Behind the Scenes: A Closer Look at Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications

Jed Downhill, Merce Cunningham, Patricia Lent, Helen Barrow, Victoria Finlayson, and Karen Radford in Fabrications. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

In this week’s performance by CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and The Northrop, Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications returns to the same stage where it saw its world premiere 30 years ago. That 1987 performance culminated the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s (MCDC) three-week residency in Minneapolis and was the first of three Walker-commissioned dances from the company. Such commissions are just one component of the Walker’s longstanding relationship with Cunningham, which includes another eight residencies, a total of 17 separate engagements, and the acquisition of the 4,300-object Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.

Since the company’s Legacy Tour in 2010–2011, Cunningham’s pieces are licensed exclusively by the Merce Cunningham Trust to a select group of world-renowned companies, including CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, whose dancers are taught the work by former Cunningham company members. In addition to Fabrications, CCN-Ballet de Lorraine will perform Sounddance (1976) from the MCDC repertoire as part of the Walker’s Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition.

“It is our hope, of course, that this residency will serve to be the pilot project for a continuing ‘second-home’-style relationship with the Walker Art Center and and the City of Minneapolis.”

—Art Becofsky, MCDC Executive Director, in a letter to the Walker’s then-curator of performing arts, Robert Stearns, April 9, 1986

Fabrications is not only an important work in the Walker’s relationship with Cunningham, but marks a unique period in the artist’s choreographic repertory. The piece has a notably stronger sense of narrative than much of his other work, which is a tone that is expressed through distinct choices in the design elements in addition to the arc of the actual choreography. The company’s long-time archivist David Vaughn has described Fabrications as somewhat “reminiscential”—Cunningham’s version of an “aging-artist-looks-back-on-his-past ballet.” The way the composition of the work moves between duets, trios, and group work hints ever so slightly towards a traditional ballet structure rather than the more chaotic and unpredictable puzzles of some of his other pieces, even though Cunningham used a process influenced by I Ching to formulate it. One reviewer for the New York Times went as far as to say that Fabrications has “a highly emotional resonance–surprisingly close to Antony Tudor’s ballets about young love, or more precisely, love recalled through the haze of memory.”

Draft of the program for MCDC’s 1987 Northrop performance, which includedFabrications. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

These kinds of interpretations were not endorsed by Cunningham, who was firm about stating that he does not put stories in his choreography. In early notes from making the work, however, he separates the piece into scenes whose names imply acknowledgement of the dance’s emotive potential: sorrow, anger, fear, and odiousness. Similar narrative tones in another work that premiered that same year, Shards, led critics to wonder if this marked the beginning of a new era of “emotionalism” for Cunningham. In Merce Cunningham: Creative Elements, company archivist Vaughn reflects on an interview with Cunningham after the works premiered in New York:

“Did his dances have stories? Was there, as the reviewers were saying, a new emotionalism in his work? No, he replied. His dances had no stories, never had stories, and if people we seeing a new emotionalism in his work, ‘it’s just their eyes.’ Or maybe it was there, he said, but ‘I don’t put it in the piece. My choices are made in the movement.’ Movement, he went to say, could have a strong emotional resonance. ‘Movement is expressive. I’ve never denied that. I don’t think there’s such a thing as abstract dance.’ In his dances, though, the movement was never ‘expressive of a particular thing.’”

Merce Cunningham observes the dancers rehearse Fabrications at the Northrop Auditorium in 1987. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

The design elements of Fabrications were crucial in influencing the audience’s experience with the piece, following the company’s rich legacy of commissioning works from fellow contemporary artists. Cunningham’s artistic advisor for this piece was the artist Dove Bradshaw, who created the original backdrop that will be transported to Northrop from the Walker’s collections storage for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s upcoming performance (the company usually tours the piece with a replica). Bradshaw was appointed as an artistic advisor to the MCDC, along with William Anastasi, in 1984, overseeing the production of numerous pieces until 2012. Her experimental work with indeterminacy, chance structures, and natural forces were appealing to both Cunningham and Cage, who believed her almost scientific approach to working with time and chance resonated with what the company was doing. During her time with MCDC Bradshaw designed sets, costumes, and lighting and was responsible for all three of these elements in Fabrications. The color palette for the piece–incorporated in both costumes and décor–is a reduced-Constructivist theme of red, blue, black, and white, which contributes to the period-piece feel along with the collection of mixed thrifted and couture fabrics. The costumes were a particularly notable departure from the standard androgynous unitards: for this work, Bradshaw costumed the women in vintage WWII–style silk dresses and men in loose pants and shirts. The backdrop is an enlarged segment of one of Bradshaw’s collages in which she drew and painted on images from medical, architectural, and mathematical books. To adapt the image to the dance she added on top of her enlarged collage intertwining spirals and targets to emphasize the effect of the dancers’ twirling skirts. Bradshaw’s final touch to the set design was to impart a warm tropical feel with the lights, complementing the light flowing fabric and rich colors.

Dove Bradshaw, décor for Fabrications (1987) paint on scrim.  Photo: Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center Archives, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

Original music for Fabrications was composed by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, who will be arranging the sound live onstage during this week’s Ballet de Lorraine’s performance. The piece, titled Short Waves (1985), further contributes to Bradshaw’s tropical ambiance with its recorded short-wave radio sounds captured in the Amazon forest. The snippets of human voices in his recordings are often attributed as key in influencing some audience’s narrative interpretations. Throughout the dance the sound moves in and out of radio, music, and static without large swings in tempo or volume. Vaughn characterized the feeling as “like something heard from a distance.” In addition to his sound compositions–which have been performed by other legendary avant-garde musicians associated with the company like John Cage, David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, and Christian Wolff–Pimenta is known for working on a diverse range of projects in visual arts, architecture, intermedia systems, photography, and urbanism. His work often interweaves art with science and technology and overlaps with Cage and Cunningham in his experiments with time and space.

There was minimal communication between Cunningham and the designers while they were creating, consistent with his Artaud-inspired belief in not explicitly coordinating the various elements before their completion. The separation wasn’t as extreme as in other work, however, resulting in a notably more cohesive theatrical feel. Before the season even began Bradshaw asked Cunningham if she could use dresses at some point, which he agreed could work with one of the pieces he had in mind–so despite the absence of any explicit discussion about a narrative, there was some common understanding about the tone of this specific dance.

Fabrications is a distinctive example of Cunningham’s ability to evoke interest and feeling with calculated abstraction. Even in this work that leans uncharacteristically towards a narrative, Cunningham leaves enough unsaid that we’re not limited by a specific plot. Rather the space given by his abstraction opens our eyes to the power of a complex and multidimensional experience. However, this taste of emotionalism was fleeting for Cunningham, and as Vaughn mused, his next season (including works like Eleven and Carousal) could have been titled, “There is No New Emotionalism in My Work.”

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performing Fabrications. Photo: Bernard Prudhomme

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performs Fabrications, along with Cunningham’s Sounddance and Devoted, by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 7:30 pm at Northrop. Merce Cunningham: Common Time is on view in the Walker galleries through July 30, 2017.

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