Walker Art Center

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Opening the Road Box
A Close Look at the Cunningham Collection

Exceptional cargo

Costume boxes from the Cunningham Dance Foundation’s New York facilities and their contents were sorted and cataloged in the Walker’s painting storage room. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

“Things take time—T.T.T.” My father recently reminded me of this phrase, coined by Danish scientist and poet Piet Hein, and it has been an apt mantra for engaging with the Walker Art Center’s monumental Merce Cunningham Dance Company collection. Cunningham’s complete archive of sets and costumes, including materials ranging from 1942 to 2011, now permanently resides at the Walker. Over the past two years, my work as the researcher on this project has included cataloging 3,443 costume pieces, working with the museum’s visual art curators on three Cunningham-related research exhibitions, conducting more than 40 archival interviews with Cunningham collaborators and affiliates, and visiting archives across the United States, Europe, and Japan. This project has been an odyssey of enormity and richness, breaking new trails and retracing old histories—and we have only just begun. Here are some highlights from the strides that we have made thus far.

Making it official, November 2011

L-R: Cunningham Dance Foundation Executive Director Trevor Carlson, Walker Executive Director Olga Viso, Cunningham Dance Foundation Chief Financial Officer Lynn Wichern, Walker Registrar Joe King. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

After years of discussion and preparation, the Walker formally acquired the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s complete archive of sets and costumes. Featuring objects spanning more than six decades of Cunningham’s work, this is the largest acquisition ever made by the Walker’s visual art department. Exceptional in more than just size, the collection has helped the museum re-imagine what it collects. Objects once used in performance—danced in, laundered, hung in theaters, crated and shipped around the world—are now entering a new life, to be used for exhibitions, study, and possibly new projects.

Early cataloguing days

Abigail Sebaly folds a costume designed by Robert Rauschenberg. Photo: Gene Pittman

When the costumes first arrived in 2011, we hung a variety of them up in the Walker’s painting storage room so curators and other staff members could see the breadth and diversity of the pieces that had entered the collection. This then became the site where all the pieces were cataloged over the ensuing two years. Note that we are using a covered ping pong table as a work surface. It’s easily folded and moveable—and game-ready should the mood strike.

From Totem Ancestor (1942): The oldest costume in the collection

Photo: Estate of Fred Fehl. Courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust.

In his early 20s, Merce Cunningham performed one of his earliest solos, Totem Ancestor, in collaboration with composer John Cage. Although Cunningham often receives first billing as a choreographer, he was an equally virtuosic dancer who was known to hit the air, and stay. In Totem Ancestor, Cunningham devised a cartilage-achingly rigorous sequence of jumps on his knees. To see the dance live, check out recent revivals performed by former Cunningham dancers Daniel Madoff and Daniel Roberts.

Totem Ancestor (1942)

Photo: Estate of Fred Fehl. Courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust.

Cunningham had originally relocated from Washington State to New York in 1939, in order to dance with the Martha Graham Dance Company. When he created his solo, Totem Ancestor, he was still working with Graham, although he had a growing imperative to develop his own choreography. Still very young and living on a shoestring in the big city, he relished the occasional care packages from his mother. She “filled his larder … so that he could hardly get the door to the icebox closed … with whole salamis and hams and half a dozen cream puff” (as recounted in a letter by friend and poet M.C. Richards from the late 1940s).

Totem Ancestor (1942) neckline detail

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

The body suit, designed by Charlotte Trowbridge, is comprised of various brown, mustard, and cream-toned wool sections. Despite being hand sewn, and over 70 years old, the garment is in remarkably good shape, with slight wear under the arms and around the legs.

Hair part one: Accessories for Septet (1953)

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Materials in the Cunningham collection range from stage-engulfing backdrops (as large as 30’ x 60’) to much smaller accessories, such as these hair accents. Although these pieces look somewhat Grecian, the dance itself (like most of Cunningham’s works) was not meant to convey a specific story or narrative. Instead, Septet refers to the seven sections of the work, which is based on the structure of composer Erik Satie’s score, Trois morceaux en forme de poire.

Hair part two: Braid for Night Wandering (1958)

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Who knew that the Cunningham trove would include weave!? This is dancer Carolyn Brown’s hair piece for Night Wandering, a duet that Cunningham created while they were in Stockholm in 1958.

Fur part one: Tunic for Night Wandering (1958)

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Robert Rauschenberg designed the costumes for Night Wandering, including this fur tunic. The raw materials of Rauschenberg’s creations constantly pushed the boundaries of what a costume could be made from, whether it was a dress sewn from parachute material or pants created from strings of aluminum cans. For Night Wandering, there’s a wolfish sleekness and animal luster to the garments, nodding to Nordic cold of the Swedish locale where Cunningham choreographed the dance.

