The last apartment Merce Cunningham and John Cage shared before the latter’s death in 1992 was in the old Altman Building (once the department store) on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 18th St in lower Manhattan.   In the eighties, when I had begun to write on Cage’s work, I was sometimes invited for dinner.  Cage and Cunningham occupied the top floor of a rather nondescript six-story structure, a loft with an unremarkable view of the drab buildings across the street.  Yet the apartment itself had a wholly distinctive character. One entered directly into a large space, at the center of which was the kitchen, open on four sides, with very-up-to date appliances.  Here Cage prepared his often elaborate macrobiotic meals.  In the L-shape beyond the kitchen, furniture was sparse:  on one side, there was a small table with a chess set and two chairs (in homage to Cage’s beloved Marcel Duchamp no doubt).  On the far wall, above a small bookcase, hung a version of Jasper Johns Number Series 0-9; across from it was a small Buddha stone fountain.  No sofa, no armchairs, no carpets.   This “living area” was complemented by two others:  one, a kind of technology center, was full of synthesizers, tape recorders, and computer equipment, with much ugly wiring:  here Cage worked out his now electronically chance-generated compositions.  The second space, on the other side of the open loft area, had been transformed into a kind of greenhouse, with narrow paths between the countless plants and herbs, all of which Cage tended himself when he was in town.  Inside this green and tranquil “forest,” one almost forgot the ugly streets outside:  I say “almost” because the steady hum of traffic was obtrusive.

It was as with the leaves of a tree. You really look at a tree, no two leaves are the same, even though each leaf has the same general shape and structure.

—Merce Cunningham, “The dances, I,”1

Cunningham and [Christian] Wolff bring about a dance which is not supported by the music.  This is a realistic situation comparable to the fact that a tree is not supported by the breezes that blow through it.

—John Cage, “Three Asides on the Dance”2

The last apartment Merce Cunningham and John Cage shared before the latter’s death in 1992 was in the old Altman Building (once the department store) on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 18th St in lower Manhattan.   In the eighties, when I had begun to write on Cage’s work, I was sometimes invited for dinner.  Cage and Cunningham occupied the top floor of a rather nondescript six-story structure, a loft with an unremarkable view of the drab buildings across the street.  Yet the apartment itself had a wholly distinctive character. One entered directly into a large space, at the center of which was the kitchen, open on four sides, with very-up-to date appliances.  Here Cage prepared his often elaborate macrobiotic meals.  In the L-shape beyond the kitchen, furniture was sparse:  on one side, there was a small table with a chess set and two chairs (in homage to Cage’s beloved Marcel Duchamp no doubt).  On the far wall, above a small bookcase, hung a version of Jasper Johns Number Series 0-9; across from it was a small Buddha stone fountain.  No sofa, no armchairs, no carpets.   This “living area” was complemented by two others:  one, a kind of technology center, was full of synthesizers, tape recorders, and computer equipment, with much ugly wiring:  here Cage worked out his now electronically chance-generated compositions.  The second space, on the other side of the open loft area, had been transformed into a kind of greenhouse, with narrow paths between the countless plants and herbs, all of which Cage tended himself when he was in town.  Inside this green and tranquil “forest,” one almost forgot the ugly streets outside:  I say “almost” because the steady hum of traffic was obtrusive.

The three divisions of the loft (there must have been a bedroom space but I never saw it) could be said to represent the three aspects of its inhabitants’ austere and disciplined lives:  nature, technology, and art.  In Cage’s mind, computer equipment and kitchen gadgets were not at all at odds with his plant world.  And, as we were preparing to sit down at the little table (chess set removed) for dinner, Merce would come in as silently as a cat and join us.  Just as quickly, he would leave again since his own workspace—the dance studio—was further downtown.

The loft at 135 W. 18th St thus reflected Cage’s idea that, as he put it in describing his “Irish Circus” called Roaratorio, “there is not one center but life itself is a plurality of centers.  This is a Buddhist idea.”3 Not only Buddhist, we should note, because Cage had come across it much earlier in the writing of Gertrude Stein.  “In composition,” said Stein famously, “one thing is as important as another thing.  Each part is as important as the whole.” And again, “Act so that there is no use in a center.”4 This notion of decenteredness had been, from the first, at the very heart of Merce Cunningham’s aesthetic.   The choreography of Martha Graham (he got his start in her company from 1939-45) increasingly struck Cunningham as “very confined . . . a kind of closed circle” (MC 45).  What was needed was an opening of the field.  At Black Mountain in 1953, Cunningham asked his friend Bob Rauschenberg to “do something visual” for his new piece called Minutiae:

I didn’t ask him for anything specific.  I said that it might be something we could move through.  He made an object which was very beautiful, hanging down from pipes, but I said, “It’s marvelous but we can’t use it because we rarely play in theaters with flies.”  He didn’t get angry at all about it, he just said he’d make something else.

