By Lyndsey Kong
On Monday night, Stanford Live hosted an evening show at Bing Concert Hall exploring collaborations between the artists Andy Warhol and Merce Cunningham. The multimedia showcase featured a film recording of Cunningham’s dance performance “RainForest” (1968) and an exhibition of Warhol’s art installation “Silver Clouds” (1966), which appeared in the dance film.
English professor Peggy Phelan, who serves as director of the Stanford Arts Institute as well as co-curator of the “Contact Warhol” exhibition, opened the event by introducing each work and providing background information on Warhol and Cunningham’s creative partnership. According to Phelan, Warhol and Cunningham’s collaboration began when Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” — a set of metallic, helium-filled balloons hovering in space — caught Cunningham’s attention. The choreographer then incorporated “Silver Clouds” into “RainForest.”
With the complete set of “Silver Clouds” on stage, the audience watched a recorded performance of Cunningham’s dance. Following the screening, Phelan hosted a question and answer session with current and former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Albert Reid, who worked with the company from 1964 to 1968 and is a longtime instructor of modern dance at the Cunningham studio, shared his experience dancing in the original “RainForest” production 50 years ago.
“Cunningham did not give the dancers specific instructions to engage with Warhol’s ‘Silver Clouds,’” Reid said. “The movement is the meaning.”
Current company member Silas Riener agreed that Cunningham gave his dancers a significant amount of creative freedom.
“People continuously reinvent and reinterpret the original dance; it went through so many permutations and interpretations by the time [I] reached it,” Riener said. “In the process of reconstruction, everything became clearer and more specific.”
Addressing the role of Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” in the film, Riener added that “the three-dimensional presence of the silver pillow [clouds] really create an environment and sense of place.”
Both Reid and Riener said the continued public interest in “RainForest” is remarkable. The production has been revived six times since its 1968 debut.
“The presentation and questions today brought back memories [from my time in the company],” Reid said.
In her closing remarks for the event, Phelan expressed hope for future collaborations between the arts and engineering at Stanford. She noted that Warhol created “Silver Clouds” with the help of Billy Klüver, an electrical engineer at Bell Labs. In 1966 Klüver founded Experiments in Art and Technology, a nonprofit which brought together artist-engineer collaborations and stimulated the involvement of industry and technology in the arts.
“Events like this give me hope,” Phelan said. “With our well-established engineering resources and increasing expertise in art, we can do it. The world needs it.”