SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
For decades, Merce Cunningham the dancer and choreographer delighted his many fans and perplexed and mystified some others. Merce Cunningham died in 2009 at the age of 90. Now a new exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis take stock of his career and legacy. Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports the show makes the case that Merce Cunningham not only shaped modern dance, but had a major influence on music and visual art.
EUAN KERR, BYLINE: In an airy gallery at the Walker Art Center, four former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform in bright primary colored unitards.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Vocalizing).
KERR: They twist, glide and strut through movements the choreographer created. In the Cunningham tradition, the performers hadn't heard it before stepping on stage. In fact, the vocalist and double bass player improvise much of the 30-minute score.
PHILIP BITHER: It's still considered radical, the idea that people don't move to the music or on a beat or don't build their dance forms - the choreography around the music itself.
KERR: Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither says Cunningham was always seeking new ways of moving. That's why he used what he called chance operations in his choreography. He rolled dice or tossed coins to decide how to combine different movements and phrases. In an appearance at the Walker a year before he died, he explained it was a way of opening himself to possibility.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MERCE CUNNINGHAM: And offer you a chance to see, regardless of whether it's movement or something else, a different way to, oh, I never would've thought of that.
KERR: However, that chance element was combined with extreme rigor. Rashaun Mitchell danced with the Cunningham Company for more than a decade.
RASHUAN MITCHELL: You know, we would rehearse a piece for months in silence to the point where it would just be imprinted into our muscle memory.
KERR: Mitchell says this was vital when faced with performing to an unknown score in an entirely new set.
MITCHELL: So I think that's the lesson that I learned the most from working with him - was sort of to be open to the unknown.
KERR: The choreographer didn't limit himself to stage work. His exploration of movement extended to collaborations with filmmaker Charles Atlas who has a number of pieces in the Walker show.
CHARLES ATLAS: He was certainly aware of presenting things to an audience, but that wasn't the main interest of the work. It wasn't audience-oriented. It was more working out something for himself.
KERR: Cunningham first performed at the Walker in 1963 beginning a decades-long relationship. When he died, his company shut down in accordance with his wishes. The Walker bought his archive of sets, costumes and choreography notes, some four and a half thousand items. The collection is so big that it fills eight galleries of the Walker and more at a simultaneous show with the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.
A number of the pieces are by some of the best-known artists of the 20th century. Cunningham and his life partner, composer John Cage, believed in collaboration, so painter Robert Rauschenberg became the company's first stage manager. He was succeeded by Jasper Johns. Andy Warhol designed stage sets for the company.
Walker curator Philip Bither says Cunningham's collaborations had a real impact on the art world.
BITHER: Dozens of visual artists and dozens of composers - the way they thought about their own work and the way they made sculptures or installations or paintings changed after working with Cunningham.
KERR: And Bither argues that Cunningham remains relevant today as the artists he influenced continue working. Silas Riener danced with Cunningham for four years. He's now formed a company with fellow dancer Rashaun Mitchell. Riener says he'll never forget what he learned from the choreographer.
SILAS RIENER: I've never been so intimately familiar with another artist's work, and so he feels present to me constantly.
KERR: For the walker show, Reiner and Mitchell are collaborating with Charles Atlas who is creating his first 3-D film. For part of it, they'll dance as the film billows around them. It's pure Cunningham - try something new and see how it works out. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in Minneapolis.
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