I came a few days later and he had made something else that was later exhibited.  Wonderful object!  Colors, comic strips all over it.  You could pass through it or under it or round it.  He made it out of stuff he’d picked up off the street.  I loved it because it was impossible to know what it was.   (MC 55)

The indeterminate, the fluid, the non-hierarchical, the multiplex:  Merce Cunningham’s death in July 2009 at the age of ninety has brought to its inevitable conclusion what was, to my mind, the most important avant-garde movement of the postwar era—a movement that included, along with Cunningham and Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and, more peripherally, such poets as Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery.  (All but Ashbery and Johns are now deceased.)  A congeries of artists largely male, white, and gay, at a time when issues of gender were treated much more reticently than they are today, the Cage-Cunningham circle largely subsumed sexual difference under the general aspect of difference itself.   “But isn’t the same at least the same?”  Ludwig Wittgenstein (Cage’s favorite philosopher) had asked.5 And the answer was clearly no, even if the difference between A and B was, in the words of Marcel Duchamp, infrathin (inframince)—the imperceptible difference between two seemingly identical phenomena or moments that produced what Duchamp called the delay.  Thus the Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare of her Bachelors, Even) was called “a delay in glass.”  Or again, as Duchamp put it in a note, ìinfra-thin. separation between / the detonation noise of a gun / (very close) and the apparition of the bullet/ hole in the target.6

As late as 2008, Cunningham was producing extraordinary new dance pieces like Ocean, a nice example of the choreography of dispersion—each thing—or rather individual dancer—being as important as every other one.7 Its music is based on earlier chance-generated computer instructions by Cage as well as an overlay by David Tudor, made from the actual underwater sounds of dolphins, whales, and other marine life.   There are also film segments, created by a frequent Cunningham collaborator, Charles Atlas.  Originally performed in the round in various European theatres, Ocean was then produced in a Minnesota quarry, with 150 musicians but no conductor, the choice of site playing a large role in determining the actual trajectory of the performance.

In Ocean and the related new pieces, the play of differences is palpable.   But to look at the choreographic drawings interspersed in The Dancer and the Dance, as well as their later computer counterparts, shown, for example, in Charles Atlas’s 2001 film on Cunningham for PBS,8 is to wonder whether difference is, in fact,  synonymous with openness, decentering, and a joyous and Utopian anarchy, as so many of Merce’s admirers have assumed over the years.   Now that the Cunningham Foundation has announced that with the end of its current two-year world tour in December 2011, the performing company will be dissolved, to be replaced by the Merce Cunningham Trust, an organization dedicated to the documentation, digitization, and preservation of the company’s lifetime repertoire, it may be a good moment to rethink Cunningham’s celebrated aesthetic.

When in June 2010 I had the chance to see Roaratorio performed at the Disney Concert Hall—a beautiful Roaratorio but no longer graced by the presence on stage of Merce or by the actual speaking voice of John Cage—what seemed especially remarkable was the tight formal structure of a composition once billed (both in its radio and dance incarnations) as an anarchic Irish Circus, bursting with random sounds and unforeseen events.9 For, however differential the leg, arm, and torso movements of the individual dancers (sometimes in pairs or threes, sometimes alone), all are metonymically related in a network of family resemblances, and all are, as the charts show, mathematically organized.  Yet wasn’t it Cage who defined his music as “purposeless play”—“not an attempt to bring order out of chaos . . . but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord”?10 And wasn’t it Cunningham who insisted that dance “is not meant to represent something else, whether psychological, literary, or aesthetic.  It relates much more to everyday experience, daily life, watching people as they move in the streets”? (MC 139).

