Arts Review

Was . . . and Is

James Klosty’s new book about the celebrated mischief-maker of avant-garde American music, dance, and theater, John Cage Was[1] includes many previously unpublished photographs and some 62 comments by Cage’s associates. Klosty’s earlier book on Cage’s partner and dance collaborator, Merce Cunningham, came out in 1975 with a similar format—Klosty’s photographs of Cunningham and company, and remarks by fifteen associates, plus two very early reviews by critic Edwin Denby. Klosty was on the scene with the Cunningham company between 1967 and 1972, taking pictures of the dancers and their music director on and off stage. For the new book, he issued only two Cagean rules to the contributors: use no more than 100 words and include the words “John Cage was” in the text. Probably the imposition of a paragraph’s length is what produced so many aphorisms from the contributors, a literary tribute in itself to Cage.

In the late ’60s–early ’70s I was learning about dance and trying to write about dance at the same time. Cage was my guide. Not that I knew him. I read his books and watched the Cunningham company’s remarkable Cagean collaborations Variations V, Field Dances, How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run; and the equally impressive RainForest, Landrover, Place, Winterbranch, Canfield, which weren’t scored by Cage but by his disciples. And I discovered a whole new way of thinking about art. Coming from a conventional background, I assumed art issued from a gift conferred on a fortunate individual, who was then bound into a lifetime of nurturing this talent. No, said Cage and Cunningham. Art is all around us. The artist can step out of the way and let art take its course, set a process in motion but not interfere once it rolled. You could think of the artist as a worker like anyone else, pragmatic and at the same time non-judgmental, not some divinely inspired and unique being. The result of the artist’s research wouldn’t be a fixed and repeatable product, but an experience that could only occur once.

“He imagined that pieces and the process of playing them could be doorways for performers and listeners to a different way of thinking about music,” writes Michael Tilson Thomas in John Cage Was. As Klosty’s photographs show, Cage’s process was an active, almost athletic activity. But it had a spiritual dimension too. He “opened the door to the world beyond rationality,” says music writer and composer Kyle Gann. And Meredith Monk remarks: “His life was a reminder that we can continue to grow, change, and live in the moment for our entire lives.”

I knew Cage only through his contributions to Cunningham’s dances, which I sometimes got to witness from backstage. I remember him rubbing a contact microphone along the auditorium walls to see how different textures would sound; chewing a wad of aluminum foil with a mike in his mouth; conducting a bunch of skeptical musicians by slowly circling his arms to simulate a clock face—the score consisted of phrases or notes to be played, or not, during each quarter hour of his commands. Klosty captures him laughing, holding a cigarette and a glass, or peeking around the corner of a set, charging full force out of an elevator, gleefully conscripting a floor polisher into the service of music. He was an eccentric, determined to retain his disaffected attitude in the face of bad reviews and onstage catastrophes. Once, in a Leonard Bernstein series that was meant to modernize the New York Philharmonic’s conservative audience, the orchestra played one of Cage’s thornier pieces. I think this was 1964, and the piece was Atlas Eclipticalis, which accompanied a Cunningham dance (Æon) so notoriously boring that it was hardly ever performed. Bernstein’s blue-haired subscribers walked out in droves. But he brought the composer on for a bow anyway. It was the only time I saw Cage lose his composure.


Elizabeth Streb, not an obvious Cage disciple, began her book, How to Become an Extreme Action Hero,[2] with a quote from him: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones!” Streb lists Cage, along with Cunningham and Trisha Brown, as one of her many action heroes—others include Harry Houdini, Evel Knievel and Philippe Petit. Streb loves risk, the more dangerous the better. What she has in common with coolest-of-the-cool Cage is a determination to escape the boundaries of art as we know it. Both of them cultivated striking personas, Cage as a reticent naif and Streb as a sophisticated transgressor. Both are known for their playfulness. Anna Deavere Smith, in her foreword to Streb’s book, calls her “a rascal and a ruthless one.” Streb is fixated on action, Cage on sound. For both of them, the performance of the idea is everything, but their work is rooted in cerebral ideas. I can’t think of another dancer who’s been as deeply experimental as Streb. She’s spent the last thirty years probing the limits of the human body. Except in the most generous of terms, what she does isn’t dance, any more than Cage’s auditory experiments were music. I’m not sure that what she does will remake the dance of the future, any more than I expect Cage’s noises to morph into a new music, but both of them have refused to accept given definitions.

