Rauschenberg and Dance, Partners for Life
Something inherently theatrical about Robert Rauschenberg’s talent — always evident in his radical feeling for color, light, composition and new ingredients and juxtapositions —prompted him to his boldest and freshest conceptions when he worked onstage. From the early 1950s until 2007 he designed for dance. And in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when he first came to fame, he was recurrently (at times constantly) occupied in dance theater.
When he won the international grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, he said he regarded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as his biggest canvas. Although the remark offended some in Cunningham circles (primarily the composer John Cage, who seems to have felt it sounded too proprietorial), it was completely justified. At that time there was no better place to see the range of Mr. Rauschenberg’s inventiveness than the Cunningham repertory.
Mr. Rauschenberg wasn’t just the designer of most pieces Mr. Cunningham had choreographed in the previous 10 years; he was also a permanent colleague. He toured America and, in 1964, the world as stage manager to the Cunningham company, adjusting the lighting and costumes, making several of the dancers into his long-term friends, helping turn the itinerary of a dance company into a fulcrum of ideas.
In 1954 Mr. Rauschenberg was the first stage designer to follow the principle of artistic independence already established by Mr. Cunningham and Cage. All he needed to know was which dancer to design costumes for, and if Mr. Cunningham had any further specifications. So when Mr. Cunningham asked (in 1954) for décor around which the dancers could move, Mr. Rauschenberg placed a large red free-standing combine center stage in “Minutiae”; though the choreography has not survived, the décor is still used in some Cunningham Events.
Sometimes Mr. Cunningham gave not specifications but poetic clues. For example, for “Winterbranch” (1964) he said to Mr. Rauschenberg, “Think of the night as if it were day.” Mr. Rauschenberg’s response was to think of images like being caught in the headlights of a car, and he made all-black costumes and lighting that sometimes threw the stage into darkness while viewers were shielding their eyes from the light.
When Mr. Cunningham was experimenting with new definitions of stage space in “Summerspace” (1958), suggesting both that the stage was just a section of a vaster landscape and that the mood was that of a summer idyll, Mr. Rauschenberg responded with impressionistic pointillism. The costumes of the dancers matched the backdrop view in near camouflage, and the work evoked scenes by Monet and Seurat while also suggesting a wildlife documentary.
In “Crises” (1960) the dancers wore single-color all-over tights that glowed fiercely against the surrounding blackness. In such works Mr. Rauschenberg also became one of the all-time masters of theatrical lighting.
Mr. Rauschenberg had come to know the young Paul Taylor in 1953, while Mr. Taylor was a Cunningham dancer. When Mr. Taylor began to choreograph in the succeeding years, Mr. Rauschenberg was his designer; works like “Three Epitaphs” (1956, all-black costumes again) survive in Taylor repertory today. In the 1960s Mr. Rauschenberg was involved in the radical dance-theater experiments at and around Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and was close to Cunningham-connected experimentalists like Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber and Steve Paxton; he even choreographed himself.
Mr. Rauschenberg’s full-time connection to the Cunningham company ended with its 1964 world tour. Though he and Cage had stimulated each other profoundly and were in many ways like-minded, their egos had clashed; Mr. Rauschenberg’s “my biggest canvas” remark sounded like colonization in a dance theater where the point was independence.
But others led him back to dance theater, nobody more beautifully than Trisha Brown. Her “Set and Reset” (1983) was an instant masterpiece, largely thanks to Mr. Rauschenberg’s astonishingly imaginative designs. Three screens simultaneously broadcast separate video collages in black and white (more than 20 years before a video component became the norm in new choreography), while the dancers rippled around the stage in part-translucent costumes marked with gray and black figures that resembled newsprint.
Mr. Rauschenberg and Mr. Cunningham did collaborate again — though collaboration may have always been too tight a word for the freedom they gave each other — on several pieces over the decades. The last of these was only last October, “XOVER”(pronounced “Crossover”), which had its premiere at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. (It has yet to be seen in New York or most other cities.) The white costumes against a largely white backdrop recall the all-white paintings of 50 years before; the nonwhite parts of the backdrop, combining silk-screen photography and painting, connect isolated images (a bicycle, a fence, an industrial view) with beautiful color and details of light.
More glorious yet — the most marvelous Rauschenberg stage designs I have seen, and supremely theatrical — were what he made for Mr. Cunningham’s “Interscape” (2000). This work begins with a black-and-white curtain that is already a classic Rauschenberg collage of eclectic images: it proves translucent, and lighting allows the dancers to be seen warming up onstage.
When that curtain lifts, however, the backdrop is a full-color version of the same collage, so that we seem to have gone from a shadow realm to a new plane of more intense being, in which the main choreography occurs. Each costume was individual (Mr. Cunningham said he knew the dancers were happy from the noises he could hear them making as they returned from their fittings) and demonstrated Mr. Rauschenberg’s extraordinary feeling for color combinations. (One stinging green hangs in the memory.)
Impresarios have occasionally assembled programs that illustrate “Picasso and the Dance,” but Mr. Rauschenberg’s work for dance was far more prolific than Picasso’s, as a whole season could be presented to demonstrate. If only that could happen, its range of designs — from “Three Epitaphs” to “Summerspace,” from “Set and Reset” to “Interscape,” from “Crises” to “Glacial Decoy” (another Trisha Brown collaboration) — would easily establish his place in the forefront of architects of theater.