The very life we’re living:  the Gelassenheit so seemingly central to Cage-Cunningham was hardly anarchic, much less unpredictable. But their own statements, and hence the critical writings about their work, have regularly insisted on what Joan Retallack, in her seminal series of conversations with Cage, calls “an aesthetic pragmatics of everyday life.”  “[Cage] told me,” she recalls in her Introduction, that “the art that he valued was not separated from the rest of life. . . . The so-called gap between art and life didn’t have to exist” (Musicage xix-xx).   And Cunningham repeatedly made the same point, using traditional ballet as contrast.  For example:

In classical ballet, as I learned it, and even in my early experience of the modern dance, the space was observed in terms of a proscenium stage, it was frontal.  What if, as in my pieces, you decide to make any point on the stage equally interesting?  I used to be told that you see the center of the space as the most important:  that was the center of interest. . . . I decided to open up the space to consider it equal, and any place, occupied or not, just as important as any other.  In such a context you don’t have to refer to a precise point in space.  And when I happened to read that sentence of Albert Einstein’s, “There are no fixed points in space,” I thought, indeed, if there are no fixed points then every point is equally interesting and equally changing.  (MC 17-18)

In a Cunningham piece, the same dancers may be dancing the same phrase together, “but they can also dance different phrases at the same time, different phrases divided in different ways, in two, three, five, eight, or whatever. . . . Our eight [or twelve or sixteen] dancers can be doing different movements, they may even do them to the same rhythm . . . but there is also the possibility that they can be doing different movements in different rhythms, then that is where the real complexity comes in” (MC 18).  Given this situation, the viewer has to be unusually attentive, trying to take in as many “centers” as possible and perceiving their relational rhythm.

Most important—and this was Cage’s great contribution to Cunningham’s aesthetic—although dance and music are performed in the same time and space, they are created independently of one another. The dancer no longer dances “to” the music heard.   The same holds true for the décor.  As Merce explains it, “What we have done in our work is to bring together three separate elements in time and space, the music, the dance and the décor, allowing each one to remain independent.  The three arts don’t come from a single idea which the dance demonstrates, the music supports and the décor illustrates, but rather they are three separate elements each central to itself” (MC 137).  Early audiences, one should note, found this disjunction especially problematic.  The music—say, by Erik Satie or LaMonte Young, not to mention Cage himself—didn’t seem in sync with the dance movements; simultaneity did not produce any sort of fusion, and the décor—say, Andy Warhol’s silver helium balloons for RainForest (1968)—was, to say the least, puzzling.

A corollary of this separation of powers is that, as Cunningham repeatedly insisted, unlike classical ballet or even unlike a Martha Graham dance piece with its Freudian symbolism, his own composition does not represent something else, whether psychological, literary, or aesthetic.  It merely is—a study of movement related to everyday experience, to daily life (MC 139).  And furthermore, as David Vaughan explains, Merce’s choreography dispenses with conflict and resolution, cause and effect, climax and anti-climax.  The artist is not interested in telling stories or exposing hidden conflicts. Drama arises, not from the narrative, but from “the intensity of the kinetic and theatrical experience onstage.”11 The dancers, in other words, are not “characters”—no Firebird or Sleeping Beauty or Sorcerer, no historical figures or even young lovers:  here they are only dancers.

These features of Cunningham’s style have been discussed again and again:  the dance historian Lynn Garafola, for example, describes the choreography in terms of opposites:  not coercion but choice, not hierarchy but egalitarianism, not self-promotion but sharing, not conformity but freedom.  A Cunningham composition is never linear; one thing does not lead to another. Rather, the domain is one of simultaneity and fluidity.  The break with traditional spatial hierarchies, Garafola posits, means “equality” for the dancer, and “for the spectator, the freedom to choose his [sic] own experience of a dance.12 Indeed, “Open form challenged the privileged role of the choreographer.”13 The dancer is given sufficient leeway to select specific tempo, direction and“whether to do certain movements or not” (MC 150); as for the spectator, “the idea of a single focus to which all adhere is no longer relevant” (MC 140).  Indeed, says Cunningham, “I have in a sense tried to avoid any concern with power and ego, self-expression and all that. . . . We represent anarchy so to speak” (MC 162).

It sounds convincing:  to see RainForest or Roadrunners, Channels/ Inserts or Beach Birds, is to perceive that there is no central focus or storyline, no prima ballerina flanked by a corps de ballet, no symmetry or detectable unifying principle.  But if the dancers are free to introduce their own variations and tempo, if the piece is as non-hierarchical and collaborative as Merce suggests, why has each work (dance and music) been plotted out geometrically and arithmetically? Why have the dancers received so much less acclaim than Cunningham himself, in his role as director /producer /choreographer?  And why has the decision been made that the ensemble will not be able to function without him?  Similar questions can be put about Cage’s work:  is his recorded voice reading Roara- torio essential to the work?  Can a “decentered” Cage Musicircus perform without Cage?