Fur part two: Costume for Rune (1959), designed by Robert Rauschenberg

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Rauschenberg sometimes sourced costume materials from second hand stores, as was probably the case for the fur trim on this shirt. According to Jasper Johns, who worked with Rauschenberg on some of his set and costume designs in the 1950s, the fur was “Bob’s response to a suggestion from Merce that the costumes should have something to do with animals.”

Merce’s oxfords for Antic Meet (1958)

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

The wooden soles of these shoes emit percussive taps when clacked together. Merce’s earliest dance experiences were steeped in tap, soft shoe, and ballroom styles, and this footwear no doubt nodded toward those beginnings of his dance education, as well as to his admiration for Fred Astaire. Note the prominent scuffs, traces of the steps that Merce once completed while wearing these shoes.

Vintage make-up for Nocturnes (1956)

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

For Nocturnes, a dance premiered at the Jacob’s Pillow summer festival in 1956, the dancers were dressed entirely in white, except for a colorful make-up look that Rauschenberg designed for the men. Cunningham’s face was painted half-white, half-red (as indicated by the used stick of red paint here). In contrast to more straightforward set and costume pieces, trying to classify this little box gave us pause. Should it be part of the main collection, or is it supporting material better registered in our study collection? We ended up accessioning it into the former.

From Story (1963): Most ponderous expression on a shirt

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

For Cunningham’s Story, Rauschenberg stocked a bin of clothes that the dancers could put on and take off at will throughout the dance. Among the surviving loot was a fencing mask, fringed cowboy pants, a hooded cape, and this shirt.

Custom Comme des Garcons

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

In 1997, Cunningham collaborated with Comme des Garcons founder Rei Kawakubo. Kawakubo designed a series of costumes for the company based on her 1997 spring/summer couture collection, Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body. Knowing that the costumes would be worn and washed repeatedly, Kawakubo provided multiple copies of each garment. Some remained unworn and arrived to us in their original packaging, including these undershorts (or hot pants, if you prefer). Of the many unique moments to emerge when cataloging this collection, one overtook me when I realized that it was my professional duty to type “hot pants” more than 75 times in a single day. Hot pants. Hot pants. Hot pants.

Merce meets Moschino and metal

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

With a motto that seems fitting for Merce, these off-the-rack pants were worn at a series of Event performances presented by the company at the American Express headquarters in downtown Manhattan’s World Financial Center, a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Events at the Park Avenue Armory (2011): The newest costumes in the collection

Foreground dancers L-R: Andrea Weber, Rashaun Mitchell. Photo: Anna Finke

Costume fittings at Westbeth

L-R: Dancer Marcie Munnerlyn, costume designer and wardrobe supervisor Anna Finke, dancer Andrea Weber. Photo courtesy Anna Finke

For the Armory performances, designer Anna Finke sourced images of the Manhattan skyline that she had taken from the roof of Westbeth, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s longtime West Village home. Also pictured in the background is a glimpse of the “small studio,” where many sections of Merce’s choreography were learned and rehearsed over the years.

Treating the dresses from Place (1966)

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Although many pieces in the collection have endured the test of time remarkably well, some are still in need of professional TLC. Here, conservator Beth McLaughlin tackles the wrinkles in a PVC plastic dress (circa 1966) with a hair dryer. Hot air warms the plastic, allowing us to flatten a garment that was previously folded.

Heating vintage PVC

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

PVC (or polyvinyl chloride) is notorious for its propensity to break down with time. If “Weeping Barbie Syndrome” strikes (as it has with some of the Walker’s works by Joseph Beuys), the plasticizer literally starts to sweat out of the material, creating a toxic goo. Thankfully, this hasn’t occurred to any of the costumes … yet.

Conservation of the Summerspace (1958) backdrop

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

This 1958 backdrop, created by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, was recently restored at the Midwest Art Conservation Center. The dancers wore similarly dotted leotards and tights, suggesting a camouflage relationship between them and the decor. The piece is a theater-sized 16 feet high by 43 feet wide, making it a challenge to fully unfurl in most indoor spaces.

Summerspace drop detail

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

To produce the mesh dot pattern, Rauschenberg and Johns spray-painted through a piece of perforated metal. You can imagine what a monumental undertaking this was, given the enormous size of the cloth. This image shows a detailed area where conservators have masked white paint stains that had bled through from the reverse side of the fabric. These stains were determined not to be part of the backdrop’s original design.

Poshest archive locale: Tokyo

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Aside from cataloging, my work has also included visiting Cunningham-related archives around the world. This is the members’ lounge at the Sogetsu School of Ikebana in Tokyo (giving off a hint of 2001 Space Odyssey realness). Although now solely a center for the Japanese art of flower arrangement (ikebana), Sogetsu also served as an important platform for avant-garde artists, including the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, from the 1950s to the 1970s. Some of the Sogetsu Art Center’s archival materials are still temporarily housed here.

