Merce Cunningham Artist Residency Celebrates, Challenges Dance Luminary

'Signals From the West: Bay Area Artists in Conversation With Merce Cunningham' encourages a critical, probing engagement with Cunningham. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

On a recent afternoon, a dozen artists stood along the wall in a Mission District dance studio. One by one, they briskly spiraled around the dancefloor’s perimeter before making several tight, purposeful turns in the center and then stepping away. The complicated pattern resolved, prompting relieved sighs. Silas Riener, the instructor, applauded and then pulled someone aside. “When you change directions, you’re treating it as its own movement,” Riener explained. “But it’s not.”

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Fewer than half of the artists had formally studied dance, let alone this pretzeling choreography by Merce Cunningham. Riener and Rashaun Mitchell, both formerly of Cunningham’s company, were teaching the late modern dance titan’s technique and philosophy to poets and musicians, filmmakers and conceptual artists. Now the multidisciplinary cast is creating new works in response, which debut alongside Cunningham repertory excerpts at ODC Theater in November.

Signals From the West: Bay Area Artists in Conversation with Merce Cunningham, presented by Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project, is part of an international centennial celebration of the dance figure roundly vaunted for his abiding ingenuity in creative methods and movement vocabulary. But instead of a reverent restaging, the residency program encourages a critical, probing engagement with Cunningham, one befitting the artist’s own restless disposition.

Silas Riener (L) and Rashaun Mitchell (R), both formerly Cunningham company dancers, taught the late artists's technique and philosophy to dancers and non-dancers alike.
Silas Riener (L) and Rashaun Mitchell (R), both formerly Cunningham company dancers, taught the late artists's technique and philosophy to dancers and non-dancers alike. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

“When someone’s anointed part of the canon, what was vibrant and uneasy can become codified, it can calcify,” said Claudia La Rocco, editorial director at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s interdisciplinary commissioning platform Open Space, who helped select ten artists who weren’t necessarily familiar with Cunningham, or who held seemingly contrary views. (Full disclosure: This writer was an Open Space columnist-in-residence in 2018.)

“The sense I got from being there was a bunch of smart individuals poking something, flipping it over, looking at it upside down—and not just recreating a piece,” she said. “It’s an experiment.”

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Many of the artists are eager to challenge the “presumed neutrality of abstract white male art,” said Mohr, who’s presenting the program with the Merce Cunningham Trust, ODC Theater and SFMOMA’s Open Space. “So they’re exploring how their identities collide with these methods.” The organizers tried to cultivate a “sense of permission to ask big questions,” Mohr explained. “The obvious ones being—why is Cunningham relevant? Can he still be relevant? Why bother?”

Julie Moon, second from left, is one of ten artists in residence as a part of 'Signals From the West.'
Julie Moon, second from left, is one of ten artists in residence as a part of 'Signals From the West.' (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

On my visit, during the first of two weeks of training, the artists spent part of the afternoon sitting on the ground. Riener described Cunningham’s creative relationships with the composer-philosopher John Cage, with whom he shared an affinity for indeterminacy; and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Sofía Córdova, the East Bay interdisciplinary artist, clapped on each syllable as she asked about the tension within this circle: “The people want the tell-all.”

Riener, a Cunningham dancer between 2007-2011, elegantly demurred. He mentioned that most of the original costumes and set pieces were acquired by the Walker Art Center, and that insurance makes them very expensive to rent. Then he reflected on the lack of documentation of certain eras, and said Cunningham only reluctantly revived popular legacy works. “But of course, he’d start changing things, fixing things,” Riener said. “So what version was real?”

Mitchell, a company member between 2004-2012, in the background led four trained dancers through an excerpt from “Fluid Canvas” (2002), one of three pieces they’ll perform in between the residency results. He chose the excerpt to represent Cunningham’s later, less often staged period of developing choreography with computer programs; the dancers’ torsos and limbs moved with unnerving independence. But mainly Mitchell taught the piece “because it’s in my body,” he said.

'Signals From the West' presenter Hope Mohr (R) tried to cultivate a 'sense of permission to ask big questions.'
'Signals From the West' presenter Hope Mohr (R) tried to cultivate a 'sense of permission to ask big questions.' (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Two days later at ODC Theater, a couple dozen people attended an afternoon preview of the resident artists’ works in progress. But first the trained dancers—Emily Hansel, Stacey Yuen, Sarah Bukowski and Traci Finch—performed the excerpt from “Fluid Canvas,” and Riener smiled to note it ran six seconds long. “So, a little slow,” he said. “I’m serious—that’s how he worked.” Next came solo excerpts from Cunningham’s “Scramble” (1967) and “Biped” (1999).

Nicole Peisl and Christy Funsch, both dancers and choreographers, explained that they appropriated movement descriptions from Cunningham’s notebooks, and then rolled dice to assign roles to different joints of the body. The result, involving call-and-response foot twitching and angular poses, had a playful, enigmatic air. Jenny Odell, the artist and author of How to Do Nothing, also used dice to find words in a book, which she passed to Bukowski for interpretation.

“This is a video I made a couple hours ago,” Odell said, adding she’d been observing how strangers walk. In it, Bukowski adopts a different demeanor in each of nine videos tiled on one screen. Later Odell told me that feeding information to Bukowski for translation felt akin to writing in computer language. “One of the words was ‘seems,’” she said. “I don’t know how to make a move out of that, but [Bukowski] did, and I was surprised that her move looks the way the word sounds.”

Resident artists' new works will premiere alongside Cunningham repertory excerpts in November at ODC Theater.
Resident artists' new works will premiere alongside Cunningham repertory excerpts in November at ODC Theater. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Odell was also intrigued by Cunningham’s emphasis on “simultaneity” in collaboration. He often withheld choreographic details from artists making music or costumes; sometimes dancers didn’t hear scores until the premiere. The multipanel video, Odell said, similarly explores “what happens when things aren’t coordinated except by coincidence or serendipity.”

Although most of the artists used chance operations for their germinal works, they complicated the method during the discussion with audience members. Sophia Wang, the movement-based San Francisco artist, said she was surprised to learn that someone with such an “authoritative reputation” stressed distributing power through chance operations. Alex Escalante said he struggled to cede control, admitting he devised a system to arrive at a predetermined decision.

Riener quipped, “We know the Libras in the room were excited by not having to make choices.”

Córdova, though, doubted that Cunningham ever really erased himself or suppressed his agency. “I don’t believe in neutrality,” she said. “Nobody is without politics.” Danishta Rivero, an experimental musician known from Las Sucias and Voicehandler, continued the thought by saying the choices between sound and silence, motion and stillness, reflects lived experience. “To say something is pure chance, without history, is naive and disingenuous,” Rivero said.

(The other artists in residence are Julie Moon, Maxe Crandall and Dazaun Soleyn.)

Later, Rivero widened her eyes incredulously when asked about Cunningham’s uncoupling of dance and music. She’s scoring the repertory excerpts in November, and said she plans to let the dancers preview the music during at least one rehearsal. Still, Rivero entertained some curiosity about Cunningham’s deliberate distance between motion and sound, and seemed to warm to his principle of simultaneity. “I mean, they definitely won’t get recordings beforehand.”

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‘Signals From the West’ includes a free artist talk Nov. 7 followed by performances Nov. 8-9, 8pm at ODC Theater. Details here.

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