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Merce Cunningham, dance's avant doyen, makes his first-ever appearance in Miami next week, kicking off a citywide bash honoring the pioneer choreographer's life and work.
Celebrating the collaborative spirit that has characterized Cunningham's five-decade career, South Florida's major cultural organizations have come together, beginning with a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) that is the first in the United States to focus on the choreographer's collaborations with visual artists since 1997.
"Merce Cunningham: Dancing on the Cutting Edge" is a two-part exhibition organized by MoCA's executive director and chief curator, Bonnie Clearwater, who says the show has been two years in the making.
Part one is currently up at MoCA and features costumes and decor actually used in Cunningham's productions. Part two opens at MoCA's Wynwood annex in April and will feature the set and costumes created by Miami's Daniel Arsham for Cunningham's newest work, eyeSpace, making its world premier on February 23 at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.
Part I includes works by Sandra Cinto, Olafur Eliasson, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Richard Hamilton, Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar and Mark Downie, Rei Kawakubo, Charles Long, Jackie Matisse, Christian Marclay, Ernesto Neto, Gabriel Orozco, Robert Rauschenberg and Terry Winters. There is also a small drawing of Daniel Arsham's design for eyeSpace and a small painting by Henry Samelson displayed on a wall off the museum's lobby.
Upon entering the exhibit, it's hard to work up a lather over the Kawakubo costumes Cunningham's troupe wore for Scenario in 1997. Five of the unsightly blue-and-green-stripe and gingham outfits, stretched across mannequin torsos, dangle lifelessly from the ceiling on fishing line. The fashion designer sewed padded protuberances into the garments, giving the dancers hunchbacks or marsupial pouches. Wall text explains that the costumes were meant to emphasize how dance can distort the body unnaturally, but without observing a dancer actually wearing them and performing, they pack a weak punch.
At the opposite end of the room, Cinto's Windmill is among several preexisting works used by the company in its productions. The work was taken out of the context of a gallery exhibit and used as "ready made" decor for a Cunningham event at New York's Joyce Theater in 2000. Powered by a motor, the monochromatic windmill sculpture spun slowly on stage while dancers moved under it.
Clearwater had some of the works installed on stagelike platforms to give viewers a sense of how they where transformed in a theatrical setting; others have been installed to be walked through to convey a dancer's perspective of them.
Explaining Cunningham's collaborative process, Clearwater's eyes light up. She says the choreographer is a dice-rolling chance junkie, whose troupe rehearsed without listening to the score, and only rarely seeing the set designs or costumes before taking the stage.
In another room, Jackie Matisse's shiny Mylar kites soar into the rafters, their colorful fabric tails flowing down to the floor. The streamers sinuously shimmy in the puff of an air conditioning vent.
On a platform on a far wall, Eliasson's Convex/Concave is a large circular foil mirror and hydraulic pump, and is among the works delivering the kaboom. The contraption literally breathes in and out, sounding somewhat like a mechanical Jack Palance. As the mirror inhales, it changes shape from convex to concave; the effect is reversed when it lets out the gas. Standing in front of it and observing its funhouse distortions, it's deflating not to have experienced the hoofers' reactions to it. Nearby text informs that the musical collaborators for the piece (including Meredith Monk) voiced a pump peeve, but ended taking one for the team and amplifying its wheeze.
Standing in front of Indian Point Road, a video by Christian Marclay, it's hard not to imagine the dancers getting juked out of their shoes while performing in front of the projection, which swallowed the entire stage backdrop. The artist placed his camera on a rural country road capturing an occasional car or truck as it zipped by. Watching the film of the quiet sylvan landscape, you can hear the chirp of crickets and see the trees rippling in the breeze. The serenity is snapped when the occasional vehicle shoots by, catching the spectator off guard. As with other works, one can't help but be curious about how the dancers and audience reacted to the piece. But after the initial jolt, and deprived of the actual performance component, the video fizzles.
Long's Tripods are a series of towering, clumpy, buglike shapes slathered in a child's Play-Doh palette. The five sculptures, fashioned from chicken wire and painted foil, were folded by Cunningham into his choreography and became canopies where dancers took a breather between cues.
Unlike Long's pieces, which you can actually walk through, Ernesto Neto's Otheranimal is isolated in a blacked-out room that is sealed off with a waist-high wall, barring onlookers from engaging directly with it. The intoxicating work is the exhibit's show stealer. It consists of sheer nylon fabric stretched into a membrane of organic forms, weighted with pellets that droop throughout the space like mutant wattle seed pods. The pendulous forms are awash with splashes of blue, pink, red, and violet light, while a discordant jangle of noise and dripping water fills the air.
Outside, Gabriel Orozco's untitled stage set is a jumble of taxicab parts stacked along a wall. Originally created as a one-off for an event at the Joyce Theater, the piece has been recreated with the artist's permission after a MoCA staffer combed local junkyards for steering wheels, hubcaps, bumpers, and wrecked yellow cab hoods and doors.
Long-time Cunningham collaborator Rauschenberg gets the short shrift from MoCA. Seven of his silk-screened leotards for Interscape, a piece scored by John Cage and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2000, are pinned like a butterfly collection in the hallway. Rauschenberg created a huge collage printout as a backdrop, featuring nostalgic imagery suggestive of Victorian postcards or vintage photos. The stupendous collage was peppered with depictions of Greek temples, carousel horses, an Egyptian sarcophagus, and even a goose. The costumes mirror the same images printed on the collage, and one can still see some of the original dancer's initials scrawled on the neck tags. Sadly without the dancers, and tacked up like an afterthought, they might have been better off left in mothballs.
Buried in the back of the museum is BIPED, Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar's mixed-media digital projection, using motion-capture technology. The artists attached light-reflecting sensors to the bodies of two dancers, whose movements were choreographed by Cunningham. The results were transferred to a three-dimensional figure, created by Character Studio software. The animation was projected onto a scrim in front of the stage, behind which the company performed. As one stands in front of the projection, the juiced-up figures hopscotch across the screen. Unfortunately, it's the rare exception in this exhibit, in which viewers get close to a whiff of Cunningham's work.
Although it nicely provides a historic primer for those excited about the choreographer's first collaboration with a hometown artist, others who truly want to immerse themselves in the Merce experience would be better off scraping up a ticket for his live show next week.