time and technique. In keeping with form, Common Time is stylized as CO:MM:ON TI:ME.
Time asks for an adventurous audience. One room replicates Warhol’s silver helium pillows (once used onstage during a live performance) which float all around you, errant pillows wrangled by gallery staff. You can touch the balloons, or dodge them, but you cannot ignore them.
The exhibit has the clear intention of making audiences aware of their own bodies: arms, legs, every square foot of skin. Mesmeric productions include a winding, ever-narrowing corridor; a thinning hallway no wider than a man’s size nine. (The pallid green light therein is projected from above onto white walls and is extremely unpleasant.) These are all meant to communicate what the Walker’s Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither calls “bodily claustrophobia and almost a kind of danger.”
Says Bither: “People tend to forget about their bodies and their relationship to space and architecture.” Bither’s been with the Walker since 1997. He refers to Cunningham simply and affectionately as Merce, and feels that “the world caught up with him in his last decades.”
Cunningham trained under Louis Horst, whose primary doctrine rebelled against literal representation; modern dance is “a revolt against emotional display.” It’s easy to see these themes embedded in Cunningham’s own work. Where Martha Graham explored mythical, sometimes political motifs, Merce believed deeply in the power of dance for dance’s sake. This is the corollary to John Cage, who sought to elevate what was once strictly considered a musical form rather than an art form. They were fearless. They defied entertainment. Their attitude was: Anybody can love or hate our work, and neither requires any expertise or prerequisite.