Merce Cunningham's dance theatre lives on

Dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Feb 8, 2017.
Dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Feb 8, 2017.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SYNDICATE

MINNEAPOLIS• No choreographer in history has so naturally prompted museum exhibitions as Merce Cunningham.

For more than 65 years, his form of radical dance theatre was a vehicle for historic artistic experimentation, with brave breakthroughs of colour, idiom, content. Musicians and visual artists were stimulated by the new directions that dance was taking.

Cunningham died at 90 in 2009. Since then, his work has been honoured in several large exhibitions, notably Dancing Around The Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg And Duchamp (Philadelphia Museum, 2012) and Leap Before You Look, about Black Mountain College (Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, 2015).

Both were smaller than the multigallery Merce Cunningham: Common Time, which opened at the Walker Art Center here on Wednesday. There is so much material that another show of the same name has opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (till April 30).

The creations of Cunningham's colleagues in the visual arts - Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns above all, but also Marcel Duchamp, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Charles Atlas and many more - are handsomely honoured throughout the Walker show; so, too, is the work of composers from John Cage to Takehisa Kosugi.

Yet dance, marvellously, pervades this exhibition. There are screens all around, showing Cunningham and his company performing his choreography over more than 50 years.

There were also live Cunningham Events, the name he gave to the dance anthologies his company performed starting in 1964. These were delivered by four dancers from the final Cunningham company: Dylan Crossman, Silas Riener, Jamie Scott and Melissa Toogood. They will return to the Walker from March 30 to April 30.

Usually the death of a great choreographer leads to an evident diminution of excellence within five years. Yet, so far, this has not happened with Cunningham; and with these Events, the opposite seemed true.

Following Cunningham's decree, his company closed in 2011, less than 21/2 years after his death. The four dancers seen at the Walker are now among New York's busiest downtown performers, appearing in work by other choreographers.

Their exposure to Cunningham's choreography since 2011 has been limited. Yet, all four have matured as Cunningham exponents.

It even looked as if his company had never closed - as if his work remained central to their artistic activity.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline 'Merce Cunningham's dance theatre lives on'. Print Edition | Subscribe