The Connection of Merce Cunningham and John Cage Chance

You know how random things are always happening to Chance Harper on the Fox TV show Strange Luck? But by the end of the show, all those strange, random happenings connect in one event? I like to think that if Chance were a fan of new art, he'd really like the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Choreography for this patriarch of modern dance and artistic collaborations is often based on chance -- a toss of the I Ching sticks or literally the flipping of a coin, which he sometimes uses to decide the order in which to place his movement fragments. He also employs a certain amount of chance in his trust that the score, sets, and costumes will all blend together in performance, considering that frequently he doesn't hear or see them until final rehearsals. Cunningham, a very young-sounding 76, chuckles over the phone. "It's a little bit like you do something which puts you in some place, then you think, `Okay, now what can happen from here?'"

On January 31, at the Bass Concert Hall, the Cunningham company will present a world premiere, or, as Cunningham likes to say, "a first performance -- it's more direct, isn't it?" The work, titled Tune in/Spin out, will be performed to John Cage's Four6 (the sixth work which Cage composed for four musicians) and will be the first new Cunningham work to a Cage score since the composer passed away in 1992. You would think that after 50 years of these two legends of the avant-garde working together, little would be left to chance in this venture. But though Cunningham has heard Four6 previously, he hasn't heard the version to be used in this performance, one done by company Musical Director Takehisa Kosugi. "I'll hear the music when we rehearse it in Austin for the first time," Cunningham says.

The movement for Tune in/Spin out is structured in two parts, much of which was worked out on a computer choreography program called Life Forms. The first part of Tune in/Spin out is a series of short dances, "then, abruptly, it will become something else." What exactly that something else is, Cunningham will decide when he gets to Austin. "I can't tell because we haven't done it yet. But I'm looking forward to it." Another chuckle.

Although Cunningham movement has a certain classicism and balletic feel to it, it also contains an animal grace and intensity. His technique has always differed drastically from other dance forms. He has always allowed it to evolve organically, and it continues to change in that way. Both the use of computers -- the animated dancers of which can do things real dancers never imagined -- and his own age have sparked an increased interest in hand and arm movement.

Merce Cunningham and John Cage began their partnership with Credo in Us in 1942, while Cunningham was still a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Both men used chance in creating art, which in their early years was a little-known concept. They began collaborating by creating the musical scores and dance steps separately, and by 1961, that idea still seemed pretty strange. Deborah Hay, Austin's own matriarch of modern dance, was there then. "I used to sneak into the balcony just to watch his rehearsals," Hay says. "I never saw anything like it in my life. The dance coming together in complete silence. It was like my mind was blown open. It was like taking drugs -- and I wasn't -- here was this dance going on, but I couldn't see the source of it."

"The principle of that," says Cunningham, "is my not telling the composer what to do. They just know that dancing is going on while the music is being played." What Hay later learned, when she joined the company on a six-month world tour in 1964, was that this kind of "chance" choreography requires meticulous work. "It's very hard to dance when you're counting everything out -- one, two, three, one, two, three -- there's no room to breathe!" Nothing is improvised in Cage's or Cunningham's work, but being open to the possibilities during creation is important, and the method of working stuck with Hay. "I think of John Cage as my mentor," she says. "I use lots of John's methods of chance. It's not a cop-out. It's a way of trusting yourself artistically."

Another local, electronic composer, Bill Meadows, recalls, "I once heard John say he started with a blank piece of paper and drew a music staff on it. Then he examined the page for any imperfections. When he saw one, he drew a musical note there." Cage, a Zen Buddhist whom the New York Times called "the unchallenged father figure of American experimental music," seemed the perfect partner for Cunningham. Here was a choreographer who could use chainés and jetés interchangably with common movements like walking and running, and a musician who once composed a four-minute, 33-second "silent" score. As Cage said in the 1991 film Cage/Cunningham, "Silence is not silence to me, not the absence of sound, but what we call non-musical sound. I actually prefer sound to music... sound constantly surprises me. It never repeats itself." What better composer for a choreographer who was, even in the 1940s, breaking all the rules of traditional dance. And the partnership delighted both men. Cage said, "Professional musicians didn't consider my music music. But dancers did consider it music and what's more they considered it useful, something they could perform in public," or at least something Cunningham dancers could perform in public.