In October Streb came to Boston for the showing of her new film, Born to Fly, directed by Catherine Gund, at the Institute of Contem­porary Art. With interpolated interviews and appearances by the dancers, the film follows the course of Streb’s career, from the bare-bones early work to spectacular performances at the London Olympics in 2012. With selections from a large cache of archival videotape, the film includes footage of Streb’s action heroes bouncing off trampolines, diving off walls, somersaulting in circular formations on a divided floor that revolves in two directions. It also becomes a witness when one dancer falls during a stunt and breaks her back. Recovering, but not dancing, the woman is somehow resigned to the accident.

Streb is well aware of the danger; she courts danger herself. She thrives on it, in fact; it spurs her on to take new risks and to develop techniques to ward off serious harm. Her objective is to find “real” movement, the illusion of superhuman powers that you can get in extreme situations. Trisha Brown’s 1971 Walking on the Wall, a dance that was just that, with the aid of rotary harnesses, was one of the things that gave Streb the impetus to pursue the impossible. Disdaining illusion, she didn’t want to cover up the effort it took to challenge gravity or mask the facilitating apparatus.

Gradually Streb’s ideas have gotten bigger, requiring more elaborate support apparatus. Once she gave the audience a sock-in-the-gut thrill when people dove or fell into a group of other people, just missing them as they rolled out of the way. All it took was floor mats and courage. She upped the ante. There were trapezes and rotary harnesses, an eight-foot I-beam that spun above the floor as the dancers dodged it, a 12-foot hamster wheel, and games of chicken in which dancers ran among concrete blocks that were swinging on long cables. Born to Fly culminates in the London performances, where Streb’s company turned several prominent structures into playgrounds for a day. They dart like insects from one perch to another in the immense Ferris wheel called the London Eye. Eight of them jump in near-unison off the Millennium Bridge, saved from drowning in the Thames by bungee cords. Streb and two cohorts walk down the dome of London’s City Hall, attached by harnesses, a salute to Trisha Brown.


I suppose you could see a political inference in the occupation of these London landmarks by Streb’s superhumans, with an audience of civilians watching breahlessly, but it would be a stretch. I’ve never known Streb to allow a concern with current events to flavor her work, or to suggest that the work has metaphorical significance. Her politics is all action. Like opening her studio in Williamsburg so neighborhood teenagers can try out the trampolines and harnesses. Streb insists her work is about finding the “real” moves, and that it doesn’t “express” anything. Her dancers work methodically, dispassionately, as if their lives depend on doing nothing but the task. What you see isn’t a performance of bravery; it is brave. If the Cagean dictum of neutrality has taken most modern dancers out of the self-expressive, confessional mode, black dancers, with a few exceptions, haven’t given in to that detachment. Perhaps it’s easier to use the familiar strategies of yearn­ing, striving, suffering, surviving, and to find your voice in the mode of Alvin Ailey or José Limón than it is to cultivate an audience in the less accessible realms of postmodern dance.

Bill T. Jones’s early partnership with Arnie Zane put him in the avant-garde camp at the beginning of his career. Since Zane’s death in 1988 from AIDS, Jones has moved more and more toward openly confront­ing issues of race, war, and gender, as well as history. With the publication of Story/Time: The Life of an Idea[3], he admits that he hasn’t resolved the demands of contemporary performing life versus engaged contemporary artmaking. If Cagean creativity insists on the artist staying out of his own way yet being totally present in the act of performing, Jones couldn’t put aside his sense of responsibility to his own background and his audience.

Story/Time the dance was dedicated to John Cage and based on Cage’s narrative accompaniment to Merce Cunningham’s How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run. The book is a spinoff from Jones’s 2012 dance and the Toni Morrison Lectures he gave at Princeton. It includes the text of Jones’s narration, a group of seemingly unrelated stories meant to be told in one-minute segments while the Jones/Zane company dances around the storyteller, who was Jones himself, seated center stage. When you look at the tales written down, you realize that there’s a big difference between him and Cage. Cage could be elliptical, gnomelike, but, scripted or not, he was always light. Jones is the opposite, deliberately weighty, serious even when he intends to amuse. His stories are mostly about himself, and he can’t resist summing them up with little lessons.

The book’s final chapter is an extended meditation on Jones’s relationship to Cage, which he admits is “conflicted.” He admires Cage’s ability to let go of “tastes, preferences, and feelings” in order to “create something new and unforeseen out of chance operations.” But, useful as these tactics are, Jones finds them suspect; “there is another way to make art in which art is indeed about feelings, taste—and intention.” He considers the options of detachment and social uplift, but neither one seems the proper outlet for his own experience. He leaves us not with a philosophy but with his questions. I suppose that’s a Cagean solution.


