Beverly Emmons

Composing Light for Merce

  • Claire Carolan


There is an increasing interest in the performance and analysis of stage lighting design as a unique artistic discipline with a logic and language of its own that serves a creative purpose outside of simple performance illumination. This article suggests that the lighting design work of Beverly Emmons in collaboration with Merce Cunningham and John Cage – can be analyzed and perceived in similar ways to music composition. The improvisational processes and practice often associated with the Cunningham and Cage aesthetic, were present in all aspects of their staged works, including the lighting design. The key production discussed in this article is “Winterbranch” for which Emmons designed/composed the lighting in the 1960’s and again in 2012. At the core of this article is a 2015 conversation with Beverly Emmons on her experience in moving from a career path as a dancer to that as an emerging female lighting designer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the 1960’s, balancing audience expectation with experimentation, re-imagining another artist’s work, composition “by chance” and being female in a predominantly male occupation. Emmons recollections of her work with Cunningham and Cage offer unique insight into her experience with the avant-garde artists and the effect on her own approach to the composition of stage lighting.