The more we probe such Cunningham-Cage concepts as “free form” or “anarchy,” the more apparent it becomes that theirs is an anarchy that is carefully simulated.  Their works are by no means “happenings,” in Allan Kaprow’s sense of the word, nor is Cunningham producing performance art. As in Duchamp’s case, no “accident” is really accidental, and discipline is central.  Carolyn Brown, who joined Merce’s company at the time of its inception in 1953, and remained one of its key members until she retired in 1972, knew that discipline only too well.  In her memoir Chance and Circumstance (2007), Brown recounts in rich detail her daily life with the company, focusing on the early cross-country trips in Merce’s Volkswagen bus, the subsequent international tours, the choreography of the individual dances, and the contributions of visual artists and composers.  It is clear throughout that Brown admires Cunningham enormously, that she never doubts his genius.  At the same time she regularly snipes at his offstage behavior.  “Though at times he could be genuinely friendly, even courtly in his manner toward his female dancers,” we read early in the book,  “Merce, the man, outside the studio or theater environment, was inaccessible” (Brown 67).  The impression of aloofness and inaccessibility never really changes:  both Cunningham and Cage are obviously fond of Carolyn; they consider her both an excellent dancer and a reliable member of team; but—and there’s the rub—she was never, as she hoped to be, indispensable.  Neither Merce nor John acted the role of Diaghilevian impresario, but the company’s hierarchy was oddly traditional, with the dancers, technically brilliant as they proved themselves to be, subordinated to Cunningham’s (and also Cage’s) vision and blueprint for execution.

Carolyn Brown was aware of this situation, and she found it troubling.  At Black Mountain, she recalls, “although Cage and Cunningham had begun using chance means for composing their works, the final results were still as fixed in their final form as a Beethoven symphony” (Brown 71).   Back in New York in the winter of ‘53-‘54, “This was the first time that it became uncomfortably obvious to me that Merce couldn’t (or didn’t want to) com-municate with his company about future plans. . . .  Did we threaten him?  Make him feel trapped, vulnerable, insecure, afraid?  I’ve never been sure.  What troubled me, when I let myself think about it, was the possibility that his attitude was a manifestation of a lack of respect for us. . . .  It was an unfortunate predicament” (80).

Cage, according to Brown, was different:  “John went to the other extreme:  he was open, frank, ready to reveal his most optimistic utopian schemes and dreams, willing to be a friend to any who sought him out.  He enjoyed being a guru, or just a playmate at chess, Scrabble, word games, or cards.  Most important, he was able to talk to us as a company, and usually he treated us as adults” (Brown 81).  But she later realizes that this natural charm was sometimes more manner than matter—a face to meet the faces that you meet.  Cage had a will of iron and stood behind Cunningham’s every decision; when it came to meeting a particular goal, he was unflagging.  Thus in 1960, when Brown decided she deserved individual billing, Cage stood by while Cunningham embarrassed the dancer in front of the others for wanting special treatment:

Merce’s performance seemed to me to be cowardly—really contemptible

. . . .  I’m not sorry I asked for [billing], only very sorry I had to ask for it. . . . Asking for recognition makes the eventual receipt of it worthless.  Well, he really made it worthless by intimating that I was blackmailing him for it—I was naïve enough to think he would say to the Company that I deserved it.  (Brown 319)

Humiliated, she almost resigned.  Then again, as she realized, “Working with John and Merce was not a career.  It was a way of life—the life I wanted—although I sensed that there would be rough times ahead.”  “The pretense of operating in a kind of quasi-democratic mode” could be irritating indeed.

In 1972, when Brown did decide to quit, Merce was cool:  he made no attempt to dissuade her.  Carolyn lists her reasons:  “I didn’t feel that I was growing as a dancer; I felt Merce was no longer able to see me freshly. . . .  I needed a creative challenge. . . .  Behind all these reasons was the desire for a different life” (Brown 571).  Clearly, Carolyn wanted to be begged to stay, but it didn’t happen.  On the contrary, when, during the annual European tour, Brown got a call offering her a job as program director for dance at the New York State Council on the Arts, the usually equable Cage lost his temper, incredulous that a serious dancer would quit the company to take on such a trivial job (Brown 585-86).   Merce said little:  after Carolyn’s last performance in Paris, he sent round a bottle of champagne.

