Arts Review

How They Chanced It

Merce Cunningham’s actual centennial was on April 16th, but the Cunningham Trust celebrated it all year with performances by its worldwide cohort of allied dance companies. In the fall the tributes continued with the reissue of Cunningham’s classic book Changes and two compilations of documents by his longtime partner and collaborator John Cage. Alongside those, there was a new film and a new edition of a big book of Cunningham photographs from the company’s vintage years in the late ’60s to the early ’70s. A long-range study by scholar-critic Carrie Noland was due out by the end of the year, among other events. The first batch of books prompted me to reread the originals and look at other artifacts of Cunningham’s extraordinary career. It’s an amazing archive.

When I started looking at Cunningham’s work, I had some apprehension. What first drew me to dance was the modern dance establishment, although nothing about those dancer-choreographers was comfortable or universally revered in the culture at large. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, José Limón and their followers had set a tone of highly individual and humanistic dance that even I, a novice, could understand. Cunningham was thought of as far-out and even esoteric. He made something called dance by chance, whatever that was. I encountered him at the American Dance Festival when it was based at Connecticut College and dominated by Graham-Humphrey-Limón and their descendants. In 1963 Cunningham and company did what must have seemed a relatively light program—Story, Antic Meet, the solo Collage III, and Cunningham’s somber duet with Carolyn Brown, Night Wandering. He’d appeared previously four times at the festival and incurred the wary scrutiny of the Powers. I was backstage, volunteering on the crew, so I was able to watch the performance from the wings. John Cage prowled around the theater with a microphone in his hand, scrubbing surfaces for interesting sounds to accompany the dance (it must have been Story). I remember very little of what was on the stage. By the next year I’d moved to New York to follow the dance, and I went to a rehearsal of the overwhelming mixed media work Variations V at what was then Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center. Maybe it was my bafflement with this that made me get Cage’s book Silence (1961), which was about to come out in paperback.

At the beginning of the ’60s, I was at a turning point in my own life, and Cage changed my thinking about art and writing. I’d grown up in the suburbs with a traditional view of art. I believed that before he/she can begin, the artist is dependent on the fickle acts of a Muse—otherwise known as inspiration. The work to come stems from the artist’s inner desires or conscious will, and after that magical stroke it’s all hard, earnest work toward a distant, Muse-borne goal. Cage blew away that thinking. Art could be a process, not an effusion of a personality. It could also be the product of more than one collaborator, and collaborating didn’t have to mean putting a single collective identity onto the work. Collage. Mosaic. An art work could comprise many images, not necessarily connected or consistent. And in a performance work, the viewer will be an important part of the process.

Silence is a compilation of Cage’s lectures on art and artmaking that begins with the provocative dedication “To Whom it May Concern.” The book begins with 100 pages of speeches and writings that set out his theories (indeterminacy, chance, composition as process). He pays tribute to modern composers, incidentally predicting the takeover of music by electronics. From then on the titles and the layouts become seemingly anarchic though they’ve been arrived at by intricate chance procedures (“Lecture on Nothing,” “Lecture on Something”). All the chapters are interspersed with wry anecdotes and observations. He appended background information about the speeches: where and when they were written and delivered, what music he was writing at the time. “‘45’ for a Speaker,” a script he wrote during a tour of Europe in 1954, is timed in ten-second increments and includes directions for gestures to be done on specific lines. By the time he gets to 43 minutes and 19 seconds, he states, “There is no such thing as silence.” Cage was writing piano and string pieces during the months he was working on this speech. They could be performed alone or in any combination with the speech.

Now Siglio has published Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),[1] a collection of shorter, pithier entries from Silence, with others extracted from Cage’s later volumes A Year From Monday (1967), M: Writings ’67–’72 (1973), X: Writings: ‘79–’82 (1983), and some handwritten notes meant for a next work that were unpublished when Cage died in 1992. The Diary preserves Cage’s ideas about layout and typography. It comprises 170 consecutive pages of stories and epigrams in colors, typefaces and spacings that change unpredictably without regard to beginnings and endings of thoughts. Within this thicket of words, Cage reflects on food, touring, and world problems; he invokes his intellectual mentors Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Duchamp, Henry David Thoreau, Erik Satie, D. T. Suzuki. Cage was also absorbed with words themselves and with how they can mutate into designs, poems, and dances. None of his verbal acrobatics appear in the new Diary, which is very lucid when you separate the run-on stories. But in M, for instance, he follows a recipe for mushroom caps with the remark, “ahachudegnathe e/lubuta/ne.” Screened by the formality of mesostics, and sometimes the rules of haiku, he pays tribute to his friends and mentors:

rEmembering a Day i visited you—seems noW
as I write that the weather theN was warm—i
recall nothing we saiD, nothing wE did; eveN so
(perhaps Because of that) that visit staYs.

