Root of an Unfocus
© Fionn Meade and Walker Art Center
published in the exhibition catalogue accompanying Merce Cunningham: Common Time
curated by Fionn Meade with Philip Bither, Joan Rothfuss and Mary Coyne

Wherever anything lives, there is, open somewhere,
a register in which time is being inscribed.1
—Henri Bergson

With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances that made up his first solo concert. The performance took place in New York City in 1944, five years after he had moved there from Seattle to dance in the Martha Graham Company and two years into his partnership with composer John Cage. All six dances were prepared in collaboration with musical compositions by Cage, who presented additional works of his own that April evening. For this do-it-yourself affair, Cunningham made his own costumes, Cage designed the program flyers, and both footed the bill to rent the theater. More importantly, this self-acknowledged debut registers on a level beyond being brash and self-starting: it demonstrates just how early the duo’s radical approach to collaboration gained momentum. Unencumbered by expectations of accompaniment, their alliance was driven rather by a principle of simultaneity and independence for dance and music within a shared register. For Cunningham, this moment was the beginning of a career that operated out of a “root of an unfocus” that was based in collaborative work and would stretch over six decades of restive creation. Cunningham later told an interviewer that Root of an Unfocus was made “when I was still concerned with expression. It was about fear.”[2] Even so, the dance marked a crucial turning point for both Cunningham and Cage, as it pivoted around the notion that time, rather than
melody or narrative, should constitute the underlying relationship between dance and music. Having agreed on a durational structure where sound and movement would align only at the transitions between the dance’s three sections, Cunningham and Cage were free to create independently of one another, with their shared aesthetic only fully revealed in the performance itself. The radically deconstructed space and time that began with this work was subsequently inscribed as existing in between dance and music. This root of un- became the inter- that spurred their unprecedented levels of experimentation with dancers, choreographers, composers, filmmakers, and visual artists.

As Cunningham told it to author Calvin Tomkins as early as 1962, the ripple effect implicit in this first work’s title quickly became concentric and widening: The main thing about it—and the thing everybody missed—was that its structure was based on time, in the same sense that a radio show is. It was divided into time units, and the dance and music would come together at the beginning and the end of each unit, but in between they would be independent of each other. This was the beginning of the idea that music and dance could be dissociated, and from this point on the dissociation in our work just got wider and wider.[3] This dissociative experiment would be developed into a praxis that would not only endure but also thrive over nearly six decades of shared work and hundreds of collaborations across disciplines. The “root of an un-” swiftly became a network, circulating what Cunningham would later describe as a shared “history that reflects to me a change or enlargement of the underlying principle … that music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.”[4]

Indeed, “common time” as made operative by Cage and Cunningham is an inter- register in which things are taken apart in order to be reassembled. Borrowing promiscuously in order to discover unforeseen configurations, Cunningham and Cage did not create a pure vocabulary but rather an alongside sensibility that was, as Cunningham put it, independent yet interdependent. They pursued this inter- approach by maintaining autonomy within shared duration, a trajectory that early on crossed from modern into contemporary aesthetics. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College, was the catalytic engine, an unparalleled and unique nexus of collaborative practice oscillating within the frame of choreography that continues to reverberate today. By dismantling hierarchies and conventional boundaries, Cunningham and Cage’s “common time” made possible an expanded field of dance, music, moving
image, and visual art. Their concept can almost be seen as a how-to guide for creating vital new forms rooted in the scenic space of a new common time. This essay looks at key moments on the continuum of a career that engendered hundreds of collaborative works that are, by definition, recombinant in nature. With common time as the core ethos of their work, Cunningham and Cage overturned a succession of conventions during their first decade together, in the process opening up the fertile and nervy ground from which MCDC emerged. With a propulsive imperative that demanded what Cunningham called “a continuing flexibility in the relation of the arts,” their collaboration shape-shifted the landscape of modern art as no other had ever done, creating a nearly cellular approach to composition methods.[5] It was understood from the outset that MCDC could expand but also contract, serving as an inter- platform and fluctuating organism for unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary experimentation. Through its many iterations, the company and its network of collaborators maintained an attitude of openness to change (and changes). Exits and entrances abound. Working within and through common time demands acceleration, deeply focused technique, and a highly adaptive use of version and variation that Cunningham described as ongoing: “We are involved in a process of work and activity, not in a series of finished objects.”[6] Autonomy in collaboration, independence and interdependence: this was not business as usual. Their success derived in no small part from an early mutual acknowledgment of the different skills each brought to their collaborations. Not surprisingly, their experiments began in a studio. In 1938, Cunningham was a second year student at the Cornish School (now the Cornish College of the Arts) in Seattle, and Cage was the new dance accompanist and composer, just arrived from Carmel, California, with his then wife, Xenia. Cage was already beginning to explore “the simultaneous composition of both dance and music,”[7] and it was immediately apparent to both Cunningham and Bonnie Bird, who ran Cornish’s dance department, that Cage was radical and risk-taking. As Bird recalled, “John was marvelously stimulating. The creative work of the students took on a whole new dimension. … I remember his using the floor like a great blackboard, on which he drew; he got the students to recognize time in terms of divisions of time and space, and made visual analogies for them.”[8] Cunningham, too, recalled a wholly immersive “how to” attitude in the classes that Cage taught for Bird when she was traveling. “[It was] a revelation—suddenly there was something very precise and very strict to work with. He simply made us make things. You had to think about it, not just have some feeling about what you were going to do next,
but think about it, and that was an extraordinary experience.”[9]