End of story—at least for Carolyn.  In her brief Postscript, she recalls that some twenty-five years later, in 1998, she finally had a warm reunion with Cunningham following his award ceremony (he won the Légion d’honneur) at the Palais Garnier in Paris.  “So many dancers had come and gone in the forty-five years of the company’s existence!  Merce seemed to accept that stoically:  “Well, everyone must do what they need to do,” he said. . . . “You left, too, but the work has to go on” (Brown, 593).  Meanwhile,  there were “two thousand applauding people, eyes riveted to the stage, honoring Merce the Merciless, Merce the revolutionary, Merce the avant-gardist!”:

What had happened?  Merce hadn’t changed.  He’d never compromised, never sold out.  His devotion to dance had been, still was, absolute, a daily rite, a spiritual discipline.  At seventy-eight, crippled with painful arthritis, still committed to discovery, Merce Cunningham was at the absolute height of his choreographic powers, having prevailed for decades over the most abysmal odds” (594).

Brown could only respond by telling Merce how proud she was to have danced in his company.

“In composition one thing is as important as another thing”?  “There is not one center but life itself is a plurality of centers”?  “Giving up control so that sounds can be sounds”?   Such compositional principles—and they include the chance operations used by both Cage and Cunningham—leave nothing whatsoever to chance.  The principle of “unimpededness and interpenetration” (Silence 46) does not mean that there is no distinction between audience and art work.   When, during his week of performances at Stanford University in 1992, a few months before his totally unanticipated and untimely death, Cage produced one of his well-known Music Circuses, I came to understand that, as T. S. Eliot had put it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Cage’s scheme of things, “the difference between art and the event is always absolute.”14 Some group events with lesser musicians were, as announced, participatory:  the audience was free to bring their own instruments or to play the ones available.  But when Cage himself  performed, it was different. At one point, a woman started to walk down the aisle of Dinkelspiel Auditorium, clicking her very loud, metal-tipped high heels.  She was politely but promptly asked to take off her shoes, even as the parents of a bawling infant, a young couple who had evidently assumed that all noises would be considered equal, were asked to leave.

Some of my colleagues and students reacted angrily to this protocol. Cage, they decided—and this was frequently said of Cunningham as well—had turned out to be just another elitist snob.  Here was everyone purchasing tickets for Cage’s performances and lining up to have the composer autograph their copies of Silence or A Year  from  Monday with the famous  signature that had  become something of a logo:


What had happened to the fabled “death of the author”?

Cage had of course anticipated this critique when he famously quipped, “Permission granted, but not to do whatever you want.”15 Or again “One does not then make just any experiment but does what must be done.  One does something else” (Silence 68).  These words became a mantra for Jasper Johns as well as Cunningham, and Cage was also fond of citing De Kooning’s response to those who asked him what painters had most influenced him:  “The past does not influence me; I influence it” (Silence 67). Again, an echo of Eliot: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them” (Eliot 38).

Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was the one piece of literary criticism cited respectfully by Marcel Duchamp.16 Art, for Duchamp  as for Eliot, had to come to terms with the everyday, but it was always transformative: an ordinary snow shovel purchased at the hardware store and placed in a glass case could become the teasing In Defense of the Broken Arm, even as an ugly replica of a French window could become Fresh Widow.  Consistently reluctant to talk about his private life, much less his personal emotions, Cunningham could have had no difficulty with Eliot’s notion that “the poet has not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways” (Eliot 42).  In Cunningham’s own case, the medium—dance—could draw on highly selected impressions and experiences from a variety of media—music, film, in later years video and digital composition—so as to Make it New.  But the current orthodoxy that such interdisciplinarity marks the breakdown of the High/Low divide of Modernism depends, I think, on a central misunderstanding.

Here the example of Cunningham’s Walkaround Time is apposite.  Both Cunningham and Cage, as well as their associates, were given to insist that there is no real boundary between walking and dancing: one shades into the other.  But in practice complications arose. Here is Cunningham’s account of the 1968 piece’s genesis:

               Walkaround Time is my homage to Marcel Duchamp.  When the idea came up about using The Large Glass for a set, I began to think about Marcel.  I wasn’t going to do something imitative but it was going to be my reactions to him; I didn’t think I could do anything else.  There are many personal references to Marcel in that piece.  There’s one part of the dance where I’m at the back and I change my clothes running in place, because he was so concerned about motion and nudity.  Then I knew the objects that would be on stage would be transparent although I had no idea how big they were going to be, because I never saw them until the day before the performance; but I knew that we could certainly be seen behind them, so I kept that in mind.

