NGA highlights the significant work of Merce Cunningham

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra American Masters: Merce Cunningham Contemporary Dance Residency
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra American Masters: Merce Cunningham Contemporary Dance Residency, Cunningham technique © Jamie Scott, Renata Commisso, Caroline Meaden and Scott Elstermann, image courtesy of NGA

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA)’s American Masters exhibition was shown at the gallery, running 24 August – 11 November 2018. Highlighted was the iconic, historically significant work of choreographer Merce Cunningham. Showcased in an extraordinary manner, a true treat for the senses, selected Cunningham repertoire was featured in the second and third weeks of the exhibition, not only as a performance of polished work but also as live rehearsal.  

Space was given to a rehearsal floor within the gallery, and audiences were invited in to observe the rehearsal process, over the space of almost two weeks. Merce Cunningham Trust Stager Jamie Scott worked with three dancers, Renata Commisso, Caroline Meaden and Scott Elstermann, to stage repertoire, as a part of the Merce Cunningham Contemporary Dance Residency. Set under Sol LeWitt’s huge Wall drawing No. 380 a-d (1982), it was truly magical. 

With carefully chosen repertoire, Scott discusses the use of specific excerpts, selected to fit the ideal and genre of the exhibition

“Using the decades covered in the show (1940-1980) seemed like an obvious place to begin,” Scott reveals. “I looked at the artists represented in the show and identified artists Merce collaborated with during those decades. I knew we would be limited to solos, duets and trios, and the perimeters of the space required focusing on excerpts that did not require too much space. I also wanted to give the dancers as comprehensive experience of the repertory as I could in two weeks, so I included pieces with clearly demarcated solos and duets, some group phrases, and also pieces with indeterminacy built into them so they could explore agency within such a highly specific and technically demanding body of work. It was also important to me that I included a few works that Nanette Hassle was a part of during her time in the company, as a nod to her contribution to Merce’s legacy. We ended up using excerpts from Story (1963), Changing Steps (1973), Landrover (1972), TV Rerun (1972), Canfield (1969), Field Dances (1963) and Inlets (1977).”

The American Masters exhibit features signature Cunningham choreography that carefully crafts the lingering of one idea into the next, fleeting relationship, sync, canon, a sense of calm that occasionally breaks like stillness into haste, one clearly affects the other but the lines are not blurred, over turned-out and exceptionally wide pliés, high release, studied lines that carefully fit within the anatomical planes, and not forgetting the use of what we have come to know today in choreographic classes as “motif”. All these elements and so many other concepts that Cunningham meticulously explored over his career paved the way for choreographers and collaborators today to have a base for crafting as we know it.

Residency dancer Renata Commisso discusses the open rehearsal process, one that the audience could view (should they choose), from start to finish over the weeks of the residency.

“The rehearsal process was hard work but rewarding and most enjoyable,” she says. “Every morning, the dancers would be lead by Jamie Scott in a Cunningham technique class, with the rest of the day learning the repertoire. For me, the technique class was the hardest thing to grasp, new information for the body to understand and the process did take some time. Jamie was incredibly experienced in guiding us, and with patience and persistence, the small accomplishments were very satisfying.”

Commisso continues, “Jamie had performed most of the repertoire in her time with the Cunningham company and was able to teach us from Merce’s notes as well as her own. We also watched videos from the original casts (dating back to the ’50s) to get ideas of how it was performed on different dancers over the years. This allowed us to discover different artistic choices in embodying his work.”

She adds that the public was very enthusiastic toward the entire process, bringing a “positive energy” in to the space. “I appreciated that we could share this intrinsic process with the community. It always helps to understand where movement originates, and allowed the public to develop a relationship with the work. Generally, we were so immersed in all the material we had to learn, most the time I forgot the public was even there.”

In order to connect all the Cunningham repertoire for the NGA performances, dancers used Cunningham’s chance methods by tossing a coin or rolling a dice to create the transitions, speed, space and directions. 

“The understanding one already has to have of one’s body to accurately portray this movement takes utter control and a level of maturity of artistry not always seen,” Commisso says. “It was wonderful to see mature dancers with much experience and understanding of the historical gravity of the work embody the movement with such precision and understanding. There was a subtle level of communication, perfect to genre.”

Violinist Michael Liu played an improvised score of hauntingly beautiful music, each performance a different composition. This was a deliberate artistic choice by the creative team — to authentically reflect the chance procedure for which the duo, composer John Cage and Cunningham, famously worked. The dancers were equally new to the score for each performance, as were the audience. 

The legacy of Cunnningham’s work, his particular method of developing work, alongside choices when working with musical accompaniment, and what is important for audiences to understand these days in the greater context of the arts and this particular exhibition, is something that Scott feels quite passionate about.

“What the NGA did was really important for the observer to be able to connect such a fertile period in the visual arts, juxtaposed with another form that was equally as vibrant, and very much in dialogue with what was going on in visual arts in the middle portion of the 20th century,” Scott shares. “Separating dance from music in the creative process and establishing it as a form in its own right doesn’t feel revolutionary anymore, but that was a novel concept when Merce began working that way. His insistence that dance could stand on its own opened a new way of working for many performing artists. Equally important was the way in which his methods removed his own ego from the process of dance-making. By enlisting chance, he was able to arrive at continuities and structures that he might not have generated otherwise. It’s quite a tedious way to work. That type of formalism is represented in the work of many of the visual artists in the show. For myself, when I first saw Merce’s work, I was overcome with the beauty of how watching dancers consumed in the rigour of movement for movement’s sake revealed a depth and humanness that I had never seen before. Far from alienating, the lack of overt emotional or psychological content brought me closer to the bodies I was watching and provided space for me to be swept up in a wave of emotional ecstasy. I recognize that ‘now’ as immediacy in performance. Of course, that exists in many facets of the dance world now.”

Cunningham was a pioneer in so many ways, a champion of creative methodology. Seen alongside other works of the exhibition, the live performance of such iconic repertoire was a fully immersive experience, showcasing various signature works from iconic American artists. American Masters was a wonderful display of a ground-breaking era in arts history.

By Linda Badger of Dance Informa.

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