There’s an exquisite serendipity to reading Carolyn Brown’s soulful new memoir recounting twenty years as a dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company––from its inception in 1953––on Cunningham’s birthday (April 16, to be exact). At eighty-eight, Cunningham continues to make remarkable dances and to collaborate with composers and artists in a variety of media, all the while wondrously experimenting with new technologies and processes. It feels especially meaningful, even poignant, to look back fifty-four years to the beginning.
Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham, idiosyncratically and with loving detail, offers as much about John Cage, Cunningham, and their collaboration as it does about its writer. Brown’s relationship with these men, the dynamic between the two, and their respective manners of relating to the company members and those around them are the consistent subtexts. Yet in the spirit of other informative zeitgeist books such as Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I (1955), Chance and Circumstance concentrates on specific artists while providing a larger sense of an effervescent era. Given how categorical and marketdriven the art world’s infrastructure has become, the sense of community conveyed in this book, of artists’ vital engagement with one another and with media outside their own, is a powerful tonic.
Brown’s understanding and rendering of Cunningham’s choreography and process, as well as those of other dancers and choreographers of the period, such as George Balanchine and her early mentor Antony Tudor, feel profoundly intuitive. She seems to perceive through her body as much as through her brain. Perhaps in part because of her marriage to composer Earle Brown (until the late ’60s, when she paired up with photographer James Klosty, some of whose riveting images of the company are included), she deftly handles the experimental music scene of the time, both in the United States and in Western Europe. Figures such as David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Pierre Boulez, and Arnold Schoenberg enter early on. Cage’s controversial position against Beethoven and harmony, versus his own concept of musical composition, which engaged with issues of duration, is explored, as are myriad other philosophical and aesthetic issues; having always understood Cage’s position regarding time and space as philosophical, I was interested to discover its additional theoretical grounding in music. It is Cage whom Brown credits with providing a philosophical raison d’Ítre for a life in dance. Quoting a letter to her parents she wrote in an incipient stage of their friendship, she says, “John Cage is more than a startlingly original musician— he is living his philosophy of life which is a vital and free one.”
Through Brown’s chronicling, we see the evolution of the Cage-Cunningham sensibility and its manifestation in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. A concept permeating their work derives from Saint Thomas Aquinas, as invoked by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and later interpreted by Cage: “Art is the imitation of Nature in her manner of operation.” Nature is neither still nor quiet, just as a “silence” in Cage’s 4'33" (1952) does not exist, just as a held position in a dance is never motionless and a “white painting” by Robert Rauschenberg is not empty. This relationship between nature and art also suggests the possibility for a coexistence, in the same time and space, of movement and sound, which relate interdependently, without illustrating each other—much as sound and movement coexist in everyday life.
Cage would elaborate by saying, “Where other music and dance generally attempt to ‘say’ something, this theater is one which ‘presents’ activity. This can be said to affirm life, to introduce an audience, not to a specialized world of art, but to the open, unpredictably changing world of everyday living.” Other influences include Zen Buddhism, as conveyed in the words of D. T. Suzuki, and Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double (1938), which, among many ideas, advocated a nonnarrative theater of the senses. Although Brown suggests throughout the book that despite what Cage and Cunningham allow, there is certainly some meaning to be found, and possibly some intended, in their work, I have a somewhat different take than hers on their assertion that the music and the dance are essentially about the very isness (my word) of the sound and the movement. To me, that has never belied the possibility that each man had some confluence of images or ideas to propose (although they were not necessarily in sync with those of the other)—maybe yes, maybe no. Intrinsic to their work is an awareness, perhaps unprecedented, of the relationship between the process of making a piece and the audience’s experience of it. The impossibility of being passive while watching a performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is an enormous pleasure.
Brown’s voice, occasionally sentimental but most often emotional and full of conviction, is especially insightful when addressing Cunningham’s choreography and his own dancing. She acutely expresses the essence of his movement:
I remember Merce most clearly demonstrating a fall
that began with him rising onto threequarter point in
parallel position, swiftly arching back like a bow as
he raised his left arm overhead and sinking quietly to the
floor on his left hand, curving his body over his knees,
rising on his knees to fall flat out like a priest at the
foot of the cross, rolling over quickly and arriving on
his feet again in parallel position—all done with such
speed and elegance, suppressed passion and catlike
stealth that my imitative dancer’s mind was caught
short. I could not repeat it. I could only marvel at what
I hadn’t really seen.
