Wednesday, August 10, 2011

DÉJÀ VU at the Farewell

I took a personal interest in Melena Ryzik’s post today to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, since it involved plans for the final performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  Ryzik reported that the visual artist for this occasion will be Daniel Arsham.  While I am not familiar with Arsham’s work, I was particularly struck by the following sentence:

For his fourth collaboration with the company, Mr. Arsham, an artist who has designed sets, lighting and costumes for Merce Cunningham, will fill the Park Avenue Armory with “clouds” of colored spheres; the design will be used in the company’s final performances, on Dec. 29 to 31 at the armory.

I have written several times about the significant impact of my encounter with everyone in the Company (including the musicians John Cage, David Tudor, and Gordon Mumma) in the summer of 1968.  This was the first time I learned to appreciate the nature of Cunningham’s repertoire;  and one work that had particular impact on me was “Rainforest.”  Cunningham would frequently apply “naturalistic” names to abstract compositions of choreography, probably knowing full well that they would shape impressions, rather the way a crystal fragment can “seed” a much larger crystal structure when dropped into a supersaturated solution of the appropriate molecules.  “Rainforest” was a perfect example of this principle of “induced meaning.”

That induction was due, in no small part, to the décor.  You cannot have a rainforest without clouds;  and, for this choreography, those “clouds” were designed by Andy Warhol as oversized aluminized Mylar pillows inflated with helium, some (but not all) of which were anchored by weights.  (It turns out that they were not oversized enough.  I first saw “Rainforest” in Boulder, Colorado.  During rehearsal the Company discovered that, at more than a mile above sea level, the specific gravity of the pillows was greater than that of the air.  They all sank to the stage floor;  and it took some amazingly well-coordinated support action to make sure that larger pillows would be ready in time for the performance.)

I have no idea whether or not Arsham’s clouds were intended in the spirit of homage to Warhol’s past relationship with the Dance Company.  As may be seen on Arsham’s Web site, these clouds are decidedly different in structure;  and I have no idea whether the balloons that form them cohere (like the skin of a Warhol pillow) or break apart over time (like the droplets of water in a real cloud).  Nevertheless, I suspect that anyone bringing a rich memory of the Cunningham repertoire at the final concert will experience at least of tinge of memory when encountering clouds among the dancers again.

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