The Collaborative Legacy of Merce Cunningham

A rich look at an unrecognized architectural genre: the diverse collaborations between major choreographers and eminent architects.

Merce Cunningham, 1981. [Photo by Terry Stevenson. All images courtesy of Beth Weinstein.]

The career of Merce Cunningham (born 1919 in Centralia, Washington; died 2009 in New York City) was notable not only for its major achievement in contemporary dance but also for its many strong collaborations with major artists, designers and composers. Over his long career Cunningham developed a unique collaborative method for an art, as Cunningham famously described dance, “in space and time.”

From his early years at the Cornish School in Centralia, where he studied a range of visual and performing arts without specialization, to his arrival in New York City in 1939, where he spent six years as a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company, to summers beginning in ’48 at Black Mountain College, Cunningham was exposed to dance, theater, design and the visual arts as mutually intertwined and productively interdependent. It is notable that unlike many choreographers today — who pursue multifaceted careers that mix performance art, installation, theater, visual arts and design — the pioneering Cunningham engaged these related disciplines through his collaborators. He himself remained focused on dance — dance as pure movement, without “expression” or narrative. In tandem with the abstract and non-narrative paintings and sculpture being created by his artist peers and friends (including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns), Cunningham’s choreography was “concerned with the fact of movement, as the music of John Cage [was] concerned with the fact of sound, or a painting by Jasper Johns with the fact of a certain object.” 1 This “fact of movement” — the idea that the legitimacy and interest of an artwork sprang from the very medium of the art, rather than from any message or idea being conveyed — underlies the many innovations that mark Cunningham’s work as dancer and choreographer.

Cunningham’s unique collaborative method emerged after several years of sharing programs and making dance and music pieces with John Cage (who was also his life partner). Cage was satisfied with the results of their coordinated works; still, as Laura Kuhn, executive director of the John Cage Trust, put it in a public panel, the composer “didn’t like the idea of one art supporting another or one art depending on another. He liked the idea of independence and wondered if there were another way we could work separately to produce a work of music and dance.” 2 Cage’s critique of the subordination of one art to another led to the first of what Cunningham called his “four key discoveries,” which was “the separation of music and dance.” 3 The non-subordination of parts would allow them to be developed independently and largely in isolation, resulting in all the parts of the performance parts (dance, music, lighting, costumes and set) coming together at the last minute before the curtain rises.

John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, London, 1964. [Photo by Douglas H. Jeffrey]

Cunningham’s second “key discovery” was the use of what he called “chance operations.” Here too, Cunningham adopted practices that Cage was employing in musical composition. As Cunningham recalled, in the 1950s “a scientific institute called the Institute of Random Numbers had declared that using random numbers was just as useful as logic. The I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, had been published … chance was a way of working which opened up possibilities in dance that I might otherwise have thought impossible.” 4 As dance critic John Rockwell describes it, “Cunningham used chance methods to decide how to sequence choreographic phrases, how many dancers would perform at any given point, where they would stand on stage, and where they would enter and exit.” 5 One of his chance methods was, in fact, to toss coins or roll dice to determine crucial aspects of a performance, as he did, for instance, in Split Sides (2003). 6

The binary logic of coin-tossing, among other chance operations, can be understood as a form of proto-computing; it isn’t surprising that Cage and Cunningham would later use computer technologies to develop sound and movement. Cunningham identified these experimentations with computer technology, along with possibilities afforded by working with film and camera, as the third and fourth key discoveries. Each key discovery worked to override personal will and preconceived ideas or habit and to create unanticipated intersections. As dance and theater scholar Roger Copeland suggests, in an issue of TDR, Cunningham’s work can be understood as part of the “collage aesthetic” of modernism. “Collage has been central to Cunningham’s work from the very beginning in the 1950s,” says Copeland. “Unlike Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, which exemplifies a hunger for wholeness, collage appeals to an age that has come to distrust claims of closure, ‘unity,’ and fixed boundaries.” 7

Top: Minutiae, with sets by Robert Rauschenberg. [Photo by Herb Migdoll] Middle: Walkaround Time, with art by Jasper Johns. [Photo by James Klosty] Bottom: Nearly Ninety, with set design by Benedetta Tagliabue. [Photo by Anna Finke]

The Collaborative Legacy — an exhibition that I curated this spring at the University of Arizona — includes seven works by Cunningham and his collaborators, spanning from the early years of his company (Minutiae, 1954) to his last work (Nearly Ninety, 2009), which was realized in collaboration with the Barcelona-based architect Benedetta Tagliabue. These dances coexisted in time and space with “open-ended sound scores” by John Cage, David Tudor and Andrew Culver (Ocean) and music by Gavin Bryars, and with environmental art works by Robert Rauschenberg (Antic Meet, 1958, and Minutiae), Jasper Johns (Walkaround Time, 1968), Andy Warhol (RainForest, 1968), and the team of Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar of OpenEndedGroup (BIPED, 1999). All seven works underscore the varying degrees to which Cunningham’s dancers mingled in a shared space with volumetric elements, or, as in Nearly Ninety, co-existed as discrete events occurring on stage.