Suite by Chance (1952), the first work by Cunningham in which Brown performed, was presented in Lincoln Hall Theater at the University of Illinois in March 1953. The music, by Christian Wolff, was commissioned especially for the dance and composed for magnetic tape spliced together by Cage, Tudor, and Earle Brown. About the choreography, she writes, “Chance procedures can produce fiendishly arduous combinations of movement; the dancer’s stamina is neither considered nor questioned.” At least at that time, Cunningham was choreographing with and applying chance operations on his own body. Ever since he began to incorporate the computer in the early 1990s, using the Life Forms three-dimensional human-animation software designed for him, “getting beyond one’s preconceptions” has taken on an all-new meaning: The physical possibilities for the computer-generated figure offer Cunningham gestures and configurations previously unconsidered and therefore untried, hence presenting him and his dancers great creative and physical challenges— sometimes impossible ones—as the movements transit from screen to body.
The book proceeds more or less chronologically (with some compelling tangents) and includes a discussion of Black Mountain College and a description of the now-famous theater event—considered by many to be the first Happening—by Cage and Cunningham that Tudor, poets M. C. Richards and Charles Olson, and a young Rauschenberg performed there in summer 1952. The interweaving of stories from New York’s Artists’ Club and the Cedar Tavern and about the artists who frequented them, as well as about the Beat poets and Mary and Robert Frank (and his landmark film Pull My Daisy ), adds to the experiential quality of the book, as it provides not only a sense of everyday life but also a larger context, for example with the mention of Cage’s seminal New School courses in experimental composition (1957–59). These classes–– attended by Fluxus practitioners such as George Brecht and Dick Higgins, as well as by others, such as Allan Kaprow, who would soon be active in Happenings–– are addressed as both events and a springboard to discussing an “anything goes” aesthetic as opposed to Cage’s more rigorous approach.
It was in 1953 that Rauschenberg began regularly coming to the Cunningham studio, and in the book this coincides with a photographic interlude, a “pause” that recurs several times throughout. Jasper Johns enters soon after. Both Rauschenberg and Johns were to become––and still are, to varying degrees––deeply involved with the company, creating the visual elements and/or costumes for many works. Johns also commissioned other artists to collaborate, including Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Bruce Nauman, who did the set for Tread (1970), the last work Brown performed with the company.
Cunningham’s “instructions” to the artists (as well as the nature of the information imparted to the dancers) are notoriously open-ended—as there is no story line to illustrate. As Brown recalls, regarding Minutiae (1954), the first work for which Rauschenberg was asked to make something:
Merce, as usual, didn’t discuss the dance in terms
of his intentions, its meaning, or what he wished us
to convey. We had to assume the meaning was in
the movement, that the choreography was the
message, and that it communicated simply by us
doing as well as we could what he had given us to
do. If the dance was meant to be funny, we never
knew it, and we certainly didn’t play it that way. We
performed it deadpan, like earnest schoolchildren. . . .
When Merce asked [Rauschenberg] to make
something for Minutiae, the dance was not finished.
Merce recalled: “I did not tell him what to make, only
that it could be something that was in the dance area,
that we could move through it, around it and with it if
he so liked.”
Brown continues to move us through Cunningham and Cage’s extraordinary work and company, with earnest digressions regarding touring, company morale, injuries, financial concerns, odd jobs (one of the dancers worked as a spy for Chock Full o’Nuts), and, in general, the life of a devoted dancer within this demanding context.
Through her radiating way of telling her own story and her tender precision, Brown has given us a distinctive perspective on the work of two of the most exceptional artists of the twentieth century. Although those of us who are loyal fans have always accepted, maybe even held sacred, the tenets put forth by Cage and Cunningham, it is lovely to have a more personal spin, from someone who knows.
Melissa Harris is editor in chief of Aperture magazine. Books she has edited include David Vaughan’s Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (1997) and Merce Cunningham’s Other Animals: Drawings and Journals (2002; both Aperture).