Fred A. Bernstein

Glass House, Great Performance

Merce Cunningham animates Philip Johnson's estate

Published in Interior Design, August 25, 2007

When Merce Cunningham presented a series of dances outside Philip Johnson's Glass House in June, it was a more than a reprise of a show mounted in the same location 40 years earlier-it was a chance to contemplate the relationship between modernism's most fleeting and most permanent expressions. The 1967 event benefited the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. This one raised money to extend the Glass House property, now open to the public as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so that views would be preserved.

As the Cunningham troupe moved across a pair of outdoor stages, the audience watched from picnic blankets spread out on the sloping meadow just north of the house. Some of the dancers' movements were geometric, suggesting parallels between the human physique and the steel structure of Johnson's building. Others were curvy and organic, highlighting, through contrast, the rectilinear character of the architecture.

Frozen in time, Johnson's Glass House is instantly recognizable from the black-and-white photos that made it famous 58 years ago. The dancers' movements, by contrast, were reminders that the house changes constantly-the choreography accentuated the surprising dynamism of the architecture. Indeed, the exterior of the house is a slide show of ever changing reflections, the interior a kaleidoscope of shadows. How could a glass building, surrounded by large trees, be otherwise?

Unlike the Glass House, the choreography was new, created by Cunningham to music composed on the spot by David Behrman, John King, Stephan Moore, and Christian Wolff. In 1967, the accompanist was John Cage, and Cunningham himself danced a solo. These days, the 88-year-old is confined to a wheelchair but determined to continue creating, and he spent the day before the performance supervising a lengthy rehearsal. In typical Cunningham fashion, the movements being performed on one stage differed from those seen on the other. Even more surprising, the dancers, having memorized complex sequences, were performing them to music they had never heard before, making connections they couldn't have anticipated. Cunningham's work, the order of it sometimes selected by a throw of the dice, is a celebration of spontaneity.

It's hard to imagine Johnson being so impromptu. In nearly 60 years, he never so much as rearranged the art inside his house. He changed the interior by altering its context, cultivating age-old trees the way other people arrange furniture and adding eight buildings to the property. Not all those structures are as pristine as the Glass House. In 1970, he built a sculpture gallery that steps down into the ground with free-form abandon. Tubular-steel "rafters," supporting the glass roof, cast shadows on the art objects below. Watching the shadows invigorate the sculptures is not unlike watching Cunningham's dancers sometimes explode, sometimes meander against the Glass House facade.

Seated in the sloping field, guests could see the Lincoln Kirstein Tower, Johnson's 1985 homage to the cofounder of American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, and its School of American Ballet. The monument, though constructed of heavy, anything-but-sinuous concrete blocks, is a gravity-defying sculpture that resembles a man reaching skyward. It's Johnson's attempt to make earthbound architecture airborne.

Thanks to the architect and the National Trust, his house, his sculpture gallery, his tower, and all the other buildings on his property will remain just as he last saw them. Less assured is the future of Cunningham's dances. No matter how well documented the choreography, there will come a time when Cunningham himself won't be able to set the works in motion-leaving ephemeral dances as fixed as National Trust buildings.

Then there is the question of money. Cunningham's company was in a deep financial hole when Johnson invited guests to the 1967 performance. Things are better these days, but only slightly. So, while Johnson's legacy is assured, the future of Cunningham's dances remains uncertain. But for one day, those dances allowed Johnson's opus to be seen in a new light. The permanent and the fleeting spent an afternoon mingling on the lawn, and each gave the other a lift.