“Merce Cunningham: Common Time”

Dance, Contemporary and experimental
4 out of 5 stars
"Merce Cunningham: Common Time"
Charles Atlas, "MC9", 2012.
"Merce Cunningham: Common Time"
Rei Kawakubo, Costumes for "Scenario", 1997.
"Merce Cunningham: Common Time"
Installation view, "Merce Cunningham: Common Time", MCA Chicago.
"Merce Cunningham: Common Time"
nstallation view, "Merce Cunningham: Common Time", MCA Chicago.

More than a collection of dance films, this exhibit puts the famed choreographer’s artistic collaborators in the spotlight.

Dance is the domain of movement and feats of physicality—it's not an art form that immediately lends itself to being the subject of a largely static museum exhibition. The late dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham viewed the stage as a place where kinetic maneuvers could coalesce with other artistic disciplines, from visual installations to experimental music. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s "Common Time" exhibition (presented and curated in conjunction with a simultaneous Cunningham-focused exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota) expands upon this cooperative approach, focusing on Cunningham’s creative confidants.

Common Time is largely an exhibition about collaboration, showcasing the work of the many artists, designers and composers who contributed to Cunningham’s innovative vision of dance performance. While there’s plenty of archival concert footage on display (most notably in a striking multi-screen video installation designed by longtime Cunningham Dance Company videographer Charles Atlas), the bulk of the collection is comprised of costumes, set dressings, sculptures and music that graced performances by Cunningham’s company throughout his career, demonstrating the choreographer’s constantly evolving aesthetic.

Even if you’re not a dance aficionado, the central figures of "Common Time" will likely be familiar. The work of influential multimedia artist Robert Rauschenberg is a nearly constant presence, ranging from polka-dotted leotards to stage décor featuring bike tires, tin cans and gigantic fabric sails. Likewise, the experimental melodies of John Cage (Cunningham’s creative and life partner) serve as the exhibit’s soundtrack, including selections from his interchangeable 18-part score for the company’s 1967 dance Scramble.

Elsewhere, the exhibit highlights Cunningham’s appreciation for technology and his dogged pursuit of cutting-edge collaborators. Though they never worked together directly, Andy Warhol allowed Cunningham to use his mylar Silver Clouds balloon as the décor for a 1968 production—visitors to "Common Time" can take selfies in a room filled with floating replicas. Nearby, bulging spandex costumes by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo and footage of a performance that Cunningham choreographed using computer software exemplify his forward-thinking approach. 

Just as a dance routine is the sum of various independent movements, "Common Time" depicts the creation of a performance as the cumulative artistic effort of a cast of individuals. For Cunningham, it wasn’t enough to choreograph a stunning routine—he strived to make every element of the performance something that was new and memorable. Filled with the fruits of his collaborations, the exhibit acts as a fitting tribute to an artist who was always searching for inspiration and who never shied away from sharing the spotlight.

By: Zach Long


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