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Friday, June 9, 2017

BAM 1968: Merce Cunningham’s First Major New York Season

This summer, in the Natman Room off of BAM's main lobby, a moment in BAM's history is celebrated—the first major New York run of Merce Cunningham Dance Company in May 1968. Stop by and check out the photos and artifacts that document the first run of many to follow by this renowned company.

In May 1968, as the Vietnam War raged on and the civil rights movement gained momentum, the cultural scene was undergoing a revolution of its own in Brooklyn. That month, choreographer Merce Cunningham and his company performed 12 dances in eight performances at BAM in his troupe’s first major New York season. It was part of the first full season of programming curated by Harvey Lichtenstein, the impresario who would go on to lead BAM for 32 years. That inaugural season emphasized dance and included runs by the companies of Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, and José Limón, as well as poetry and symphonic and jazz music programs. (The following year, BAM presented the Festival of Dance, comprising Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow, Erick Hawkins, Twyla Tharp, Meredith Monk, and Yvonne Rainer, as well as the above.)

While all of these choreographers’ styles were variants on modern dance, Cunningham—referred to as “the great classicist of the avant-garde”—diverged by setting movement alongside sound, rather than to music. The accompanying scores were likely to be incidental, found sounds assembled as music by John Cage, one of the array of Cunningham’s collaborators who would go on to find fame. During this May 1968 season, artists working with Cunningham included “decor designers” Andy Warhol (RainForest), Robert Rauschenberg (Nocturnes, Suite for Five, Winterbranch), Marcel Duchamp’s imagery with then-MCDC artistic advisor Jasper Johns (Walkaround Time), Frank Stella (Scramble), Remy Charlip (costumes for Field Dances), and Beverly Emmons (Place, Winterbranch art supervision, and lighting design for all repertory).

Cunningham created two New York premieres for the run. RainForest, with Warhol’s helium-filled mylar pillows, has become one of Cunningham’s widely-known works and since 1968 has been staged at BAM four times. The unpredictability of the pillows—nudged over the audiences’ heads by ventilation gusts—underscores the chance element fomented by Cage and cherished by Cunningham. The other premiere, Walkaround Time, is distinguished by its transparent set pieces by Jasper Johns based on Marcel Duchamp’s iconic artwork, The Large Glass; Johns also designed the costumes.

Besides Cage’s sound contributions to four dances, the 1968 season also included music composed by David Tudor, David Behrman, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Gordon Mumma, Christian Wolff, Lamonte Young, and Erik Satie. The opening night gala was headlined with a musical performance by the avant-rock band The Velvet Underground, featuring Lou Reed and John Cale. The event, which benefited MCDC’s tour to Latin America, was marked by colorful flags of the tour destination countries hung in the BAM lobby amid the chandeliers and Beaux Arts finery. The crowd was a who’s who of downtown New York’s bohemia, including Cunningham’s company members such as Carolyn Brown, Valda Setterfield, and Gus Solomons, jr (who also carved out illustrious careers).

Although it would be 15 years before Lichtenstein founded the Next Wave Festival, his curatorial taste in 1968 previsioned the festival’s signature ethos of collaboration, media in flux, and visionary concepts. Who could predict that many of the artists participating in this 1968 Cunningham debut would return to BAM as independent, successful artists? (To mention one, this fall John Cale returns to the Next Wave with two programs, including one to celebrate his 70th birthday.) Additional artists featured in the late 1960s who exponentially expanded their fields include director Jerzy Grotowski/Polish Laboratory Theater with three productions; The Living Theater, known for dissolving the boundary between audience and stage; postmodern pioneer choreographer Trisha Brown; and director Robert Wilson with The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud.

We celebrate that moment in time when so many indisputable geniuses came together at BAM in a brilliant creative crucible.

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