NPR logo

Merce Cunningham's Dances for Modern Art Masters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Merce Cunningham's Dances for Modern Art Masters

Performing Arts

Merce Cunningham's Dances for Modern Art Masters

Merce Cunningham's Dances for Modern Art Masters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Modern dance legend Merce Cunningham, 88, launched a two-year project on Sunday: He will choreograph eight works to be performed in the galleries of the Dia Beacon contemporary art museum in New York's Hudson Valley. The first work tackles the art of Andy Warhol.


Merce Cunningham is often called the greatest living modern dance choreographer. Cunningham and composer John Cage pioneered a revolutionary approach to performance. They developed a style that was based on seemingly random notes and movements and they staged so-called events for specific locations.

Cage died 15 years ago but Cunningham continues to create. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company unveils its latest event this afternoon at the Dia Art Foundation's museum in Beacon, New York.

Karen Michel spoke with the 88-year-old choreographer for this report.

KAREN MICHEL: Merce Cunningham has choreographed hundreds of events. All of them sight specific and meant for unusual spaces. The first event came about more by necessity than by design. In Vienna in 1964…

Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Choreographer): We were on a world tour and we needed to pick up engagements, so, any place that might happen.

MICHEL: A friend of a friend connected the company with an art museum, and the invitation to do a program followed, but not in the theatre. Cunningham says it was just a space with a big window.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: It had a beautiful glass wall in the back outside of which you could see a park, and you could see automobiles moving in the distance. And so, at the background, in other words, I thought that's perfect.

MICHEL: The audience was free to move around the dancers. The music was composed on the spot. John Cage was one of the musicians. And it was then at Dia:Beacon, there will be no seats and the music will come together only at the performance.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: This is a piece David Behrman composed for a Cunningham performance earlier this year. Behrman is a pioneer of electronic music who played his first Cunningham event in 1967. He and three other musicians will go into the Dia:Beacon Art Museum ahead of time to figure out what they're going to do.

Mr. DAVID BEHRMAN (Musician): In classic Cunningham fashion, there are no directions to the musicians. You know, it's the Cunningham and Cage idea that an art event with more than one medium, each member of the audience puts together the totality of the event in their own mind and each element is independent of the other. So the dance is independent from the music and the decor.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: At Dia:Beacon, it would be quite the decor that surrounds the dancers. The building is an immense former Nabisco box printing plant on the Hudson River. Now, there are galleries devoted to 24 different artists. The one Cunningham shows for this event figures the work of an old friend, an artist who'd once designed silver Mylar pillows for a Cunningham production and suggested that the dancers go naked.

Mr. STEVEN EVANS (Assistant Director, Dia:Beacon, Dia Arts Foundation): We're in the Andy Warhol gallery at Dia:Beacon. It's a grand room. It's about 8,500 square feet filled with canvasses that Warhol made for Dia in 1979.

MICHEL: Steven Evans is assistant director for Dia:Beacon.

Mr. EVANS: The work is called "The Shadows" and its 72 canvasses here all hung edge to edge and they're in 17 colors and have two different silkscreen images that Warhol stated was of a photograph of a shadow in his office.

MICHEL: The harsh black craggy shadows are cast against a range of colors from acid neons to softer peaches and yellows.

Soon after they were first exhibited, Warhol used them as backdrop in a fashion shoot. Dia Steven Evans is sure the party-loving Warhol would be thrilled to have his paintings use for dance, again.

Mr. EVANS: When Warhol first showed his work, he said, it could be background decor. It could be disco decor. He had a big disco party in Soho when this work was first shown in '79 and I think Merce picked up on that as well.

MICHEL: Until the first, the only, dress rehearsal on Friday afternoon, the dancers remained in the company's West Village studios.

(Soundbite of noise)

MICHEL: Merce Cunningham in sweats and sneakers, his hair, a corona of white curls, supervised them from his wheelchair, parked in a corner of a large room. There will be 14 dancers in the event, one that will last, says Cunningham, just a bit over half an hour in consideration of the audience.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: They could stand longer, but they might not like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHEL: Merce Cunningham doesn't dance anymore. For those who saw him as a young man with Martha Graham, and later, in his own company, the way he moved was incomparable, both athletic and lyrical. But he's not thinking about adapting his movements for wheelchair.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, I'm afraid that's not practical. I wish it were. I would love to be able to stand up and do a jig at any moment. But it's difficult.

MICHEL: Nevertheless, Cunningham plans to make this weekend's event the first in the two-year residency at the Dia:Beacon.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

HATTORI: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm James Hattori.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.