Building a Body of Work: Charles Atlas and Merce Cunningham
How did Merce Cunningham collaborate with artists? By now it’s the stuff of dance history legend: the composer might be told the length of the dance; the visual artist the number of dancers, perhaps, or that nothing could be hung from above. Then each artist would create material independent of the others, their efforts often co-existing for the first time only at curtain. But in the early 1970s, Charles Atlas—filmmaker, videographer, costume and set designer for dance and theater—began collaborating with Merce Cunningham on works created for the camera and the process was quite different. Working closely together, Cunningham and Atlas completed numerous dance films and videos, including full recordings of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in performance. Interscape (2000), BIPED (1999), and Split Sides (2003)—three such films—get showings at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC Flicks: Mondays with Merce, 10/11, 11/15, 12/20); others follow in 2011. Mary Lisa Burns, Director of Education at the Merce Cunningham Studio and a longtime teacher at the Studio, spoke with Atlas about the two artists’ unique partnership. – Ed.
Mary Lisa Burns (Rail): How did you and Merce begin working together?
Charles Atlas: I was a production stage manager for an Off-Broadway production from Judson Church and David Vaughan (now Cunningham Dance Foundation Archivist) was one of the actors in it. The Cunningham Company needed an assistant stage manager—that was in 1970—so I did the season. I was thrilled to be asked. I didn’t know much about dance, but I knew a little of Merce’s work already and I really liked it. That’s how I started out.
Since I was already working with the Company I was around a lot. So in 1973—this was before we started collaborating—I made a film document of Walkaround Time (1968). We had discussions about what we liked and didn’t like about filming dance; he then decided that he wanted to make some video and asked me if I would collaborate with him. I was a filmmaker but I didn’t know anything about video; I learned it from a book and then I taught him! We made our first piece, Westbeth, in 1974.
Rail: By now, the list of your projects together is long. Was the idea always that it was a collaborative effort to make something new, not just a film of the dance?
Atlas: Only once in those early years was it a film of a dance that already existed and that was Squaregame (1976). I don’t remember why we decided to do it that way, except that maybe it was a time factor. I wasn’t really so happy with that—I can remember a day when the dancers were standing around reading newspapers and waiting for us to make a decision. I thought: this is really not good, because there was no choreography for them to learn. The idea of doing take after take was really like torture for them.
Everything but Squaregame was made first for the video and then Merce made the stage dance of the same name afterward. After we shot that first stage piece, we realized that wasn’t the way to do it—there were different concerns, and it was easier to expand something from the narrow field of the video image than to narrow something from the expanded field of the stage. Making the film really was another chance procedure for the stage piece!
Normally, Merce would start making movement a week ahead of filming. But often we would have a grand master plan for the dance, and then use chance procedures for a lot of different elements. In Channels/Inserts (1981), I wanted to use the whole studio so we moved the desk and everything out; we used the small studio, the hallway, the steps . . . my inspiration for that was really the wedding scene in The Godfather, so it was like a party, with different things going on in different rooms at different times. We had a really big plan about when we would cut to this, when we would cut to that, and those areas, I think, were determined by chance.
Rail: Did you see Merce use the chance procedures to determine the order—throwing the dice?
Atlas: Yes, sometimes. Dice weren’t used at that time. It was pennies—almost like throwing the sticks. So that was a lot of throws! We did 10 pieces from 1974–1983. Our collaboration was different from all of Merce’s other collaborations because we had to agree on a single image. We had a very close working relationship, and I was very sensitive to what was appropriate to Merce’s work and what wasn’t.
Rail: When you came back again to work with Merce in 1999, did you work in a similar way?
Atlas: I came back to do the documentary (Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance (2000)), but part of making the documentary was that we got to make a new piece. There wasn’t time in the schedule to make material the way we used to, so he made material and I said, “we’re going to film all the material that you make and then I’ll cross-cut it.” He trusted me to make the editing decisions. We filmed in three locations in France. I was going to make a collage, because we didn’t have time to work together. So he made the material for the film dance Mélange (1999), which turned into the stage dance Interscape (2000). But he made it first for the camera.
Rail: Then you also made a film of the staged Interscape?
Atlas: That was much later. I also filmed several other works that I thought lent themselves to film. We made slight changes, but basically they were as seen onstage. I always asked the dancers down front not to stand too close to the wings and to make entrances and exits quickly. That was the only kind of change we made.
Rail: If you had to pick a favorite, could you?
Atlas: Well, mostly I can tell you every edit of every film, and the only one I can’t is Coast Zone (1983). So for me, it really has a kind of mystery and fluidity. That’s why I like it.
Rail: How do you incorporate music with the film?
Atlas: With Ocean, we recorded the music one night of performance. Normally we shoot everything in silence, so I can record the sound of the dancing and then mix the music in with that. But in this one, my choice was that I was not going to record the dancing sounds. That’s also true of the films of BIPED and Pond Way. That’s different from the others, in which you hear the sound of feet jumping and landing—I mix in the dancing sounds to the music.
Rail: Would you say that over time you developed a philosophy about filming dance?
Atlas: No. My philosophy is: look at the dance. I was lucky that I started out working with Merce, so anything was always interesting. It never failed to be interesting. So my way of working was: watch the dance and try to watch myself watching the dance, and see what I watch. That’s how I did it. Also, I’m very familiar with Merce’s work and I understand his structures. In the end I would just shoot it with my own analysis. If I had any questions, I would ask him, but we agreed on about 95 percent.
Rail: Is there anything else you would like to add or say about working with Merce over the years?
Atlas: He was the best collaborator anyone could have. I mean, I was a kid when I started working with him and he treated me as if I was an equal. I didn’t feel like I was, but I grew into it.
Rail: And when you started as a stage manager, did you imagine a career in film?
Atlas: Oh, yes. I was always going to be a filmmaker.
Rail: So things unfolded according to plan?
Atlas: If things had gone according to plan, I’d be in Hollywood!
ContributorMary Lisa Burns
Mary Lisa Burns is Director of Education for the Merce Cunningham Studio, where she has taught since 1988. A part-time faculty member of Barnard College since 1996, Ms. Burns has performed in the work of Kenneth King, Brenda Daniels, and Gina Gibney. Her own choreography has been produced in New York City and elsewhere