Merce Cunningham: Redux

Image of Merce Cunningham Redux
Release Date: 
November 12, 2019
Powerhouse Books
Reviewed by: 

In 1975 photographer James Klosty published the first ever book on the American choreographer Merce Cunningham, republished in 1986 and now in commemoration of Cunningham’s 100th birthday, Klosty has released Merce Cunningham: Redux with new commentary and 140 additional photographs by Klosty, making this the definitive edition.

In the 1975 first edition, Klosty claimed that “This is not a dance book.” He takes that opinion back, explaining that in retrospect “Images of Merce’s dances when he was in his prime have acquired a poignancy and power I didn’t anticipate 45 years ago.”  

Klosty had full access to photograph Merce Cunningham Dance Company in rehearsal, on the road, on tours, backstage, and onstage in some of the world’s most venerated theaters during a specific period of Cunningham’s in the ’60s and ’70s, when he created many of his most celebrated, daring, and innovative works.   

The performance images are, in a word, stunning. This beautifully designed volume (by Yolanda Cuomo Design) features mostly full-page prints exquisitely transferred in dimensional duotone process. [LW1] The photo spreads are of many of Cunningham’s most defining dance works, but also offer a collective portraiture of dancers, musicians, painters, and artists and the often gritty environs they travel to practice their arts. Klosty is just as much a photojournalist as a dance-arts photographer. 

Merce was, as Klosty rightly notes, a virtuoso dancer himself who left the Martha Graham Company, and instead of being a disciple of Graham’s famed technique, he renounced her methods, along with strictures of ballet and other neomodern techniques. However avant-garde his theories, Cunningham remained an elite technical dancer, as well as a trailblazing choreographic auteur willing to liberate the dancer and the dance.

Cunningham tapped into whole new realms of how dance existed on the commercial stage and in the world at large. In Rainforest, the dreamscape with silver pillows dropping over the dancers, beside the surreal visual of the choreography and performance is a document of the physics of dance and body architecture in motion. Most of the photographs in the book are black and white, but there is a captivating color print study in foldout pages of Cunningham’s seminal ballet Walkabout Time. And there are unexpected prints such as a dance leotard, designed by abstract artist Jasper Johns, hanging on the artist’s “Bullseye” painting in his studio. Or Merce hanging off a fire escape as casually as if he was about to dance on the city skyline.

There is a humorous food travelogue by composer John Cage, who was in charge of finding steakhouses for the dancers and macrobiotic meals for Cunningham. There is also an intimate portrait of Merce by his brilliant dance partner, Carolyn Brown.

Choreographer Yvonne Rainer writes an equally insightful essay about how Cunningham worked with his dancers: “He was so quiet and unemphatic. He just danced and when he talked it was with a quiet earnestness that just soothed and exhilarated. . . .” Equally dimensional insights into Merce the artist and the man are offered by an array of dancers, writers, and musicians including Cunningham’s principal collaborator and as Klosty puts it “his partner in art and in life,” composer John Cage.  

Toward the end of this book Klosty includes the transcript of an interview he conducted with Cunningham for their 1986 edition. It is chatty with Klosty not asking loaded academic questions or about high and low artistic points, but more about how the company navigates in the world, and the collaborations of dancers, musicians, artists, not over-intellectualizing the theories, choreographies, music, or design elements. Merce Cunningham: Redux is an example of a choreographer completely engaged with his company.