As a complement and counterpoint to these seven Cunningham collaborations, the exhibition documents seven collaborations between younger choreographers and various architects, showing highlights of what I would argue is a real if not always recognized architectural “type.” More to the point, these other works reveal diverse approaches to content and multiple methods of collaborating in space and time.

If Cunningham represents the non-narrative, chance-derived, and not-“about”-anything-but-itself end of the dial, then the collaboration of architect Jaafar Chalabi with Nacho Duato on Multiplicity: Silence and Forms of Emptiness (1999), in which architectural and musical themes of the Baroque are explored through the set’s voluptuous geometries and J.S. Bach’s life story, is at the opposite edge. 8 It was the site — Weimar, Germany — of this commissioned dance work that inspired the idea of an homage to Bach; this in turn informed the musical score, the choreographic variations and fugue, and Chalabi’s exploration of convex and concave folds, creating convoluted interior and exterior spaces within the scaffold-supported curtain wall.

Multiplicity, choreography by Nacho Duato, set design by Jaafar Chalabi. 

Between the extremes of Cunningham-plus and Chalabi-Duato are a number of important collaborations. These include works by Lucinda Childs with Frank Gehry; Elisa Monte with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien; Frédéric Flamand with Dominique Perrault and also with Ai Weiwei; and William Forsythe with Nikolaus Hirsch. Also included in the exhibition is documentation of two of my collaborations with University of Arizona dance professor Douglas Nielsen and our students.

The collaboration between Childs, Gehry and composer John Adams was the brainchild of curator Julie Lazar at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and it led to Available Light (1983), the first of the museum’s Stages of Performance series. Here Lazar and the artists sought to explore new forms of collaboration. Reflecting on the legacy of artist Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, of Cunningham and his collaborators and also of the tradition of dance experimentation at Judson Church in Greenwich Village, Lazar pointed out that  “… in none of these examples … did the architect actually work with the choreographer to influence the shape of the dance. [LA MOCA’s] Stages of Performance proposed the development of a more direct interaction between the individual artists from each discipline … to create a performance that enabled the audience to see the underlying forms of each individual’s work, in the context of a completely integral artwork.” 9

Available Light exemplifies both continuity with and divergence from the Cunningham model. While maintaining the philosophical stance that the work was not “about anything,” Childs’s choreographed patterns were synchronized precisely to the music, and the two geometric orders of the dance responded to Gehry’s split and skewed stages and audience grandstands. According to John Adams, “… to be successful, a collaborative relationship, such as the one that produced Available Light, requires a delicate balance of artistic sensitivities. In our time, the term ‘collaboration’ has somewhat lost its original connotations of rapport. … I would construe [collaboration] to mean work that’s built through a continuous consultation and exchange of ideas and feedback. Because of the geographical problem … there was only a kind of general concord about the larger form, the most important of which was the duration and … [its not being] … broken down into little separate movements.” 10

Top: Available Light, choreography by Lucinda Childs, set design by Frank Gehry. [Photo by Tom Vinetz] Bottom: The World Upside Down, choreography by Elisa Monte, set design by Tod Williams and Bille Tsien. [Photo by Michael Moran]

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s set for Elisa Monte’s The World Upside Down (1991) was a conscious response to Gehry’s static scaffolds. Williams and Tsien sought to explore the possibility of an architecture that would participate in the dance as a performer. The elegant folding wall that they created thus transformed from flat screen to prow, turning inside-out to reveal its hidden structure. Monte fully explored the choreographic possibilities of relating to this wall, and in this way The World Upside Down completely diverged from the “independence” Cunningham strived for. Her dance was subordinated to, if not dominated by, the strong presence of the architecture.

Frédéric Flamand’s choreographies also explore the potential of their architectural contexts, emerging very much in dialogue with his architect partners, so that the themes permeate the dance, stage setting, lighting, projections and costumes. Always springboarding from a theme (the “normal” body, the body at work or leisure, the body-city, invisible cities, the radiant city) or a text (Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Baron in the Trees, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Nijinsky’s Diary, among others) the works undeniably wrap “about” an idea, though in non-narrative ways. The more successful in the litany of collaborators (including Diller+Scofidio, Thom Mayne, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, and the Campana Brothers) have created formal elements with some degree of spatial flexibility or mobility, engaging them in the dance. Collaborative Legacy features two of Flamand’s most recent collaborations. Dominique Perrault’s work employs mobile and “modulor” metal-mesh screens for a piece on the theme of Le Corbusier and The Radiant City (2005); the design process also involved architecture students from the IUAV in Venice. More recently, Flamand’s The Truth 25x/Second (2010) features the Chinese artist and architectural designer Ai Weiwei’s tangle of “Readymade” ladders, which transforms from a ramshackle hovel on the ground to a suspended matrix, evoking images of construction cranes for a 21st-century castle in the air.