Marcel Duchamp had consented to the idea of having a set made from The Large Glass as long as Jasper Johns would be the one who would do all the work. . . . (MC 114)

Johns constructed seven large inflatable vinyl cases with metal frames:  each bore silkscreens reproducing one of the seven major objects in the Large Glass: The Bride, The Milky Way, the Nine Malic Molds, the Chocolate Grinder, Glider, Oculist’s Witness, and Parasols [see figures 1-4]. Because these cases were so large, Cunningham recalls, “they limited very much what one could do in the space; it meant that all of your traffic had to be lateral from one wing to the other.  Two of them were hung from the flies [see figures 1, 2]. Three were placed in fixed positions [see figure 3], being moved only once near the end of the dance. The remaining two objects were relatively small and easily moved [see figure 4]. There were originally eight dancers, and that was never changed.  The music is by David Behrman.  There is a movie of it, made by Charles Atlas” (115).  And Merce recalls that Carolyn Brown, whom he especially had in mind when constructing the dance, did one movement that he had not choreographed:  “She needed it to support herself getting from one complicated balance to the succeeding one.  It came out of necessity.  It was beautiful and expressive” (115).

Yet the very beauty of the Johns sets, with their enigmatic Duchampian images, created a problem.  The title Walkaround Time, Carolyn Brown tells us, “is computer jargon and refers to the ‘walkaround time’—oh so long ago, before high-speed computers blanketed the world—when computer programmers walked about while waiting for their giant room-sized computers to complete their work” (Brown 503).  This suggests that Merce’s original aim was to create an everyday environment, appropriate for the curious sense of calm Marcel exuded in social settings.  But so large and striking were the cases that when Merce and the other seven dancers began by slowly “walking around,” they could barely be seen.  Even when the movements became more elaborate, they had to compete with the images of the chocolate grinder or glider, and there was little space to maneuver.  Further, each performance was to end with the “reassembling” of the Large Glass facsimile from the seven boxes, according to Duchamp’s own instructions.  “It doesn’t work,” wrote the dance critic Arlene Croce, reviewing the opening performance in Buffalo (Brown 503).  “In the end,” Merce recalled in 2005,  “we had to stop doing the piece because the set was being harmed.  It’s at the Walker Arts Centre now. I’m glad people can see it because it’s so beautiful.”17

Various critics have tried to find correspondences between Duchamp’s painting and Cunningham’s dance:  John Mueller, for example, suggested that the dancers of the piece’s entr’acte, which is evidently based on Erik Satie’s Relâche, and presents the dancers as merely lounging around onstage, corresponded to Duchamp’s readymades in their ordinariness.  Again, Cunningham’s solo—jogging in place while stripping from one costume to another—was said to be related to the declared nudity of the “bride” (See Brown 502-03).  But such interpretations sound more appropriate for Martha Graham than for Cunningham and suggest that décor may have overwhelmed dance as well as the music, which, in this case, was  especially striking.

What we learn from this experiment is that Cunningham’s project was never primarily about the fusion of High and Low.  There is plenty of walking around in Walkaround Time, and the entr’acte does give us an image of the dancers as they look and move offstage, although of course that offstage routine is itself carefully staged.  But the overdetermination of specific visual and tactile images seems, in this case, to have worked against the formal abstraction and fluidity of Merce’s own choreography. Form, in other words, is essential to the simulation of “free” movement; the “non-hierarchical” is a created phenomenon.  “As I see it,” wrote Cage in the Foreword to Silence, “poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way or another formalized.  It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words” (x).  Substitute the word “dance” for “poetry” here and you see what Cunningham is usually doing:  a formal play of differences—often infrathin—governs compositional interaction.

Finally—and who could have predicted this in the summer of 1953 when Cunningham and Cage first performed at Black Mountain?—the digital archiving of the company’s entire repertoire, each work to be accompanied by careful documentation and commentary, is obviously placing even greater emphasis on the figure of Merce Cunningham than on the minor players who carry out his carefully planned directions.  In the “non-hierarchy” of his beautiful and brilliant creations, Cunningham is first; Cage, as chief advisor and composer, second; and the other composers like David Tudor and La Monte Young and the visual artists like Rauschenberg and Johns third.  Then come the dancers, presented, not as prima ballerinas or lead soloists, but as successors, given a certain degree of leeway, to what once was the corps de ballet.  And this shift surely does represent a more democratic situation.

