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Review: A glimpse inside Merce Cunningham's imagination in 'Clouds and Screens' at LACMA

Review: A glimpse inside Merce Cunningham's imagination in 'Clouds and Screens' at LACMA
Charles Atlas' "MC⁹." (Gene Pittman/Walker Art Center, Minneapolis)

The venue is unexpected, deep down on the lowest level of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This is where Richard Serra’s massive steel sculpture “Band” bends, twists and turns like the engine of an art ship powering all that is on exhibit on the floors above. Or, like the enlivening spirit of a superhuman dancer.

And now you can find the real thing: Charles Atlas’ video installation “MC9.” The title stands for Merce Cunningham to the ninth power, a work less machine and more brain, providing intelligence to all we see around us. It is as close as we are ever likely to come to experiencing Merce through his own imagination.

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Atlas’ enthralling installation is the main attraction of the exhibition “Merce Cunningham, Clouds and Screens,” which opened Sunday and runs through March 31, and is taken from Cunningham exhibitions in Minneapolis and Chicago last year. April 16 will be the 100th anniversary of Cunningham’s birth, but the place and time to start thinking about the greatest dancer and choreographer of the second half of the 20th century is here and now.

Cunningham didn’t leap but flew — his idea of a plié extended from face to feet — and he has a way of simply popping up where you not only least expect him but also where you most expect him, which is everywhere. Los Angeles, for instance, is in a Fluxus way at the moment, with the Philharmonic and the Getty Research Institute putting on a festival this season of performances related to the anarchic art movement inspired by Cunningham’s partner and collaborator, John Cage. Cage himself is a big part, with his “Europeras 1 & 2” and “Apartment House 1776” coming up in November at the L.A. Phil; the Fluxus-friendly Southland Ensemble will be in similar business Nov. 10 at Automata in Chinatown.

Moreover, the recent death of Japanese Fluxus composer Takehisa Kosugi, who was music director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1995 to 2012, when it disbanded four years after Cunningham’s death, is giving new attention to the movement. It is about time that Kosugi’s confounding but engaging musical actions, which sometimes included his violin, are finally getting a bit of the recognition they deserve.

Plus, you can take the elevator up a couple floors in the Broad building and see Robert Rauschenberg’s epic “The ¼ Mile” and be reminded that Rauschenberg was not only a lifelong friend of Cunningham but also the art director of his company for many years.

Yet, that’s the problem with Cunningham. For all the extreme abstraction to his movement, he nevertheless touches on so much of the lives we lead. And that is much easier to write about than his own astonishing dance. His was the revelatory gift of getting you to see how every living creature moves in a manner to make it special, and thus assure us that the world we live in is special. How he did that was by moving in a way more special than anyone else, all while still making room for everything else. Music, decor and costumes remain independent of — but coexistent with — dance, showing that one art need not be dictatorial toward another. Emotions are plentiful but supplied by the viewer, living up to Cage’s preference that in art, he liked to be moved but not pushed.

Dance is an ephemeral art — thus making it the closest to life — and Cunningham now has to be re-imagined. Here and there, companies are re-creating dances, but we mainly rely on documentation. Thanks to Atlas, Cunningham was revolutionary in that area as well. Videographer and choreographer worked as collaborators for years in which they rethought everything while making dance for video.

Atlas did make a superb television documentary in 2000 for the PBS series “American Masters” — “Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance” — that is the second best introduction to the choreographer. “MC9” is the best. The installation places clips from decades of Cunningham and his company dancing. It also showcases clips of him speaking, making faces into a phantasmagoric collection of screens of different sizes and types at various heights. Cunningham felt that dance no more required a single perspective than looking at the street does. Instead, he honored the ability of everyone in the theater to have a unique experience. Atlas does the same. The viewer moves around, looks up and down. Nothing is static. Each monitor or screen has its own sound. Up close, you hear one thing, move away, and they all blend as if driven by Cagean chance procedures. It’s riveting. I could only think that this is what it must have been like to be inside Cunningham’s head.

The rest of the exhibition, curated by José Luis Blondet, includes Andy Warhol’s famous silver helium-filled pillows, “Silver Clouds,” that were the décor for Cunningham’s “RainForest” (Atlas’ first job with the company was filling the balloons and trying to get them to behave — they still don’t). Sharing a bit of wall space with Serra are rare archival films of Cunningham dancing in two 1950s works, “Changeling” (a solo) and “Night Wandering” (a duet with Carolyn Brown). Rauschenberg was the designer for both.

There is something else about having “Clouds and Screens” at LACMA. It makes evident something little noted — the role L.A. played in Cunningham’s development. He was from Centralia, Wash., studied at the Cornish School in Seattle with Bonnie Bird, a Martha Graham dancer, and dropped out to join Graham’s company in New York. Cunningham said that as soon as he first set foot in Manhattan, he knew that was home. He never left it.

But the roots of his work were in L.A., which in the early 20th century was the center of the modern dance movement. That included Graham, who spent some of her youth in Santa Barbara. Cunningham eventually rebelled against that, but it was his training and the fount of his incredible skill.

There was also the L.A. influence from Cage, who was born and grew up here. After Cage died in 1992, Cunningham became increasingly fascinated with the world Cage came from. In my conversations with Cunningham, he often noted that he was thinking about something Cage had said about his early years in L.A. Cunningham late in life began putting bits and pieces of L.A. modernism back into his work, such as facial expressions, albeit in noncontextual ways. When I asked him about that, he said, “No, it wasn’t conscious decision, but now that I mentioned it...”

LACMA has further commissioned choreographer Jennie Mary Tai Liu to perform a new work that will engage with the Cunningham exhibition in February. On April 16, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA will commemorate the choreographer’s centennial with a “Night of 100 Solos,” in which former Cunningham dancers in L.A., as well as in New York and London, will perform 100 Cunningham solos.

“Merce Cunningham, Clouds and Screens”

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Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

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When: Through March 31

Info: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org

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