Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Labyrinthian Dances, one of the 12 dances depicted in the recent issue of 2wice.
A moving document of dance and art
By Susan Yung
When is reading a magazine as good as watching the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from the best seat in the house? Pretty much never, unless youre leafing through the recent issue of 2wice, a sumptuous yet spare artifact featuring Joachim Ladefogeds photographs of the company performing in dances costumed by Robert Rauschenberg. Beginning in 1954, he spent a decade as resident artist with Cunningham, designing sets, costumes, and lighting, and at times touring with the company. He costumed 24 dances, half of which are represented in 2wice. The collaboration was part of a remarkably fertile artistic era in both dance and visual art that has continued for more than half a century to the present day.
Some costumes quite clearly represent Rauschenbergs sensibility as seen in his combines, or hybrids between painting and sculpture. Costumes for Travelogue (1977) include clusters of tin cans dangling from the waist and knee; dip-dyed gauzy bells for the torso and legs; and skirt-like circles made from pie wedge-shaped panels of myriad colors and patterns. For Interscape (2000), Rauschenberg silkscreened simple neon-hued unitards with collaged imagery unmistakably linked to his more recent image-transfer and monumentally-scaled works.
Antic Meet (1958) showed Rauschenberg at his dramatic best, loading the costumes with evocative materials. Over basic black went tops with flared hems, mirrored shades, even a long fur coat. Tunics somewhere between parachutes and Viennese drapes recalled Rauschenbergs 1963 performance, Pelican, in which he rollerskated while kiting a parachute behind him, and the use of found objects in his combines, including parachute cloth. Several costumes rely upon smaller modern dance company staples tie dyed leotards and flowing chiffon or gauze capelets (Aeon, Gambit and Field Dances) but the palettes are unusually luscious and the draping and tacking unconventional.
The handsome tome, designed by 2wices editor/designer Abbott Miller, is printed on filter paper crinkly, textured, and porous enough to make book incongruously light and pillowy, like a toddlers cloth book. Despite the toothy texture of the paper, Ladefogeds color photos are clear and sharp enough to see the costumes handmade details. The pages are really twice-width, folded in half vertically, cut edges bound. The images and silver-leaf title text run around the page turns, giving visual continuity. In theory, the photos could be separated from the spine and tacked up on a wall, exhibition-style. But paging through this volume is analogous to experiencing a dance unfolding in time, metering the exposure of the images chronologically.
Interestingly, seeing the dancers in these photographs is a more intimate interface than watching a live performance. The photos capture facets of their personalities, as portraits tend to do. One complaint, perhaps not surprisingly, is the static nature of the images. They look like frozen poses, rather than moments leading to and from other similar moments somewhat antithetical to the experience of live dance.
Editor-in-chief Patsy Tarr described the production details. The working process involved running through the dances and stopping when required to arrange certain images. Merce and Joachim both looked through the camera to make sure certain images were true to the choreography and also well composed photographically. Each dance received about 12 different shots along the way. Because we used digital photography we were able to see the images on a computer very quickly. Working with Abbott Miller, our art director, Merce and Joachim were able to arrange specific moments and see very clearly how they would look on a page. Photographer Joachim Ladefoged was not familiar with Cunninghams choreography, adding to the mix an appropriate element of John Cage-ian chance. (Revolutionary composer Cage was Cunninghams long-time partner and collaborator until his death in 1992.)
Part of 2wices mission statement reads: The editorial vantage points of 2wice are popular and academic, serious and humorous. 2wice is intended to both document and vividly materialize the theme of each issue. The twice-yearly publications are image and concept, rather than text driven, although they contain concise essays and poetry. Past issues have included such themes as picnics, animals, and rites of spring, portrayed by a giddy mix of dance, art, fashion, and more. For example, an issue on gold included not only the word spelled out in gleaming sculptured gold letters, but spreads of ballet dancer Tom Gold in action.
In dance, form often is content. Cunningham doesnt embed legible story lines in his choreography, but watching his dances can be a highly emotional experience, akin to how a certain musical key can set off a specific feeling, or how the sundry images in a Rauschenberg artwork accumulate to construct a time or place. The Cunningham/Rauschenberg issue of 2wice captures for posterity an amazing collaboration between two titans of modern culture.
To find copies of 2wice: Cunningham/Rauschenberg, Vol. 8: No 1, visit www.2wice.org.