Last September in Salzburg, Austria, I took a break from the crowded streets of the city famous for being the birthplace of Mozart and for the movie The Sound of Music. (Today, the inner core of the city during the day seems like a very expensive and very crowded shopping mall). I visited the Museum of Modern Art. It’s located on top of Monchsberg, the steep mountain that towers over the city. So the views are panoramic.
I was a little disappointed with the permanent collection in the museum, because the captions were all in German–I know a little of the language, but not enough to decipher modern art. Also, I might as well admit it’s not my favorite kind of art. But there was a special exhibit that made the elevator ride up the mountain more than worthwhile: a series of videos about the great dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and his longtime partner, composer John Cage. The videos were all in English! I spent quite a lot of time with earphones, glued to TV monitors, watching and listening to archival footage of the work of two men who profoundly influenced modern dance, and modern art in general.
I had never before had a chance to see Merce Cunningham perform. He was active as a dancer, choreographer and teacher for over 70 years, until his death at age 90 in 2009. I had never understood the principles of his work, either. Besides his longtime collaboration with John Cage, Merce Cunningham collaborated with other musicians, plus visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg. The most radical innovation pioneered by Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Cage was that the music and the movements for a ballet should be created independently of each other, then put together in the same time and space–at either the dress rehearsal or the first performance. The concept sounds counter-intuitive, but it works. The effect of the many dances I watched in Salzburg was challenging but fascinating, even hypnotic. Instead of trying to figure out the plot of a sentimental story, the viewer is caught up in the infinite possibilities of human movement and human-made sound.
When Mr. Cunningham died in 2009, among the many tributes was an article in The New York Times by Alastair Macaulay. The article is at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/merce_cunningham/index.html. From the article, there are links to slideshows which give some idea of the energy and range of this towering artist.
Actually, watching these ballets gave me a new appreciation for modern, abstract and avant-garde art in general. The dances were the movement and musical equivalents of non-representational art. Clearly I need to expand my horizons.
Imagine my surprise when, at the top of a mountain in Austria, the Perry Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp was mentioned as an important place in the artistic development of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. The camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado welcomed artists from the avant-garde from its very beginning in 1913.
During an open house celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Perry Mansfield this past summer, I was able to see for myself that the arts are alive and well in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Join me next time for more discoveries in the art and history of Europe–and the influences that extend to the farthest corners of our world.