For Cage, it seems, the object or the process of creating it told more than direct words could. Another of the centennial publications, Love, Icebox, is a collection of Cage’s letters to Cunningham from the early 1940s, when his feelings were more exposed. They’re love letters, passionate, erotic, and sometimes practical. If you didn’t know who the principals were, you might imagine they come from a love-struck teenager. Cage and Cunningham had met shortly before the first letter, around 1939 at the Cornish School in Seattle. By 1942 Cunningham had been recruited into Martha Graham’s dance company, then in its prime, and Cage was teaching in Chicago. The letters go on through 1946, when both were in New York and Cage had broken up with his wife Xenia. Cage and Cunningham were domestic partners in between the residencies, lectureships, and tours of their flourishing careers and till the end of their lives. They moved together into their last residence, a loft in the building at 101 West 18th Street, at Sixth Avenue

Love, Icebox[2] is a cleverly constructed mashup of the early, eager Cage letters with Laura Kuhn’s commentary, and her reflections on the Sixth Avenue loft where she encountered both men four decades later. Laura Kuhn is the director of the John Cage Trust and a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust. Love, Icebox is lavishly illustrated with photographs taken in the last home the two giants shared in New York. I went there once, to interview Cunningham, but all I remember about that is lots of light, many plants, and the magnetic presence of Merce. Love, Icebox is as domestic as these memories, mixing Cage’s transcribed letters with glimpses of bookcases, bowls, rocks, pictures, a Slinky, a rusty radiator, towels on top of a washing machine. Some of the objects were adjuncts to the owners’ creative lives, like scores and paintings, and others were homey things like kitchen tools.

Cage and Cunningham’s unassuming life together isn’t unusual. Modern dancers never had the audience or the economic potential of the other arts. The most important of them, Martha Graham, was largely subsidized by a private patron. Even today, modern dancers relinquish most material goals and work frugally. From the beginning, they’ve relied on their close associates, their dance families, for emotional support as well as creative collaboration. They invented cheap ways to live—Doris Humphrey, Pauline Lawrence, Charles Weidman, José Limón, and Humphrey’s husband and son lived together communally in the 1930s, sharing the cooking, shopping, babysitting, and bill paying as well as the rent and the company business. In the ‘70s, dancers helped revitalize the factory district that became a booming Soho when they took over deserted lofts where they could live and dance. Cage and Cunningham started out on the fringes of respectability and remained there for a half-century of creative breakthroughs. Even after achieving international fame, financial aid, and a permanent dance company, they lived modestly in their loft apartment with a social life populated by professional contacts.

Dancers live in tight proximity for much of their lives, spending their days and nights in class, rehearsal, humping from one place to another in unforgiving vehicles, to reach the ecstatic moments of performing for an audience. They often keep these ties for a lifetime. Not many of them can convey what it was like in words. The University Press of Florida issued a loving memoir, Dancing with Merce Cunningham,[3] by Marianne Preger-Simon. Before her marriage, Preger was one of Cunningham’s original students; she danced in his first company. She writes of meeting him in Paris in 1950 as a recent college graduate. She and former dance-mate Carolyn Brown met twice in Paris, 40 years later, to see performances of the Cunningham company.

I reread Carolyn Brown’s Chance and Circumstance—Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (2007) to explore this living/working life. Brown danced with Cunningham for two decades, from the company’s beginning in 1953 until she retired in 1972. Her book is a stunning accomplishment. Not only is she a fine writer, she can see into the heart of her comrades. Her narrative takes us through years of doubt and exhilaration, drudgery and disappointment and glamorous encounters around the world. Cunningham’s supposedly neutral choreography hinted at levels of personal expression that the audiences seldom recognized. Brown illuminates the interpersonal web that kept a dance company of differing personas together, and admits to feeling frequently skeptical that her boss was performing nothing but movement.

Robert Rauschenberg made his first work for Cunningham in 1954 (Minutiae). He wasn’t a famous money-earner until 1964 when he won the Venice Biennale. But he was always gregarious and playful, a temperament that somehow got along with Cunningham’s reticence. His sets and lighting designs for Cunningham’s dances suited Cage’s unconventionality; his social contacts didn’t do any harm either. Rauschenberg’s occasional bailouts kept the company finances from going under. After he left, his former partner Jasper Johns took over supervision of the scenics. He didn’t want to design dances himself, but he brought in a succession of stellar artists and their design schemes. Cage’s philosophy of artistic autonomy carried over to other composers when he no longer made scores himself. He collaborated on electronic accompaniments with David Tudor and Gordon Mumma and brought in readymade scores that the dancers didn’t get to hear until perfor­mance.