Into this mix fell some of the most famous visual artists of the times. Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenburg, who called it "the most excruciating collaboration, yet the most exciting and real because nobody knew what anybody was doing until it was too late." And yet, somehow, it all came together on stage. Film became an important element, being projected on stage as early as 1954 in Variations V. The concept of choreographing for the camera, something the world found exciting in Cunningham's Points in Space in the Eighties, was actually preceded by Four Walls in 1944. The idea of film appealed to Cunningham, who took to heart Einstein's concept that there are no fixed points in space. And so there was no "front" for Cunningham dancers on stage; front was whichever way they were facing. The Cunningham company was breaking ground, making new art, but it took America a while to catch up. Even in the 1980s, Cunningham was mostly touring Europe. The thought of bringing such an avant-garde company to Austin, Texas -- not just to perform, but to work in the community and create new works -- was a radical idea. But it occurred to one man.

Yacov Sharir, founder and co-artistic director of Sharir Dance Company, speaks matter-of-factly about the unique arrangement now called the Texas Trilogy. "I wanted Austin to be a base for him to create work, not just come in, teach a class, perform, and go. And as a choreographer with my own company working in a community, I felt it was important for the community to appreciate new dance and for my company to rise to that level." Sharir had been introduced to Cunningham during his years in Israel and his own style of working followed similar patterns. "The music comes very, very late in the process. It allows you more freedom to think about the choreography and the inventiveness of the movement material." Sharir also uses Life Forms, although he concentrates more on using the computer animation itself within the performance as opposed to creating the steps and then transferring them to live dancers. It probably seemed natural to him that his fledgling dance company in Texas could present the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham agreed.

In 1989, Sharir Dance Company began an eight-year collaboration with Cunningham Dance Foundation, focusing on three extended residencies in Austin. Two new Cunningham works have come from this: Cargo X and Change of Address. The third and final new work of this process, Tune in/Spin out, will be forever linked to Austin, being first performed here and having been co-commissioned by Sharir Dance Company, Cunningham Dance Foundation, and the UT College of Fine Arts. "Both the Performing Arts Center and the Department of Theatre and Dance have extended a great deal of support, otherwise this would not have been possible," says Sharir. "To have a premiere like this, which usually happens only in Manhattan, is so important. It goes on the record. And the community will be a part of it and be excited by it."

To create that understanding and excitement, Sharir Dance Company and the University have been sponsoring community activities by the Cunningham company, including master classes, open rehearsals, and a video showing of Cage/Cunningham by director Elliot Caplan. Prior to the Wednesday night performance, company archivist David Vaughan will give a talk on "Training the Cunningham Dancer." For those unfamiliar with the Cunningham company -- with the rules of chance, with the original movement and electronic scores -- these can be important aspects to appreciating the work. "It's the only way it can work," says Cunningham. "To have a connection to the people in the community. It's not just our telling them, but their asking questions. You see things come about. For dance, it's much better to see it in the process." And what a process to witness. Dancers working in silence, not hearing the electronic sound and percussive experimental music. But then, this is the company that coined the term "event," the company that has always been on the cutting edge of art and continues to lead dance in new directions.

Still, there will be allusions to the past in the Wednesday night performance at Bass. Even though it's been four years since the death of Cage, the performance will have his indelible mark on it. Besides the new work performed to a Cage score, the other two pieces on the program will speak to the composer's influence. CRWDSPCR will be accompanied by John King's blues 99, which was commissioned in honor of Cage. The breathtaking Ground Level Overlay, premiered last year at City Center in New York, will be performed to Stuart Dempster's Underground Overlays, another composition dedicated to Cage. Says Dempster, "The material for this piece (trombones, a garden hose, and didgeridoo) was recorded in a two-million-gallon former water tank... 70 miles northwest of Seattle, which has now achieved some notoriety since the CD Deep Listening was recorded there in 1988. John Cage was deeply moved by that recording." (The tank, fondly called the Cistern Chapel, has an amazing reverberation time of 45 seconds.) Even though the era of Cage and Cunningham has come to a close (they last worked together on Beach Birds in 1991, the year before Cage died), Cunningham will continue to use his music. "Oh yes, I hope to continue using John's scores, although not right away." One problem is that Cage's last compositions were for larger orchestras and Cunningham currently only tours with four musicians. In the meantime, Cunningham will work with the heirs to Cage's legacy: Dempster, King, and Kosugi, and he will remain on the lookout for other new composers of electronic music.

Currently, there are no plans for the company to return to Austin after this final installment of the Texas Trilogy, which should be incentive enough to get to this performance. But there are the added incentives of seeing a world premiere and having the opportunities both to interact with company members and to meet the man Sharir calls "the world's greatest living choreographer." It would be a shame to take a chance on such a historic event coming our way again.

As for Cunningham, what lies beyond Austin? More choreography. "I enjoy making dances as much as I ever did," he says. "It's not any easier," he chuckles, "but it's lively." n

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform Jan 31, Wed, 8pm, at the Bass Concert Hall on the UT campus.

Marene Gustin is an Austin arts writer and a frequent contributor to the publication Dancer.

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