From early on and throughout the rest of his life, Cage scouted for models, counter-models, and partial methods that would push his composition practice to the edge of possibility. Devising his own great blackboard of experimentation, he studied melody, harmony, counterpoint, and analysis with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles and musical composition with the pioneering “ultra modernist” composer Henry Cowell at the New School for Social Research in New York City.[10] In1930 to1931, after dropping out of college at the age of nineteen, Cage traveled in Europe, where he visited the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany. He was struck by the collaborative crossing of disciplines, mediums, techniques, and technologies that was basic to the school’s pedagogical approach, and by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’s notion that the collective work of art necessarily includes a degree of anonymity.

Just prior to joining the faculty at Cornish, Cage furthered his appetite for rhythmic invention by working as an assistant in the Los Angeles studio of German expatriate artist Oskar Fischinger, a pioneer of animation and visual music. In 1938, within a year of being hired at Cornish, Cage organized concerts of his own works for percussion orchestra. Inspired by Fischinger’s belief that rhythm emanates from all materials, he scored his first work for percussion, First Construction (In Metal) (1939), for an array of unconventional instruments, such as anvils and car brake drums. Even in these early concerts, Cage disrupted conventions of musical composition by allowing rhythmic experimentation to lead the charge.

The preceding prehistory may appear to be a digression, but it is pivotal to understanding the “alongside dynamic” that defines the lifelong orientation of Cage to MCDC, of which he must be considered a co-founding member. In his work, time was privileged over progression and duration became the central frame of experimentation. In 1941, for example, Cage collaborated with fellow composer Lou Harrison on a work entitled Double Music, for which each wrote a part independently and combined them without alteration into the final composition. This simultaneity of independent work extends to the durational method further developed with MCDC, as Cage and Cunningham adopted an approach to collective production inspired by a wide range of sources, from the Bauhaus to their own early studio and concert experiments at Cornish.

