On a sunny day in November 1968, pedestrians wandering the malls and concourses of San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square might have seen a pair of pink and blue pastel-clad performers dragging one another across the flagstones in white patio chairs. The renovated retail district was serving as the set for Assemblage, a dance created especially for film by Merce Cunningham and his dance company, in collaboration with filmmaker Robert Moore. The finished film was subsequently lost. But it has recently been unearthed, digitized and restored; New York's Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) will screen the film in co-presentation with the Merce Cunningham Trust on Jan. 15.
"I was galvanized," Lynn Wichern, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Trust, told A.i.A by phone of the moment she saw finally the Assemblage footage. After finding paper records in the Cunningham archives mentioning the film but not the film itself, Wichern embarked on a lengthy chase. Multiple archives had the film listed in their records, but in each case the actual recording was missing or inaccessible. Wichern finally called the film's editor, Bill Yahraus, who had a slightly damaged copy.
Film holds an important place in Cunningham's oeuvre. Perhaps best known among his films are his collaborations with filmmaker Charles Atlas, who colorized the newly digitized version of the film—but Cunningham and Atlas did not meet until the early 1970s. The 1968 Assemblage was shot by Moore and edited by Moore and Bill Yahraus. Using optical illusions, hand-cutting and splicing, Yahraus and Moore engineered a series of effects—cross-fades, overlays, split screens and dissolves—virtually unprecedented in the 1960s. A flock of miniature dancers dance while superimposed on larger images of their own feet; silhouettes of one dancer appear inside the outline of another; dancing forms are colored in using footage of the sky, building facades and fire escapes.
Cunningham relished the juxtaposition of dissimilar elements—he paired dances with musical scores that bore no relationship to one another, and used chance to determine how a dancer might move his arm in contradiction to his leg—so although they might seem humdrum by today's standards, the effects in Assemblage also capture Cunningham's palpable excitement for the choreographic possibilities of manipulating filmic time and space. The architecture of Ghirardelli Square provides a maze of danceable spaces: corridors, ladders and open patios. The landscape is shot through with a mix of blinding sun and deep shadow; the footage sometimes makes you want to squint.
The score, by John Cage, David Tudor and Gordon Mumma, is a cacophonic, burbling mash-up of found sounds recorded around San Francisco. There are garbled voices, radio ads, street performers and bird sounds. That particular Bay Area mixture of sun and clouds backed by droning and babbling is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film The Conversation, a film about a lonely man in a sunny city, a private eye obsessed with an audio recording of a mysterious exchange. Something ominous, too, hovers in the periphery of Assemblage—you feel as though you should be looking for something. In one shot, a couple of dark-suited men stand watching the action as though transfixed; perhaps they felt that way, too.