Save the Last Dance

"Craneway Event": Tacita Dean's Film On Merce Cunningham

After establishing his eponymous dance company at Black Mountain College in 1954, Merce Cunningham became one of the earliest choreographers to introduce chance and non-narrative movement into modern dance. Frequently engaging in cross-disciplinary collaborations with visual artists (including Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Nauman) and musicians (particularly his life partner John Cage), Cunningham maintained his inquisitive stance and creative prowess up until his death in July 2009, just months after premiering his last work “Nearly Ninety” on his 90th birthday. His artistic longevity is plain to see in British artist Tacita Dean’s new film Craneway Event, which follows Cunningham’s rehearsals of a site-specific performance in San Francisco Bay in 2008. “He really was extremely happy. He was singing and just so happy with the boats and the birds,” she says. Shot over three days at an old Albert Kahn-built Ford assembly plant, the documentary captures both performance and environment, tracing the movements of Cunningham’s dancers, as well as the dappled light streaming through the windows and the occasional tanker being dragged out into the bay. The film first showed at New York’s Performa festival in November 2009—sadly too late for Cunningham to see it, but Dean recalls him fondly: “He probably is one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met,” she says. “He had that old world charm. He was a gent and a wonderful man.” Craneway Event is showing at London’s Frith Street Gallery from May 13.

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