Top: La Cite Radieuse, choreography by Frédéric Flamand, set design by Dominique Perrault. [Photo by Pipitone] Bottom: The Truth 25X/Second, choreography by Frédéric Flamand, set design by Ai Weiwei. [Photo by Pipitone]

The collaboration between Frankfurt-based architect Nikolaus Hirsch and choreographer William Forsythe, like many of those described already, involved extensive dialogue with the goal of tracing out a set of shared principles. Although the main purpose of the Hirsch-Forsythe collaboration was to fit out the public and performance spaces in The Forsythe Company’s new home, it also resulted in the creation of a spatial kit-of-parts that invited both dancers and the public to adapt and manipulate space in synch with the hall’s constantly changing events.

Collectively these collaborations offer diverse models for different disciplines working together on a single project. There are projects whose parts were developed independently, virtually without dialogue, and in which non-subordinated parts co-exist in a layered collage. (This was what happened with Cunningham and most partners). There are projects in which long-established collaborators independently create their respective contributions, which are then synchronized by the grace of a kind of mutual “mind-reading.” (Think of professional tango partners or elderly couples who communicate virtually without words. Think of Cunningham and Cage. And though neither old nor a couple, Duato and Chalabi seem headed this way after more than a half-dozen projects together.)

Bockenheimer Depot, choreography by William Forsythe, set design by Nikolaus Hirsch. [Photo by Hirsch]

There are projects whose partners use dialogue, debate, drawing and modeling to create some idea, structure or methodology which in turn organizes and synthesizes their distinct contributions; this functions as “getting on the same page” without necessarily subordinating one to the other. (This model would include the Childs-Gehry interaction and the OpenEnded Group’s approach to Cunningham; and one can argue that Cage and Cunningham began this way.) There are projects in which the partners together establish a theme, yet in which one contribution is deeply contingent upon another for its structure. (Examples include Childs’s dance in relation to its music, or Flamand’s and Monte’s dances in relation to their architectural sets.) And there are projects in which the disciplinary roles are blurred to the point where all of the partners contribute to the conceptualization and creation of all of the parts. My understanding is that Forsythe, and often Flamand, attempt to work in this way, reaching into other disciplines of space, lighting and costume; but whether Forsythe invites his collaborators to trespass into his territory is to be questioned.

Visual artist and Cunningham-collaborator Paul Kaiser interprets what’s become known as Conway’s Law as referring to that phenomenon in which “a group’s communications structure replicates itself in the structure of the works they create together.” 11 The Collaborative Legacy is focused on the ideas, structures and methods that brought together diverse collaborators who then produced multidisciplinary projects. Although focused on works that unite the human body in space in time, these models for joining diverse voices are portable to other interdisciplinary partnerships. The exhibition also celebrates Merce Cunningham’s openness to the unpredictable, and the means by which he and John Cage supported and honored the contributions of their many collaborative partners. Many would argue that using, say, the I Ching to design complex contemporary architectural works would be improbable, yet the essence of Cunningham and Cage’s collaborative methodology, developed in the 1950s, seems remarkably contemporary in its proto-parametric logic and its embrace of complexity and simultaneity.

Fragile Stability, choreography by Douglas Nielsen, set design by Beth Weinstein. [Photo by Larry Hanelin]

  1. David Vaughan, “Merce Cunningham,” Merce Cunningham, ed. Germano Celant (Milan: Charta, 2000), 96.
  2. Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, Laura Diane Kuhn, Joseph V. ?Melillo, Thecla Schiphorst, and  David Vaughan, “Four Key Discoveries: Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Fifty,” in Theater, Summer 2004, vol. 34, no. 2, 105. Kuhn was speaking at a public panel, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, that marked the 50th anniversary of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
  3. Ibid., 105.
  4. Ibid., 106.
  5. See Merce Cunningham in conversation with John Rockwell, Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts, 2005.
  6.  The Collaborative Legacy of Merce Cunningham includes sketches, charts and notes that document the rule-sets that Cunningham used to determine things such as the number and placement of dancers to perform a segment, whether the dances would be male or female, and whether the lights would be on or off. Cunningham first used chance in Sixteen Dances (1951) to determine the order of various segments into an established structure of dark, interlude, light, interlude, etc.; he also used charts and chance for the choreography  and spacing of several dancers during one of the interludes. In Suite for Five (1956), he used imperfections on pieces of paper to organize places in space to move through. See “Interview by Laura Kuhn,” Art Performs Life (DAP : New York, 1998), 24-26.
  7.  Roger Copeland, “Merce and the Aesthetics of Collage,” TDR, MIT Press Journals: Spring 2002, vol. 46, no. 1, 12.
  8. Chalabi’s project statement explicitly references Leibniz as well as the then-resurgent interest in architecture in the fold, interiority and exteriority, and continuous surfaces that pass through gendered concavities and convexities.
  9. See Available Light (MOCA: Los Angeles, 1983), 6.
  10. Marshall, Ingram, Light Over Water: The Genesis of a Music; accessed August 12, 2010.
  11. Paul Kaiser, “On Creative Collaboration,” in Managing as Designing, edited by Boland and Collopy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004). Digitally available on the site of the OpenEnded Group.
Beth Weinstein, “The Collaborative Legacy of Merce Cunningham,” Places Journal, March 2011. Accessed 10 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Catherine Rutgers

    08.07.2011 at 17:52

    Great essay! And the visuals are stunning.