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"Merce My Way" Big, Bold, and Bright

by Lori Ortiz
March 30, 2009
Photography by Mikhail Baryshnikov
Baryshnikov Productions
Hard Cover, cloth bound
$45.00
How will photography change with fast-improving digital technology? Artists seeking to capture movement may set the course, but the problem of processor speed (formerly shutter lag) hasn't yet been surmounted. Baryshnikov says in his forward to "Merce My Way" that he had to anticipate the Cunningham dancers' next move. Indeed, he aimed for the near future. This is the digital dance photographers' lot, focusing on the static scene to capture anticipated action.

How many ways can Mikhail Baryshnikov expand our experience of dance? His body has been a vessel of the highest balletic artistry. With this book of photography, he is invisible to the reader. He has danced near the foot of the stage selecting and framing details of his subject. "Merce My Way" is loaded with his images of Cunningham dances "XOVER," "CRWDSPCR," "eyeSpace," "Crisis," and "Scenario MinEvent," as performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2006 and 2007.

The photos are electrifyingly vivid. Some tell a story. Many of them beautifully bring out the personality and warmth in Cunningham. I use the term as one would use 'Horton' or 'Graham,' as a unique modern dance genre. Baryshnikov's fascination with Cunningham can be seen as part of his mid-life exploration of the Western dance world. He writes about the company dancers' astonishing stamina and (figurative) nakedness.

The fiery "2c" from the 1960 "Crisis" implies dramatic theatricality. Is it true to the experience? Baryshnikov poses new questions about the work and presents a new perspective on it, even for the choreographer. Cunningham looked at one of the photographs and said, "…there it is!" There is no text about the individual dances, and for the lay reader, that is a missing link.

Abstract elements like composition are the focus of the intentionally blurred and pixilated photos. The problem is that their placement on the page is another, competing, design element. It works well in "5g" where the page is a stage, and an image of the 1993 "CRWDSPCR" is a stage within a stage. In this and other Baryshnikov layerings, the figures interrelate and tell a story on the picture plane.

"Merce My Way" highlights Cunningham's collaboration with visual artists. Robert Rauschenberg's decor for the 2007 "XOVER" blends with the dancers in a single, flattened, transmogrified whole. The site-specific "eyeSpace" looks jubilant at the Joyce against Henry Samelson's decor, and ethereal in Miami with Daniel Arsham's "ODE/EON" set.

As indicated in the book's title "Merce My Way," Baryshnikov chose to make a stand-alone book-form exhibit, a catalog of his photos. It also happens to be a catalog of Cunningham dances, providing some insight into the works. But the book more often presents the dances' mysteries, intact. You will still need to go to the theater. The photos capture the richness and life-giving qualities of Cunningham dance. The candy box quality of the book will pique curiosity.

Navigating between the endnote thumbnails and the pages of photographs at least once, you will soon be able to categorize the images. There is no spoon feeding here. If you have seen the dances, you will do well at the guessing game.

Photo © & courtesy of Mikhail Baryshnikov

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