MERCE MY WAY
THE MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY IN PHOTOGRAPHSMarch 18, 2008 - May 4, 2008
PHOTOGRAPHS BY: MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV
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This exhibition has been made possible by a generous contribution by Sobel Westex.
My love and appreciation of Merce Cunningham's work have taken 30 years to develop. This photo project is a humble attempt to measure and understand how I see Merce's work today.
For two decades I used a conventional 35mm camera, and practiced traditional landscapes, portraits and travel shots primarily in black and white. I made a point of rejecting obvious opportunities to photograph dance, thinking the results were boring and unnecessary. Then, going through some old books of dance photography -- notably Alexey Brodovitch's 1945 "Ballet", and Paul Himmel's 1954 "Ballet in Action" -- I discovered that abandoning the crystalline image in favor of blurred edges approximates the excitement of dance in performance. Ilse Bing's mesmerizing images of cancan dancers at the Moulin Rouge, as well as her photos of Balanchine's "Errante," and perhaps most importantly, the recent images of Alexandra Beller in "Dancer" by the great Irving Penn, were further evidence that the thrill of movement can be captured. Edwin Denby describes this process eloquently in the text accompanying Brodovitch's photographs:
"...The blurred outline of the dancer, assimilated to the general dim effect, registers as a metaphor of motion. Sometimes the misty shape that joins successive points through which the dancer's body has passed astonishes you by the clarity of its graphic design, and it illustrates the plastic continuity of dancing. Here and there the contrast on a picture between blurred and clear outlines draws your eye to the position of a still figure that on stage might have passed unnoticed in the hubbub, but that in the photograph reveals its momentary pathos."
So it was possible.
I began to experiment with digital cameras, enjoying their speed and ease while photographing social dance in the Dominican Republic. The result was the show "Dominican Moves." Simultaneously, I began to photograph Cunningham's work as an homage to one of the greatest choreographers of our time. I photographed dress rehearsals -- running back and forth at the front of the stage and snapping frenetically in an attempt to decode Merce's choreographic intentions. I tried to anticipate the dancers' moves in my own little dance with the camera.
Sometimes Merce's work is interpreted as cold and withholding, but I've always thought his best pieces were very emotional, and I've tried to capture that in my photos. It's been fascinating to sit with Merce and watch him discover his work through still photographs. There's the spark of a very young man as he points excitedly at an image and remarks, "Oh, I was trying to do this...and there it is!" He sees the solid bones of his choreography amidst a flurry of swooping, lunging abstracts, and faces flickering in pentimento.
Watching Cunningham's dances through the eye of a lense is a lesson in the extremes and restraints of the dancer's body. The company's astonishing stamina is in high relief when photographed, but it's the individual traits of the performers that burst into the shot with surprising power. To a dancer, such nakedness is revelatory.
The dress rehearsal, that fragile hour between the long days in the studio and the premiere, is the dancer's last chance to get it right. I hope my fly-on-the-wall perspective on this is illuminating. In any case, I appreciate the company's generosity in allowing me to be the lucky fly. Thank you Merce.
Photography courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery.