Two years ago, Robert Heishman had never heard of Merce Cunningham.
He was just a teenager who took a photography class at Blue Valley High School to see whether he liked shooting pictures.
The legendary choreographer - who had danced with Martha Graham and, at 82, was still cranking out acclaimed new works for his own company in New York - wasn't so much as a blip on the 18-year-old Stilwell boy's radar screen.
But their paths were about to intersect, and it all began with a tiny pinhole.
Heishman and his classmates wrinkled their brows the day photography instructor Mark Mosier asked them to bring a check box to school. What does a cardboard box have to do with taking pictures, they wondered.
But, like obedient pups, they brought in their boxes the next day.
Now we're going to make cameras with these boxes, Mosier revealed.
"And a light went off in my head," recalls Heishman, who was a junior at the time. "I was like, 'Wow, that opens up so many possibilities right there. If you can create a camera out of a check box, there are so many things you can create a camera out of."
So the students punched a tiny hole in the lid of their boxes, situated film inside, put a flap over the hole, aimed the camera at a subject, raised the flap and took a picture. It was all very primitive, but Heishman was hooked. He loved how the simple devices abstracted the world, and how much more organic his pinhole photos looked than the ones he shot with 35mm film.
Even as the class progressed to more technologically advanced methods, Heishman continued perfecting his pinhole cameras in his spare time, with guidance from Mosier, who encouraged his quirky creative compulsion.
Their relationship continued the following year, when Heishman enrolled in Mosier's new media course, the first of its kind at the school.
- Audio interview with Robert Heishman
- On finding out he'd been selected to create decor for "Split Sides."
- On photographing in New York with fellow collaborator and photographer Catherine Yass.
- Heishman explains why he uses braille in his photographic process.
- A video Robert Heishman created while still a student at Blue Valley High School in Stilwell
- Robert Heishman video: "I don't know north anymore"
- Amazon.com page with a CD by Sigur RÃ³s that incorporates Robert Heishman's photo for "Split Sides" into the cover art
- Amazon.com: Sigur RÃ³s - Ba Ba/Ti Ki/Di Do
As luck would have it, Mosier learned that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company would be performing at the Carlsen Center in Overland Park, and he arranged for the tech-savvy troupe to do a residency with his students.
After a week of working with Life Forms, a computer program Cunningham uses to create dances, the students were invited for a backstage tour before one of the company's performances.
"It was right after school, and I just canceled all plans and went over there," Heishman recalls. "None of my fellow students showed up."
Nevertheless, company manager Trevor Carlson took Heishman backstage, where he saw dance sets created by the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. He was floored.
Carlson asked to see some of Heishman's work, which he gladly gathered and brought to the next night's performance. Impressed, Carlson urged him to send some samples to the company's New York City headquarters.
Heishman agreed. He had no idea what would happen next.
Two weeks pass. Heishman's phone rings. Trevor Carlson here. Merce likes what you do. Would you be interested in creating an original decor for a new dance called "Split Sides"? It'll be you and another photographer, Catherine Yass.
Oh, and by the way, Radiohead and Sigur RÃ³s are doing the music.
"My heart was beating fast," says Heishman, now 20 and a sophomore at the Kansas City Art Institute. "I got really nervous, but I said, 'Yeah, I'll do it.'"
And just like that, Heishman became a professional. The company began flying him to New York once a month to meet with Cunningham, the dancers and other collaborators. All the while, he was given total creative freedom.
"I was completely impressed with the way they were dealing with me as an 18-year-old high school student," he says. "I thought they were really respecting of my age, but also they took me seriously.
"And I think that's something that a lot of artists need is someone to take their work seriously and encourage them in whatever direction they're thinking of going because that's what helps artists create great works."
In the black-and-white image Heishman presented to the company, dark gray and white streaks dance randomly across a murky gray background.
He didn't shoot the photo with any run-of-the-mill pinhole camera with a single aperture. Since his days at Blue Valley, Heishman has developed a camera that uses inverted braille formations to create dozens of apertures from the letters of words.
For "Split Sides," he chose the word "etc." for its sense of continuous motion.
When the dance premiered in October 2003 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Heishman was overwhelmed.
"I'd taken some photography classes in high school and seen my work at 8 inches by 10 inches," he says. "I came that week of the performance, and I saw my work 40 feet by 60 feet. That was mind-blowing."
So was watching Cunningham's dancers snake around in front of his massive photo while one of his favorite rock bands, Radiohead, played a few feet away.
Heishman's teacher, Mark Mosier, was there, too.
"Afterwards, several people at the post-party talked to me about Robert's work and how pleased and impressed they were," he says.
"We have some pretty cool stuff happening here (at Blue Valley), but that's got to be one of the coolest things ever. I wouldn't want to necessarily claim responsibility for it, but it's fun to be a part of that opportunity for Robert."
Just as Heishman owes his incredible experience to a chance meeting, Cunningham built a sense of uncertainty into "Split Sides."
Before each performance of the 40-minute work, an onstage roll of dice determines which combination of two 20-minute music compositions, two decors, two sets of costumes and two lighting schemes will be presented. Thirty-two variations are possible.
Heishman will be there for the dice roll when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company comes to the Lied Center Tuesday night. He'll also give a talk with Trevor Carlson after the performance, which will begin with "Views on Stage," set to music by avant-garde composer John Cage, and conclude with "Split Sides" after intermission.
Since his experience with the dance company, Heishman has been concentrating on school and creating artwork. Although he hasn't had any exhibitions or major projects, he gave a talk last November during a Cunningham symposium at Columbia University in Chicago, and he's developed a relationship with Sigur RÃ³s, the Icelandic experimental band that created half the music for "Split Sides." (The group used Heishman's image as part of the artwork for the three-song album that spun out of the project).
He maintains fond memories of meeting Merce Cunningham, who's now 84.
"He's just such a bright soul," Heishman says. "He was definitely an amazing person to be around being 18 years old and being opened up to an entire art world that I didn't even know about. I learned so much, and it shaped the way that I create now."
The view through those pinholes looks pretty big these days.