In 2007, Merce Cunningham Dance Company began a residency at Dia:Beacon, the contemporary art museum about an hour north of New York City, where for two years, the avant-garde choreographer staged a series of his Events in the galleries. Like Cunningham’s other Events (he produced close to 800), the performances had no set front or back. The dances were made from fragments of his theatrical works strung together using Cunningham’s favored methods of chance procedure, where the I Ching or a roll of the dice determine the order of the excerpts. Viewable from any angle, the Events were “not so much an evening of dances as the experience of dance,” Cunningham wrote.
Merce Cunningham: Beyond the Perfect Stage collects photographs of the Dia:Beacon Events by Stephanie Berger, who specializes in photographing dance and cultural events in New York. Shot in natural light in the museum’s vast, minimalist galleries (the building was formerly a box printing factory), the dancers strike angular, muscular poses, framed by Richard Serra’s rusted steel or Dan Flavin’s neon.
Berger began shooting the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in mid-1990s. She first photographed the Dia:Beacon residency as an assignment for The New York Times but decided to continue documenting the performances on her own, with an ok from the company and the museum. “I knew Dia:Beacon very well, but just to see the dancers in the space and the light” was a treat, she tells PDN. “The thing that really got me excited was that you could get so close to the dancers, which is very unusual. In the space you’re really at eye level with them. So I could get very close, and the dancers knew me,” from photographing the company over the years, “so they were comfortable with me.” Berger photographed performances and rehearsals, staying out of the way as dancers moved in and out of the pieces and the audience moved around them. “I call it my dance among them. I was able to move around and catch all these different perspectives,” she says.
From the start, Berger had imagined the project as book, and even put together a dummy, but her plan was shelved after Cunningham’s death in 2009, close to the end of the residency. Following Cunningham’s plan, the company toured for two more years before disbanding after a blowout performance at the Park Avenue Armory, which Berger also documented. Now, several years later, “It’s time to reexamine [Cunningham’s legacy],” says Berger. “It was always in the back of my mind to get this work out again.” With the support of a collector of her work who was also involved with the company, as well as with support from Dia:Beacon and the Merce Cunningham Trust, the book will be published by Damiani in April. -Rebecca Robertson
What’s Your Niche: Stephanie Berger, Performing Arts and Culture Photographer (For PDN subscribers; login required)