Swedish Center for Architecture and Design, Stockholm

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

In 1964, museum director and curator Pontus Hulten invited the dance company to perform at the Moderna Museet, as part of the series Five New York Evenings. Also sharing the bill were Rauschenberg (who performed his piece Elgin Tie, which featured a special appearance by a large Swedish Brahman cow), Alex Hay, Steve Paxton, John Cage, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, and Robert Morris.This is the site of the original Moderna Museet, (now the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design), with the newer adjacent facilities just out of view. Note the frosty Calder sculptures in the foreground—Stockholm winter tough!

Pontus Hulten’s automated storage “jukebox” in the Moderna Museet’s archives

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Moderna Museet director Hulten and architect Renzo Piano developed this automatic art retrieval system, housed in the museum’s archives. Functioning like the mechanism that retrieves a record in a jukebox, the user selects the screen she’d like to see and it descends from a row in the ceiling. Far out. The works on display are all from Hulten’s personal collection, which he gave to the museum before he died in 2006.

Ass Scutch

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

During a visit to the Rauschenberg Foundation’s New York archives, I encountered some of Rauschenberg’s notes for his 1963 performance piece, Pelican. He was developing this work concurrently with his duties as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s resident designer, and Carolyn Brown (one of the Cunningham Company’s founding dancers) was also featured in the piece. Tackling the challenge of describing movement, Rauschenberg coined some ingenious choreographic shorthand, including the “ass scutch” (presumably a seated slide across the floor?).

Yoko Ono sent a Hallmark card

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

During my archive visits to places such as the Getty Research Institute and the Beinecke Library at Yale University, I have encountered many unexpected gems, such as this 1960s Christmas card sent by Yoko Ono to composer and frequent Cunningham collaborator David Tudor. Sour cream coffee cake, indeed!

Raciest archive find

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Another idiosyncratic archive find, buried in the stacks of a box of production files.

Cutest find near an archive: gingerbread pup in Stockholm

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

From a gingerbread installation at the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design, encountered on an archive break at the adjacent Moderna Museet.

Most subtle visitor feedback sighted at a contemporary art museum

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

This post-it was from a public comment wall at the Tate Modern, observed while I was conducting Cunningham-related oral history interviews in London. It exemplifies the kind of resistance that Cunningham’s work often received.

Installation view of Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham / Robert Rauschenberg

Photo: Gene Pittman

Rauschenberg the omniscient in Minutiae (1954/76)

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

From an installation in the Dance Works I exhibition, Rauschenberg makes a covert appearance in the 1976 replica of his own work, Minutiae (1954).

Installing Tantric Geography, Rauschenberg’s decor for Travelogue (1977)

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

How the work gets done: a paper model temporarily stands in for a triangular fabric piece from Rauschenberg’s decor for the dance Travelogue .

Installation view, Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham / Robert Rauschenberg

Photo: Gene Pittman

Installing Rauschenberg’s Antic Meet (1958) costumes

L-R: Doc Czypinski, Jonathan Clark, John Vogt. Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Leading a movement-focused tour of Dance Works I

L-R (background) Courtney Gerber, Abigail Sebaly. Foreground: Free First Saturday participants. Photo: Gene Pittman

In order to highlight the importance of the body and dance in this collection, I have worked with the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department to create movement based tours of the Cunningham-focused exhibitions. Rather than focusing purely on the visual qualities of the costumes and sets, we also try to imagine the weight and feel of the garments, and how they might affect one’s ability to move. We’re conscious of how our own bodies travel through the galleries, observing the pathways that we can follow, and the new views that the physical shifts in perspective afford us.

Elliott Sharp performs in Dance Works II: Merce Cunningham / Ernesto Neto

Photo: Gene Pittman

During the exhibition of Ernesto Neto’s otheranimal, the decor for Cunningham’s dance Views on Stage (2004), the gallery was concurrently used for the Performing Arts Department’s Sound Horizon music series. For these concerts, the soft floor sculpture was removed, and musicians performed in the central pool of light.

Worst posture: Fashion mannequin

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

One major challenge with the Cunningham collection is the issue of displaying the costumes. Some pieces are too fragile to be maneuvered onto a form, and many fashion mannequins are disproportionate and awkwardly posed. We are continuing to explore alternative methods for sharing the collection’s wearable pieces.

Dressing mannequins in Rei Kawakubo’s costumes for Scenario (1997)

Photo: John Vogt

Detail of printed matter from the Sogetsu Art Center at Keio University, Tokyo

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

With all of the costumes cataloged and three research exhibitions completed, our efforts now turn towards a Cunningham-focused symposium, slated for 2014, and a major Cunningham exhibition and catalogue, projected for 2016.

“You have to love dancing to stick to it,” said Merce Cunningham in an oft-quoted remark. “It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.” While there will always be an element of ephemerality to the work of performance, we also cannot ignore the more permanent traces of Cunningham’s legacy that we are now in a position to uphold. Returning to an idea of curation that is closest to its Latin origins of “curare,” to take care of, we must balance the goals of both preserving a legacy and creating new encounters between the materials and artists of today. This mission, too, is not for unsteady souls.