by Beth Hammarlund
The opening image of The Walker Art Center’s exhibition, “Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham/Rei Kawakubo,” is a blown-up photograph of choreographer Merce Cunningham and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo as they walk toward one another for their first meeting in Cunningham’s New York studio. The moment itself appears almost choreographed, Kawakubo mid-stride, Cunningham planted to the floor, right hands deliberately outstretched and left hands blades at their sides. The photo is a rare documentation of one of those elusive moments that mark the birth of something new and original, and while Kawakubo pads lightly across the sun-reflecting floor, the image is heavy with possibility and purpose.
I was fortunate enough to walk through “Dance Works III” with its curator Betsy Carpenter, its research fellow Abigail Sebaly, and The Walker Art Center’s Associate Director of Public Relations Christopher James. The exhibition is a study of the 1997 dance piece “Scenario,” a playful and emotional experiment in modern dance that toyed with the perception of the human body. The Walker acquired the entire Cunningham collection (costumes, set pieces, videos, posters, original notes) in March of 2011, and The Dance Works series (this is its third and final installment) has been curated as a string of research exhibitions, eventually leading to a major Cunningham retrospective scheduled for 2016. Building an installation around a performance is a curious task, and as Carpenter informed me, “The main question we asked was, ‘How can we breathe life into a work that was meant to be seen on the stage, never in a gallery?’”
But capturing a performance in an installation is a challenge Cunningham himself would appreciate. The choreographer has always been interested in breaking down barriers between disciplines and mediums, allowing different art forms to inform one another and strange collaborations to produce new works. The Walker’s installation uses photos and videos, in addition to the actual costumes used in performances, to capture and communicate the accomplishment of Cunningham and Kawakubo’s masterpiece.
Cunningham approached Kawakubo about a collaboration shortly after she presented her Spring/Summer 1997 collection, “Body Meets Dress – Dress Meets Body,” in Paris. Though fashion critics now smugly refer to the collection as “ground-breaking” and “forward-thinking,” at the time, the media mockingly dubbed it the “Lumps and Bumps” or “Quasimodo” collection. Kawakubo had never designed costumes before and was initially hesitant about the collaboration, but Cunningham had successfully convinced skeptics before, and eventually the pair began a strange endeavor that would become one of Cunningham’s most curious works. The two artists worked together for about a year, often in person, and “Scenario” remains their one and only collaboration.
Though Kawakubo’s costumes limited dancers’ movements (giant protuberances and tight full-length dresses will do that to a dancer), Cunningham choreographed the piece without regard for these restraints (except for one piece which lacked arm holes, a costume difficult enough that it is not currently on display due to its stubborn inability to cooperate with a perfectly willing mannequin). Cunningham was always fascinated by spacial relations and strives to choreograph in 360 degrees, and Kawakubo’s costumes created new shapes from each angle, building images that Cunningham and his dancers could never achieve with the body alone.
From a distance, the costumes appear to a cotton jersey, sometimes even poplin, but the garments are actually made of spandex. The protuberances are stuffed with down, except for limited cases in which polyfill was used for shaping purposes. Up close, the pieces are scarred with tiny pills and stains, reminders that these costumes were about function as much as form.
Mannequins in the exhibit are displayed against a floor-to-ceiling stage scape of the performance space at The Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts, where the dance made its debut. With its stark white floor and background, as well as dozens of trusses of fluorescent lights, the scene is unforgiving and sterile. Company dancer Lisa Boudreau likened the experience to dancing in a microwave oven. A 13-minute excerpt from the show’s score, Wave Code A-Z, fills the room with a seemingly random collection of slow groans and confused violin. Composer and company music director Takehisa Kosugi based the piece on 26 words, each affiliated with a letter from the alphabet. The excerpt from the exhibit features the letters A-E (attune, blues, chaos, downward, electronic), expressed through violin, distorted vocals and an electronic sound processing system. The setting and the score are humanized by the dance itself, a romantic amalgamation of stretches, jumps and turns.
For true fashion and theatre nerds, the original costume sheets are on display as well, a grid of charts and sketches with each look coded by shape and color. When the Walker received the costumes last year, they were unstuffed, so the costume sheets were used once again to assemble the looks for exhibition.
A 35-minute video of “Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body” plays on a loop, and though most will probably lack the patience to sit through the entire video, it’s worth sitting down and getting lost in for a while. Shown in fall of 1996, the Spring/Summer 1997 collection demanded the artistic community’s attention. Kawakubo did not formally train in fashion, but instead studied the history and philosophy of aesthetics. She founded her line, Comme des Garçons, in 1973, making her international breakthrough in 1981. Her obsession with aesthetics reaches far beyond fashion, informing the music and choreography of her runway shows, the international branding of her company, and the design of her shops and boutiques. “What’s so exceptional about Kawakubo is that she’s a formidable businesswoman. She’s had tremendous success and has extended her vision to all facets of her business, even the architecture of her stores. She’s done all of this without ever compromising her aesthetic.”
The runway presentation of “Lumps and Bumps” (now an affectionate name for the Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer 1997 collection) is a perfect example of Kawakubo’s obsession with stylization. It is painstakingly choreographed and executed, with each model playing a unique character during each pass. The models creep down the runway in flat shoes, hands and arms held in balletic poses, fingers gently curled. The pacing and posture are at once innocently childlike and ancient, each gingerly taken step both deliberate and fragile. While some models look to a distant horizon, other take in their strange surroundings with obvious curiosity. There is no music, only ambient sound to accompany airy designs that catch an imaginary breeze and flutter like butterfly wings. The models’ eyes are painted red and their faces shiny. Hair is pulled away from their faces, wrapped and flattened around their heads until they look like their skulls have been wound in plastic wrap or cocooned with silk thread.
As they pose and turn, they expose new lumps and protuberances, creating new shapes that seem is if they should fit together in some kind of puzzle found in nature. A pale tangerine dress features a bulbous pouch of chartreuse across the front of the model’s hips, like some pulsating glow worm that the model has drawn close to her belly. In a series of white looks paired with white tights and shoes, the protuberances are almost cloud-like, while later during a series of reds, the protrusions sit like organs, strange hearts and lungs and intestines that have erupted from, but still cling to the body. When describing the collection, Kawakubo explained, “…I realized that the clothes could be the body and the body could be the clothes. I then started to design the body.”
In addition to the runway show, the exhibition features three other videos: an interview with four members of the dance company, a three minute excerpt of a performance of “Scenario,” and a two and a half minute excerpt from an interview with Merce Cunningham by Cunningham archivist David Vaughan. All three are worth watching all the way through, particularly Cunningham’s interview, which highlights what a warm and positive man that artist is known to be. (Research fellow Sebaly was once Cunningham’s assistant, and also conducted the interviews with his company’s dancers. Track her down and request Cunningham anecdotes.)
“Dance Works III” is a small installation, but very worth checking out, even for appreciators who are unfamiliar with modern dance and avant-garde fashion design. Not only are both art forms that anyone can appreciate and grow to love if provided with the opportunity, it’s a celebration of collaboration. The exhibit tells the story of two artists who appreciated and challenged one another, creating a work that was not only a meeting of mediums, but of people.
“Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham/Rei Kawakubo” runs through March 24, 2013 in the Medtronic Gallery of the Walker Art Center (1750 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis). Click HERE for more details.