Merce Cunningham with Benedetta Tagliabue.
Merce Cunningham with Benedetta Tagliabue.


Architects rarely get to spread their artistic wings and join forces with professionals in the performing arts. So when the opportunity to work with dance legend Merce Cunningham presented itself to Benedetta Tagliabue, principal of renowned Barcelona-based studio Miralles Tagliabue, she jumped at the chance.

For his part, over the past six decades, Cunningham has become as famous for his unique, and often unexpected, collaborations — earlier with artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and recently with rock bands Radiohead and Sigur Rós — as he is for his groundbreaking choreography. “I’m interested in artists that explore new ways of working, certainly in music, but in design also,” explains Cunningham.

This distinguished pairing of Cunningham and Tagliabue came at the suggestion of Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York City. For a special performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to celebrate Cunningham’s 90th birthday on April 16, the company decided to bring the musicians into the performance space. “It seemed clear that if we were taking the musicians out of the orchestra pit and putting them on stage, it would be best to work with an architect,” says Carlson. “I was introduced to Benedetta in Barcelona. What struck me about her architecture is the dialogue her buildings have with the community around them,” he adds, referring to projects like Barcelona’s Santa Caterina market (2005). “It’s no different working on a stage with a group of dancers and musicians — you’re simply agreeing to occupy the same space at the same time.”

A working model of the set design, which accommodates musicians on stage.
Photos ' Lluc Pascual

Tagliabue had only designed for the stage once before — for an opera at Barcelona’s Liceu. “I had no real experience doing this,” she recalls. “Like Merce, though, I enjoy taking risks.” But while Cunningham has built a career leaving things to chance — quite literally the toss of a coin — Tagliabue has taken a very architectural approach. The geometries and reflective qualities of crystal inspired the initial design concept, which has developed through a series of angular models. The models’ dynamism, a trademark of the studio, will no doubt be intensified on stage by the interaction of the musicians and dancers.

Meetings between the collaborators in the months leading up to the performance have been limited. “Working this way, there has to be some form of good faith,” Cunningham admits. “That moment when we all can see it come together usually isn’t until the dress rehearsal. On occasion, there hasn’t even been a dress rehearsal.” For a man who enjoys surprises, all bets are on this being a very special birthday surprise.

Merce Cunningham at 90.
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, N.Y., April 16—19, 2009.