Carolyn Brown is startlingly frank on her feelings about Cunningham, who never gave corrections or explanations yet made dances that challenged her, made her a star. Cage comes across as a lively compan­ion and a fragile ego. She doesn’t devote much scrutiny to composer Earle Brown, to whom she was married when she met Cunningham; they divorced after their careers pulled them apart. But she acknowledges how much she appreciated the kindness of Jim Klosty, who entered her life as she was becoming disaffected with dancing.

Klosty offered weekend excursions, flowers sent to the dressing room, dinners and diverting conversation when Brown needed a break. They shared a house and garden after she retired from the company. With the means and the time to follow the tours, Klosty photographed performances and rehearsals between 1967 and 1972. His book of those images was published in 1975, with short statements from many company stalwarts. Reprinted in 1986, it’s now come out in a lavish edition as Merce Cunningham Redux[4]. With more photos and three new entries (the book weighs over six pounds, not exactly something you can easily open to check the contents against the earlier edition), it gives an insider’s look at the dance company rehearsing and performing. These aren’t the careful, posed pictures you see in glossy magazines, but a sweaty record of effort and elusive reward. The people dancing might be about to exit off the page. You can feel them breathing. The camera must have been a friend of the subjects, waiting on the sidelines to catch their moments of hilarity, levitation or stress. These photos are not meant, I think, to illustrate the dances but to capture the dance process.

The texts around this visual performance vary in length and intention. Carolyn Brown’s extended reflection on working with Cunningham begins the new edition after an introduction by Klosty. Some contributors explore the workings of the dances. Gordon Mumma, who joined Cage’s musical team around the time of Variations V, writes of how that “multi-ringed circus” of a production established “a coexistence of technological interdependence and artistic nondependence.” He describes the workings of the electronic sensors, tapes, films, and lighting that created such overload and confusion for the audience. Lewis L. Lloyd writes an account of his time as company manager and producer when the company was emerging from its ad hoc beginnings. The arts were separating into profit-making organizations and nonprofits. Lloyd led the process of crafting a union contract that recognized the dancers’ unpredictable working situation. For the new edition Klosty has added an entry he wrote under the pseudonym Michael Snell that constitutes a kind of codex to Second Hand (1970). This is the dance that was meant to be accompanied by Erik Satie’s Socrate. When the Satie estate refused the rights to Cage’s reduction of the original score, Cage wrote Cheap Imitation. Snell/Klosty explains the correlation between the dance and Satie’s dramatic music commemorating three phases in the life of Socrates.

The gamut is filled with literary eccentricities. John Cage supplied thirty-eight anecdotes of similar length, mostly about food and meals on tour from Sri Lanka to Santa Cruz. Pauline Oliveros, Viola Farber and Paul Taylor submitted brief contributions, little more than remarks. There’s a scrap of the score to Antic Meet (1958) that no one else but David Tudor could have deciphered. And there are poetic offerings like dancer Douglas Dunn’s wordplay on “Talking is talking Dancing is dancing.” Dunn had youthful ambitions to be a writer, and after leaving Cunningham’s dance company in 1973, he’s written occasional pieces while choreographing steadily for his own groups of dancers. In his fascinating collection Dancer Out of Sight (2012), he includes a gracious appreciation of Carolyn Brown’s book that he wrote for the German publication Ballettanz.

Among Merce Cunningham’s offstage artifacts was Other Animals (2002). He began sketching in off moments while touring as a distraction: “In any free moment, look about and draw.” He produced delightful images of birds, flowers, animals. They all have personalities. They’re often in the act of pouncing on victims or feeding themselves. Some are fanciful—seven or eight birds’ heads poke out of a single dead tree; a fox chases a terrified rabbit. I think he must have copied these creatures from books—I can’t imagine him sitting in a meadow until a grasshopper lands on a leaf—but he adorns them all with fanciful quirks. In the book, he also includes some of his handwritten observations about where he made the drawing and his thoughts about the day’s project—the weather, the state of his exhausted and aging body, the hassle of getting into the hotel, what John said.

