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DVD review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Robert Rauschenberg Collaborations

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I had the pleasure of seeing the Merce Cunningham Dance Group a number of times before the choreograhper’s death in 2009, and it was always an eye and ear-opening event. Sadly, the group is nearing the final stretch of its Legacy Tour, which will be the final chance to see the legendary works performed by Cunningham’s own troupe. A number of videos have attempted to capture this most unfilmable of media. Although these works are best seen amid the visual and aural scope of the concert hall, fans of challenging music and dance will find much to treasure in these videos.

Microcinema’s three-disc set is billed as the Robert Rauschenberg Collaborations, after the renowned artist who designed costumes and background for these works. Rauschenberg is perhaps most famous for his groundbreaking “combines,” canvasses that were sometimes more sculpture than painting. But two of the works collected here are also bear the touch of Cunningham’s most dedicated musical collaborator, composer John Cage. Their collaborative process was an unusual one. Cage and Cunninngham were both fond of creating by chance, and in fact they sometimes worked independent of each other, merging music and choreography with blinders on, the teamwork not evident until they had completed their individual contributions.

The videos in this set were made by Charles Atlas, a pioneer in what is called “dance for camera,” work that is choreographed specifically for the lens. Atlas collaborated with Cunningham on several works on the ’70s and ’80s, though none are represented here.

For licensing reasons, each disc in the set consists of only one work, from 20 to 45 minutes in length. Disc one offers the most straightforward of the works, Suite for Five (1956-1958), a set of pieces for anywhere from one to five dancers. Rauschenberg’s bold single-color costumes, Cage’s simple score (Music for Piano 4-19) makes for a stark simplicity. Atlas uses a split-screen at times to present alternate points of view, and this helps compensate for the limitations of filmed dance. Summerspace (1958) is a more lyrical piece, with a score by Morton Feldman and a more pastoral stage and costme design by Rauschenberg. The most ambitious and abstract work here is also the longest: Interscape (2000), features a Cage score that frequently drops out so that the only music is the sound of the dancer’s feet. While this work is particularly challenging, the chance games of Cage and Cunningham may inspire viewers to experiment themselves. I found Wire’s 1977 punk classic Pink Flag a bracing soundtrack for this provocative work. I hope the artists don’t mind.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.
  • http://barbarabarnett.wordpress.com barbara barnett

    I actually saw a performance of Merce Cunnigham’s collaboration with Cage’s music in Chicago. I think I must’ve been 11 or 12 (on a school field trip). I get Cage (though I don’t always like the music). Biggest highlight of that outing was to run into Rudolph Nureyev outside the theatre. And had the presence of mind to have him sign the Merce Playbill.

  • http://ppad.blogspot.com Pat

    Thanks for the comment Barbara! I just noticed that Microcinema also distributes a set of Cunningham’s late collabs with Sigur Ros and Radiohead – I should check those out next!