In different ways, Trajal Harrell is also an heir of Cage. Though he’s had a traditional modern dance training, he resists the usual dance-like satisfactions: rhythmic propulsion and spatial expansiveness, the narrative implications of locomotion. I saw him at the ICA in a reprise of The Untitled Still Life Collection, a duet he created in 2011 with sculptor Sarah Sze. Harrell is best known for his Paris Is Burning series, where he did a combination of dancing and voguing in a succession of minimal but suggestive costumes to reflect various characters from the dance and performance worlds. But The Untitled Still Life Collection isn’t referential in that way. With a partner (Christina Vasileiou) and a length of blue string, he plays an attenuated game of cat’s cradle. Slowly, meticulously, they draw out the string between them to inscribe geometric patterns, like draftsmen creating a blueprint. When I saw this dance three years ago, in a small gallery at the ICA, I was mystified. Last fall, up close in a different space, I thought Harrell is deeper than he seems. His performing is very intense—so intense, I noticed his hand trem­bling. You hardly see the string at all until Vasileiou drapes it to curve around his shoulders, and he parades before us as a matador. There’s something about his precision and his inner focus that leads to an impression of meta: he’s not only performing a character but comment­ing on an identity. The string piece is carefully neutral, but perhaps that in itself is a comment. Forty years after Judson dance, Trisha Brown, and John Cage’s Silence, can anything purely geometric be done without attitude?


Harrell is one of several black choreographers doing interesting work now. The question of identity—and of their relationship to American culture—hasn’t yet been settled for them, and this ambiguity is a challenge to them and to the audience. At the end of his one-week residency, Harrell stayed on at the ICA to introduce the performances of Abraham.In.Motion. Kyle Abraham left the company of David Dorfman only four or five years ago to choreograph as an independent and has already collected a bucketful of exceptional honors and attention. Commenting in his pre-performance talk, Harrell observed that “abstraction” was beginning to find its way into Abraham’s dance. Through a greater attention to the formal aspects of the choreography, like steps and their connections, and the organization of the dancers in space, Harrell saw Abraham as relinquishing the stereotyped Alvin Ailey-esque black dance image: “We’re moving on from our usual race debate.”

The performance that followed, with the overall title When the Wolves Came In, comprised three separate dances, When the Wolves Came In, Hallowed, and The Gettin’. Abraham says they all were inspired by Max Roach’s “Freedom Now” album, a response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Abraham also thinks about other landmarks in the history of racial segregation and its slow remediation, and he extends the idea of “freedom” beyond race to the areas of politics and gender.

Abraham seems to think about movement like a traditional modern dancer. He’s reluctant to explain specifically what the movement “means” or how it’s crafted to express feelings. Music matters as a trigger for these feelings, not a structure for containing them. In this way, Abraham’s dance is extremely personal, if sometimes unreadable. He seems to start from a clean slate, avoiding loaded movement tropes from vernacular and sports gestures, or the previously stylized moves and techniques of other modern dancers. He doesn’t claim to be making up an original vocabulary, but he’s gathered a lot of resources from the culture, like break dancing and hip hop. He doesn’t depend on mime or acting to establish character. His movement is expressive in a direct way, not sculpted to make inner feelings more descriptive, or gestural to make them part of a language the viewer can recognize. I don’t experience it as a series of moves or actions but as an explosion of feelings only slightly mediated, a thrust, a spiral, a surge or a sinking that can have dramatic meaning in interaction with another person. A striking dancer himself, Abraham didn’t perform in the three Boston shows, but the eight dancers in the company share his physical largesse.

His head is filled with ideas and images we could recognize if we made the connections, which some viewers can do intuitively. Like Bill T. Jones, he relieves some of the audience’s anxiety about how to “get” the nonverbal, with application of signifying elements like visuals (Glenn Ligon’s painted backdrops and archival film projections of race riots) and music with lyrics that have their own messages (by Nico Muhly, Bertha Gober and Cleo Kennedy, and Robert Glasper’s jazz take on Max Roach). There are also costume elements that might have symbolic value (like Reid Bartelme’s piled-high wigs in the first dance).

When the Wolves Came In was completed before the killings in Missouri and Staten Island touched off a new outbreak of civil rights protests, but race relations and the meaning of freedom were on Kyle Abraham’s mind before that. I think he’s trying to thread his way through the Cagean distance, past the beloved Ailey character types, to some configuration of his own that’s contemporary, engaged and personal. His struggle, even if it leads to some confusion, is both poignant and encouraging.


[1] JOHN CAGE WAS, by James Klosty. Wesleyan University Press. $55.00.

[2] Elizabeth Streb, Streb: How to Become an Extreme Action Hero (New York, 2010).

[3] STORY/TIME: The Life of an Idea, by Bill T. Jones. Princeton University Press. $24.95.