Cunningham didn’t do much formal writing, but in 1968 he and Dick Higgins of Something Else Press came up with Changes[5]. This is an unpaginated collection of notes, notations, chance diagrams, photos and program copy from his concerts, all the bits tossed onto the page every whichway, overlapping and collaged together. Now it’s been reproduced by The Song Cave and the Cunningham Trust. I loved Changes. After studying it, I discovered that most of the material on each page related to a single Cunningham dance. Some of it, or most of it, reveals Cunningham himself. There’s a fragment from a questionnaire some hopeful publicist must have sent him: “16. Who are the other choreographers and artists to whom you feel close in spirit?” He writes in: “Cage, Johns, Rauschenberg, Wolff, Astaire.” The new edition preserves the original layouts, ambiguous or deliberately obscure. The new editors describe the project in a one-page introduction as “a print version of an art performance piece.” I would have called it a dance in those days.

I paginated and indexed my copy of Changes in order to find useful information. I inserted a question mark I had about one dance. I found the answer in David Vaughan’s encyclopedic Merce Cunningham—Fifty Years (1997). A dance critic and biographer of the English choreographer Frederick Ashton, Vaughan was the longtime archivist of the Cunningham company. The Fifty Years book combines year-by-year accounts of the dances within a concise narrative of the company’s doings, followed by a chronological listing of all the dances and their participants, premiere information, revivals. It’s an indispensable reference to Cunningham’s work. The Cunningham archives are now housed at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library. Since Vaughan’s death in 2017, outreach for the company continues under Scholar in Residence Nancy Dalva, who conducted the interviews and directed the extraordinary series Mondays with Merce. The fifteen completed episodes contain excerpts from performances, talks with current and former dancers, and sessions of Cunningham himself teaching in a chair, at the end of his life but articulate about his work: “There’s always something you hadn’t experienced before.”

Two years after Cunningham’s death in 2009, the company was closed down according to his wishes, but the Trust continues to license performances of repertory works. Documentations and commentary don’t detract from the actual work, but the work disappears if it hasn’t eroded under its caretakers and the changing tastes of its audience. Merce Cunningham made several documentary films, with Charles Atlas and Elliot Caplan, in addition to Mondays with Merce. To my knowledge there aren’t many record films of complete dances that can be seen by the public, but some of his works were made for the camera, or remade for the camera after being done on stage. I’m thinking of Split Sides, Points in Space, Beach Birds for Camera, and the first, Locale. All of those used the cinematic medium to approach the choreography from unusual viewpoints. This winter saw the release of two new films. Alla Kovgan’s 3-D film Cunningham is a documentary of the work between 1944 and 1972, with archival dance excerpts and choreographed examples performed by contemporary dancers. The film has had screenings in several cities, but I’ve been unable to see it. If the Dancer Dances produced by former Cunningham dancer Lise Friedman and Maia Wechsler, who directed, takes place in the studio as Stephen Petronio’s dance company is learning one of Cunningham’s most celebrated works, Rainforest (1968). This is the dance that has Andy Warhol’s silver Mylar pillows floating around and above the stage. Petronio comes from the dance lineage of Trisha Brown, one of the last modern dancers to devise a personal style and technique. As Cunningham alumnus Gus Solomons Jr. points out in this film, Merce’s work can always stop—-you’re always in control. In Stephen’s work, nothing stops. I think he’s talking about Brown’s distinctive, flowing quality versus Cunningham’s isolated moves and abrupt changes. Several other former Cunningham dancers lend their insights to this process.

One of Cunningham’s few conventional writings, “Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries” (1994), appeared in David Vaughan’s Fifty Years book. Summing up his long career of exploration, he explains the crucial effects of meeting John Cage and embracing the separation of dance and music; working with chance operations to make impersonal choreographic choices; adopting the camera’s potential for transforming bodies in space; and learning the use of computers and computer programs like Life Forms, which allowed him to make movement when he could no longer dance himself. He sums up his extraordinary journey this way: “My work has always been in process. Finishing a dance has left me with the idea, often slim in the beginning, for the next one. In that way, I do not think of each dance as an object, rather a short stop on the way.”

[1] DIARY: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), by John Cage. Siglio Press. $24.00.

[2] LOVE, ICEBOX: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham, by John Cage, ed. by Laura Kuhn. The John Cage Trust. $24.95.

[3] DANCING WITH MERCE CUNNINGHAM, by Marianne Preger-Simon. University Press of Florida. $19.95p.

[4] MERCE CUNNINGHAM REDUX, by James Klosty. powerHouse Books. $75.00.

[5] MERCE CUNNINGHAM: CHANGES: Notes on Choreography, by Merce Cunningham, ed. by Frances Starr. The Song Cave/The Merce Cunningham Trust. $25.00p.