Cunningham’s choreography, Cage was fond of saying, was no more “supported” by the accompanying music than “a tree is supported by the breezes that blow through it.”  The Romantic metaphor is charmingly disingenuous:  one thinks of an Aeolian harp, played by whatever wind happens to be blowing, until one reminds oneself that a Cage score—say, the Roaratorio—was anything but random, and that the dance movements could hardly help but relate to it in some form.  But then the Romantics themselves were given to such claims:  when, in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth insisted his poems were written in “a selection of language really used by men,” specifically “rustics,” because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived,”18 he knew perfectly well that no such transcript was in fact possible—or perhaps even desirable.  Nevertheless, his was a poetic revolution because it recognized the need to purge poetry of the Poetic Diction of the late eighteenth century—the “inane and gaudy phraseology,” as Wordsworth called it, whereby birds became the “busy herd,” new spring grass was coyly called “green attire,” and the blue sky, was the “azure realm."

Just so, I believe, Cunningham and Cage had to make the case for·the open field, indeterminacy, and anarchy, so as move beyond the then curiously rigid laws of classical and even modern ballet.· Theirs was, so to speak, a velvet revolution, the very claim for freedom, for letting things be, insuring that, in Stein’s words, “the difference is spreading.”



1 The Dancer and the Dance:  Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (New York and London:  Marion Boyards, (1985), 87. Subsequently cited as MC.

2 John Cage, “Three Asides on the Dance” (1959), in John Cage Writer:  Previously Uncollected Pieces, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York:  Limelight, 1993), 85.

3 John Cage/Klaus Schöning, “Laughtears:  Conversation on Roaratorio,” in John Cage, Roaratorio:  An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (Köningstein:  Athenaum, 1985), 107.

4 Robert Hass (ed.), “A Transatlantic Interview” (1946), in A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein (Santa Barbara, CA:  Black Sparrow, 1976), 16; Stein, Tender Buttons (1914), in Gertrude Stein Writings 1903-1932 (New York:  Library of America, 1998), 344.

5 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), §215.  In one of the conversations in Joan Retallack’s Musicage (Hanover and London:  Wesleyan University Press, 1996), Cage, citing Jasper Johns, says, “This is very much like Wittgenstein. . . ‘We say one thing is not another thing. / Or sometimes we say it is. / Or we say ‘they are the same’” (58).

6 Marcel Duchamp, Notes, presentation and translation by Paul Matisse (Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980; rpt. Boston:  G. K. Hall. 1983), note #32. The notes are reproduced as facsimile scraps, with the French and English print versions at the bottom of the page. Slash marks indicate the end of the line in the handwritten version. The book is unpaginated but the notes are numbered. Cf. Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan with the author (1984; Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 160.

7 For a clip from this performance of Ocean, see

8 Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham:  A Lifetime of Dance, 2000

9 I discuss the 1978 IRCAM production of Roaratorio, which was not originally designed as a dance piece, in my Radical Artifice:  Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1992), 149-61.  See figures 4-7 in this chapter which detail Cage’s instructions.

10 John Cage, “Experimental Music” (1958), in Silence (Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 12.

11 See David Vaughan (the Cunningham company’s archivist), Notes for Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham:  A Lifetime of Dance.

12 Lynn Garafola, Legacies of 20th Century Dance (Middletown:  Wesleyan, 2005), 246.

13 Garafola, 249, my italics.  Cf. Jill Johnston, “Cage and Modern Dance” (1965), in Writings about John Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1993), 334.

14 T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 42.

15 John Cage, “Seriously Comma” (1966), in A Year from Monday (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 28.

16 See my “Duchamp’s Eliot:  The Detours of Tradition and the Persistence of the Individual Talent,” in T. S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, ed. Giovanni Canci and Jason Harding (Cambridge:  Cambridge U Press, 2007), pp. 177-84.  Duchamp’s essay in question, “The Creative Act,” is found in The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet & Elmer Peterson (London:  Thames & Hudson, 1973), 138-40.

17 Cited by Judith Mackrell, “The Joy of Sets,” The Guardian, 6 June 2005, Walkaround Time was later returned to the repertoire, but with facsimiles of Johns’s art pieces.

Photo of Merce Cunningham by James Klosty

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