The choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham is famous for many collaborations with notable 20th-century artists including his partner in life and work, John Cage, as well as Marcel Duchamp, Isamu Noguchi, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and many others. Forming a subtle yet powerful complement to his performance and video works are the wardrobe designs for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—some designed by his collaborators while others by Merce Cunningham himself. Dynamic and deeply considered, the dancers’ costumes were always an integral part of the choreography, heightening the viewer’s perception of the field of activity.
In 2014, a long-lost dance film of Merce Cunningham’s was screened in New York City. Assemblage had been filmed by Richard Moore in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco in 1968. The film is a kaleidoscope of form and color with the dancers costumed in mismatched pastels that seem both to accentuate and soften their dissonant movements. (The colors in those costumes affected my own wardrobe for months, and perhaps still do today.) Cunningham’s ability to synthesize form and movement as distinct elements from sound allowed the viewer to appreciate each element as an independent creative expression—from the choreography and Cage’s score to the artistic set designs and the costumes that adorned the dancers’ bodies.
Cunningham’s 1997 Scenario is a stunning and infamous collaboration with Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo. The piece featured outfits that were humorously lumpy and graphic, with striped and checkered bulges around the waists and rears of the dancers. These bodily distortions, in tandem with the avant-garde electronic score, added to its innovative energy. Recently, while watching a student recital of the dance, I learned that one of the costumes restricted the arms of its wearer, which in turn influenced the movement choreographed for that particular dancer.
In Locale (1979), a dance filmed by Charles Atlas, for which he also designed the costumes, Atlas likens the unitards’ combined palette to that “seen on the television adjustment color-bars.”
Jasper Johns designed costumes for several dances, namely Canfield (1969), Walkaround Time (1968), and Second Hand (1970). According to dance historian and archivist David Vaughan, the costumes for Second Hand were “each of a single color except for the edge of the arm or leg on one side where another color enters. The second color in each costume was the primary color for another dancer’s costume, and as the dancers bowed, they were arranged in order to show the color succession.”
Robert Rauschenberg was credited for costumes in Minutiae (1954) but, in fact, it was company member Remy Charlip who designed them. Charlip, who went on to create amazing solo work as well as children’s books, used deep, beautiful dyes to batik or perhaps dip-dye the unitards. Set against what is believed to be the first of Rauschenberg’s “combines” and wrapped around the precision of the dancers, the costumes are an element unto themselves.
Interestingly, many of the dance descriptions in Merce Cunningham Trust’s extensive digital archives do not include a designer credited to costumes, only that the dancers wore practice clothes, sweatpants, ankle socks, etc. Other dances seemed to have more extensive costume preparation, for instance two performances from 1958, Summerspace, which featured Robert Rauschenberg’s hand-painted leotards, and Antic Meet, for which Merce knitted the four-armed, no-necked sweater that he wore in the dance.
Cunningham was a prolific choreographer, dedicated director, and a dynamic performer throughout his seventy-year career. He choreographed until the age of ninety—his final year—for the world premiere of the ninety-minute Nearly Ninety at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Following his death in 2009, the company completed its final tour and closed its legendary Westbeth studio in New York’s West Village, leaving an impressive archive of choreography notes, sound recordings, and rehearsal and performance videos to educate a future generation of dancers.
Mary Manning is a New York–based photographer and founder of Unchanging Window.