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RISD/Brown Collaboration Celebrates Cunningham

10/14/2011

MinEvent: A Cunningham Collaboration, takes place at Brown University’s Ashamu Dance Studio on October 14, 15 and 16.

He is hailed as the world’s greatest choreographer, an artist and avant-garde visionary whose philosophy of collaboration and random, chance movements shaped the world of modern dance. RISD Apparel Design students will become part of the late Merce Cunningham’s legacy when dancers perform wearing the costumes they designed for MinEvent: A Cunningham Collaboration, which takes place at Brown University’s Ashamu Dance Studio on October 14, 15 and 16. Additional performances will also be held in March and May 2012.

The event – part of an unprecedented two-year plan by Cunningham to celebrate his pioneering choreography following his death in 2009 – is the focal point of a year-long interdisciplinary collaboration between costume designer and RISD Apparel Design Critic Elizabeth Bentley 83 AP and student dancers, musicians and artists at Brown.

Working with visiting critic and world-renowned New York costume designer Karen Young 88 AP, Bentley says the project has given the 11 student designers involved a unique opportunity to apply their work to the demands of performance and bodies in motion. It has also presented students with an opportunity to put theory into practice: In a span of several weeks, they have designed pieces they would normally have an entire semester to create and in the process, they have had to abandon the notion of a designer’s singular vision to create one cohesive collection for the Cunningham performance.

“Ordinarily, a student designs and executes an entire collection themselves,” Bentley says. “They pick the colors, the styling, the customer they want to style for – it’s really their vision.” For this project, the process was entirely different. “Instead of each student designing 10 of their own pieces, we’re taking one of each of their pieces and combining them to make one collection,” Bentley explains. “That’s never really happened in the RISD curriculum, but it is very true to the way designers work in the real world.”

At a crit one week prior to the performance, Bentley and Young helped students address challenges as basic as how to incorporate the bras dancers will wear and as complex as how to reconcile their aesthetic goals with the functional stretch and give that are an absolute necessity when dancers perform. “Even though it’s costume design, which is a very specific thing with its own challenges, it’s a tremendous opportunity for students to work as designers do in the industry,” Bentley says.

Cunningham’s idiosyncratic philosophy, which rocked the dance world to its foundations, moved away from the fundamental idea of dance as telling a narrative story through movement. Instead, he called for choreography defined by natural flowing movements, but arranged in random sequences – a toss of the coin or roll of the dice, performed in space and time to create a kind of magic of circumstance. And he believed that the elements of a performance – movement, music, lighting and costume – should all be cutting-edge and collaborative, but operate entirely independently of each other.

“It’s so unusual for us, not only because we’ve never worked with costume design before specifically, but also because Cunningham’s ideas were so unconventional,” says Emily Shaw 12 AP. “Creatively, we’re not basing our designs on a certain score or story or anything other than our color palette. So we’re doing all these things we had no idea we could do.”

Alex Crane, a Latin American Studies major at Brown who is also among the student designers taking the RISD class, says the real-world challenges of designing for dancers’ bodies were what drew him to the project. “There’s a lot of impracticality in the apparel industry, in the sense that you sort of find the model that fits your piece, as opposed to fitting your piece to the model,” says Crane. “In this context you have to deal with the reality of clothing, which is that it has to work. That’s actually one of my favorite things about designing clothes – it’s an art form that also has to work.”

Just prior to the performance, Bentley reminds her students of the vagaries of costume design. “On the first day of the performance, you kind of sit there with one eye closed, hoping the piece you’ve designed doesn’t rip right there on stage,” she says. Then, she goes on to point out that “the reality-show pace” of the design process has “forced the students to make quick decisions, but also to let go of things. And that’s important, because sometimes there’s too much thought – too much second-guessing – and they can over-design their work.”


related links: 
Brown press release
Merce Cunningham
Karen Young
Cunningham Legacy Plan


tags: Apparel Design, academic collaborations, alumni, Brown, faculty, interdisciplinary, partnerships + collaborations, students, Textiles

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