Rock Star

What’s a dance legend doing in a St. Cloud quarry?

THREE YEARS AGO, Anna Thompson, then the executive director for fine arts programming at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, got in a truck and drove to a nearby quarry. Joining her were two men representing the New York–based contemporary-dance pioneer Merce Cunningham, often described as the greatest living choreographer.

They were looking for a unique outdoor site for a possible performance of Cunningham’s most monumental work, Ocean. It is a dance so unusual in its requirements—in terms of space and number of performers—that while it has often been scaled down for theater performances, it has never been produced with the full complement of musicians or in the enormous round setting for which it was intended.

Thompson drove to the quarry entrance and approached the small building that housed the onsite office. “The moment that Anna, in a dress and high heels, walked through the rubble and came out of that trailer with four guys in hard hats, I thought, ‘This is going to be something extraordinary,’ ” says Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Cunningham Foundation.

Merce on the Rocks, as the event has been unofficially dubbed, will be realized this month with three performances at the Rainbow Quarry in Waite Park, a vast granite pit that glows with hues of pink, amber, and ochre at sunset. Production partners include the Walker Art Center, the Northrop Dance program at the University of Minnesota, and the Benedicta Arts Center of the College of Saint Benedict. In addition, the project has engaged the St. Cloud Symphony Orchestra, the communities of Waite Park and St. Cloud, and, of course, the firm that operates the quarry, Martin Marietta Materials.

Each night, shortly before the performance, a thousand patrons will travel by bus down a steep grade to the quarry floor. They’ll take a seat in an amphitheater specially carved for the performance. In front of them will be a circular stage. Behind them, 150 musicians. And as the stars emerge above, 14 dancers will begin to move, performing the final work of a dance legend. “I’m delighted that this opportunity has come,” says Cunningham. “And it could happen nowhere else but in Minnesota.”

Ocean was the last work that Cunningham, now 89, conceptualized with his longtime collaborator and life partner, the avant-garde composer John Cage, who died in 1992 before the piece was finished. Cunningham, who grew up in Washington State and now lives in New York City, was by then nearly four decades into his choreography career, distinguished by the controversial artistic philosophy that Cage and Cunningham developed in the 1950s—a way of creating based largely on chance.

When Cunningham choreographs a dance, the music, set, and costumes are created independently, usually not coming together until dress rehearsal. Cunningham believes this kind of artistic autonomy results in a work that transcends the limitations of any one artist’s imagination. Ocean is full of what appears to be random activity, a world in constant flux—an ocean teeming with life. Yet the dancers are highly trained, combining the elongated line and precise footwork of ballet with the athleticism of, say, Roger Federer on a tennis court.

The Minnesota connection took root in 2005, when Cunningham’s company spent a week in St. Joseph as part of an artistic-residency program. Thompson, who arranged the residency, floated the idea of bringing Ocean to the state. Her husband, a musician, had once performed in a quarry with the Carmel Symphony in Indiana, and he suggested that Cunningham’s representatives visit one of the many granite quarries in the St. Cloud area. Coincidentally, the man staffing the Martin Marietta office on the day that Thompson and the Cunningham crew first visited the quarry had seen a photo of the Carmel Symphony’s performance in a magazine. He thought a dance on the rocks sounded like a great idea.

The public has seldom been allowed inside the Rainbow Quarry, for safety reasons, but the bosses at Martin Marietta were intrigued by the idea of art being produced in such an environment. They removed a million tons of granite to enlarge the quarry and to shape the space for the dance, built a new access route to bus people in, and restructured portions of the quarry to reduce safety hazards. Site manager Mike Reinert says Martin Marietta employees have taken pride in their role in the project. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he says.

The project nearly fell apart, however, after Thompson left Saint Benedict for a job at Notre Dame in July 2007. But Sage Cowles, a Minneapolis dancer, philanthropist, and member of Cunningham’s board of directors, approached the Walker, which had been involved with the project, to suggest that she and her husband, John, would provide significant funding if the museum agreed to take the lead in organizing the project. Philip Bither, the Walker’s curator of performing arts, quickly signed on as lead producer. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts helped seal the deal, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has contributed funds for a five-camera shoot of the performances by acclaimed filmmaker and longtime Cunningham collaborator Charles Atlas.

For Cowles, a longtime financial supporter of the Walker who first met Cunningham in a New York dance school in the 1950s, the result is a dream come true. “With this project, the Walker and Merce came together as the two big rivers in my life,” she says.

The project has also become remarkably personal for Reinert. His college-age son hopes to become a professional dancer. “Dealing with the arts is something I’m not used to doing,” he says. “But this experience has helped me to appreciate what [my son] is doing—to get my arms around something I didn’t understand.”

In turn, the quarry setting has fulfilled a veteran choreographer’s dream in the twilight of his career. “The quarry is magnificent—this setting will surround the situation quite differently from anything we’ve had before,” says Cunningham. “I like the idea that the sound will surround the audience and the dancing, the way water surrounds you in the ocean…. [It] will be spectacular, rebounding and reverberating in ways we can only imagine.”

Linda Shapiro is a Twin Cities–based freelance writer.

Merce on the Rocks will be held September 11 to 13 at the Rainbow Quarry in Waite Park.