Cunningham Events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Dancing Around the Bride exhibit. Photo by Constance Mensh.
Dancing Around the Bride at the Philadelphia Museum of Art masterfully highlights the influence of Marcel Duchamp on American visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. This precocious French artist created works that bridged the absurd, Fountain (the infamous urinal that operated as a symbol of the Dada movement) to the revelatory, Nude Descending a Staircase (a rhythmical exploration that both validated and rejected Cubism) before abandoning art for chess. Working in the early 20th century, Duchamp anticipated popular mid-century preoccupations such as chance methods and experimentalism.
The exhibit—brimming with assemblages from Johns, paintings by Rauschenberg including a luminous White Painting, and hallmarks from Duchamp's oeuvre—stimulate your eye as an aural background by John Cage chirps and buzzes. As instructive and engrossing as these works are, the big draw proves to be the Cunningham Events.
Former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Brandon Collwes, Emma Desjardins, John Hinrichs, Marcie Munnerlyn, Krista Nelson, Banu Ogan, and Andrea Weber—attired in long-sleeved unitards drawn from the concentrated shades of a Crayola crayon box—perform a loose program knitting together solos, duets, and group pieces. Before entering and exiting the space, the performers casually sit beside the white platform and stretch like cats, adding a breezy dynamic to the event’s flow.
Crisp sculptural positions swept clean of artifice and emotion deliberately zig and zag with an ever-changing frontal orientation. Spines tilt on the diagonal while limbs forge geometric configurations resembling a wooden artist's model come to life. The dancers, absorbed but never astringent, display pristine attention to line. Heels neatly snap in perfect 180 degree first positions, and jumps—many commencing from a place of little momentum—hover in the air, feet exquisitely arched, before alighting in a one-legged balance.
Stillness, as powerful as movement, pervades; body positions, their edges firmly etched, freeze for endless seconds. In one instance reminiscent of Cage’s 4’33”, a septet forms an elegant tableau before carving a new montage at the command of a fellow dancer's grunt. The ruminative pacing and purely abstract movement cast a meditative spell. Your blood pressure drops by several points.
Elements that made Merce Cunningham so exciting in his heyday can seem distractedly annoying. When a cast member reads aloud an unrelated text, his relentless droning diverts your attention unpleasantly. Cunningham often choreographed without music to a stopwatch; the company heard the music for the first time during the performance. The dancing and music exist as two separate experiences that fight, rather than form, a unified whole. The dissonant soundscape for this show —burbles, static, recorded text, and discordant jumbles—violates the cool clarity of Cunningham's choreography.
More than anything, Dancing Around the Bride acts as a snapshot of a particular artistic time and sensibility anticipated by Duchamp. Cunningham, Cage, Rauschenberg, and Johns traded in novelty; experimenting so fruitfully that today it seems there is little left to explore. This is not true, but you pine for the days of freewheeling curiosity that weren't clouded by contemporary concerns.
This review refers to the performance seen on Sunday, January 20th at 3PM.