The legendary collaboration between choreographer Merce Cunningham and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg is the subject of “Spheres of Influence,” a three-part presentation at Princeton University Art Museum from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. The program includes an exhibition, dance performance, and panel discussion among experts on Mr. Cunningham, who died in July, 2009 after a lengthy career at the forefront of the avant-garde.
After dancing in the company of choreographer Martha Graham for six years, Mr. Cunningham presented his first program of solo works set to the music of John Cage, who would become his frequent collaborator and life partner, in 1944. Nine years later, Mr. Cunningham founded his own troupe. He developed a unique aesthetic based on a radical approach to space, time, and chance. Mr. Cunningham’s last work, Nearly Ninety, premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009. The company was disbanded on the last day of 2011 following a farewell tour.
In addition to Mr. Rauschenberg, Mr. Cunningham also formed artistic alliances with Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, and other artists and architects. But Mr. Rauschenberg, who was the company’s resident designer, was his most frequent collaborator.
“There are so many things that are special about these two and their collaborations,” says Claudia LaRocco, a frequent contributor on dance to The New York Times and the moderator of the evening’s panel discussion. “So many of the traditions and aesthetics that are still in play today can be traced back to the nexus that was happening in and around the Cunningham company, whether you’re talking about Rauschenberg or other artists. So often, those names come up as touchstones.”
The program will start in the museum’s Marquand Mather Gallery with a tour of a selection of paintings, drawings, and prints from the 1960s and 70s. Included are works by Mr. Rauschenberg created specifically for the Cunningham company, on loan from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. The exhibition is the first of several the museum will present through the new Rauschenberg Loan Bank Program. The museum was chosen as a pilot institution for this initiative.
Next, a group of Princeton University dance students will perform a “MinEvent for Princeton,” a combination of excerpts from Cunningham’s choreography. Silas Riener ’06, a prominent contemporary dancer who studied in the University’s Program in Theater and Dance and a former member of the Cunningham company, has staged the program. The performance follows a recent programming technique of the Cunningham Trust to present curated compilations of the choreographer’s important works set to new music. The score is by Jeff Snyder, co-director of PLOrk [Princeton Laptop Orchestra] and Cenk Ergun, a graduate student in music composition.
“One thing that’s lovely about this evening is that it starts off with a chance to look at some of these Rauschenberg works, which can be one way in for people,” says Ms. LaRocco. “Just as you might think about spending time with a non-representational painting or work of art — Cunningham’s choreography functions in the same way. The eye can travel in so many different ways. If you think about classical ballet, there is a particular hierarchy on stage, so the eye is looking at one thing. Cunningham broke that open. It can be challenging, but liberating to watch.”
While Mr. Cunningham’s work is considered far off the traditional grid, his dancers were always highly trained with the same level of athleticism and technical finesse as those involved in classical ballet. In fact, numerous ballet troupes including American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Rambert Dance Company have presented his pieces.
Like many who watch dance, Ms. La Rocco began to fall for the Cunningham aesthetic only after seeing the company perform a few times. “It wasn’t an instantaneous love for me with Cunningham,” she says. “Sometimes it takes a few tries to get adjusted. I remember seeing a [Cunningham] show at the Joyce Theatre a few years ago. I realized that there isn’t anything to hold onto. There was a really distinct feeling of, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to get. This is just like walking through your day and being alive, being happy with it.’”
Panelists joining Ms. LaRocco will include Nancy Dalva, the Merce Cunningham Trust Scholar-in-Residence; John King, composer/performer and former co-director of the Cunningham company’s music committee; Abigail Sebaly, Cunningham Research Fellow at the Walker Art Center; and Mr. Riener.
“We really wanted to have different types of panelists,” Ms. LaRocco says. “All of these folks have deep connections to the traditions at play. I’m hoping they will all speak about their particular access points and their thoughts about collaboration and interdisciplinary work.”
A reception in the museum’s Sterling Morton Gallery will conclude the evening. The public is invited free of charge.