Cunningham’s retrospective assessment of Root of an Unfocus, which he acknowledged “still worked with expressive behavior,” benefits from a comparison with two solos created ten years later that, taken together, show the expanding nature of common time over these pivotal early years.11 The differences between them reveal the crucial role “chance operations” (Cage and Cunningham shared the use of this term) played at this time in expanding and focusing the evolution of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary. In Untitled Solo (1953), Cunningham first used the ritual of the coin toss to determine, through chance, the outline for a sequence of isolated movements that could be combined with unexpected results. “[Using chance means] I also began to see that there were all kinds of things that we thought we couldn’t do, and it was obviously not true. … If you try it, a lot of the time you can do it, and even if you can’t, it shows you something you didn’t know before.”[12] Untitled Solo follows Cage’s first use of chance in composing Sixteen Dances (1950–1951), the sound accompaniment for Cunningham’s Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, a breakthrough that Cage saw as moving him outside of inclination, or predetermined creation. As he put it, “I reached the conclusion I could compose according to moves on these charts instead of according to my own taste.”[13] By applying chance operations to the core of their respective compositional practices, Cage and Cunningham moved beyond taste and toward unexpected amplitude, folding time in on itself in the process. For Cage, this move was directly related to his increased use of electronics and the micro- exploration of sound within their collaborations. For his part, Cunningham experimented first on himself, and then on the body of a company. The space between nerve and expanded gesture opened up. In Changeling (1957), the embodied motif of chance concatenation moving against memory and familiarity is taken even further than in Untitled Solo. Ten minutes in length, Cunningham’s performance expresses the dynamic of a “changeling,” a being masquerading as human but with otherworldly presence. The demanding choreography, in which possible movements for head, torso, arms, and legs were determined separately, exemplifies his striking ability as a performer. Broken into isolated phrases only to be remixed via a series of coin tosses, the movements contort in a push-and-pull tension when fit together. Changeling is one of Cunningham’s most enigmatic early solo dances. Capturing an essential dissolution at the heart of acutely observed gesture, it was concerned with what he called “the possibility of containment and explosion being instantaneous.”[14] In just a single sequence, Changeling encapsulated the unique compression central to the elaboration of his choreography as a recombinatory aesthetic. (Indeed, Cunningham would often share with friends that he was convinced he himself was a changeling.)[15]

Recently discovered film footage of the dance, shot during a 1958 European tour by the company, displays Cunningham’s virtuosic technical skill and daring decentralization of the body, a mix that would characterize his style as a solo performer and choreographer from then on. Now free to combine ordinary movement drawn from everyday observation and social behavior with modern and classical dance technique, Cunningham’s choreography embraced a new hybridity and acceleration through a field of wide-ranging quotation fueled by chance operations. Cunningham and Cage’s mutual embrace of chance operations, put in dialogue with Dadaist strategies and concepts borrowed from Zen Buddhism, changed the rules of composition via their joint allowances. The compositional tension and conceptual playfulness that resulted was a back-and-forth gambit that lasted decades, and one that, as both men clearly recognized in the 1950s, required the flexible frame and organism of a company. As Cage would say years later, "It’s entirely because of my close connection through my life with dancers that my music has been used in society.”[16] During MCDC’s first decade, Cunningham embraced the possibility that dance, music, and, increasingly, the art object could exist simultaneously within the pliable nature of common time.

As the technique and rigor of Cunningham’s choreography intensified, so did the level of his experimentation. His training in ballet and modern dance mixed with his direct experience of a grab bag of American vernacular dance forms from vaudeville, dance hall, soft-shoe, solo dances from the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, and beyond. Just as he disrupted hierarchies among dance styles early on, his company further jettisoned conventional understandings of décor and the musical score as backdrop and accompaniment. Stage space was decentered in favor of a simultaneity that maintains music, dance, and décor in a precarious proximity that nevertheless refuses to integrate. Each discipline operates uneasily beside the other.

During three formative summers at Black Mountain College in 1948, 1952, and 1953, Cage and Cunningham were exposed to an impressive array of artists, composers, designers, architects, and writers and experienced a flurry of approaches to radical pedagogy. Embracing an evolving praxis, Cunningham began to offer regular classes in dance technique in New York in 1951, while Cage taught musical composition at the New School of Research for four years beginning in 1956. Through their distinctive “how to” experimental pedagogies, Cage and Cunningham played an increasingly pivotal role in the burgeoning downtown New York art scene, directly influencing the most risk-taking and influential art movements of the era, from Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater to Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), as well as a remarkable group of the next generation of innovators, including George Brecht, Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn, Deborah Hay, Takehisa Kosugi, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. But nowhere was this ever-widening influence more profound than within the company itself.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed by Cunningham after an exhilarating summer at Black Mountain College in 1953. He had brought to that session a group of young dancers who had been studying with him off and on in New York; among them was Carolyn Brown, who would be his principal dancer for more than fifteen years. The founding of the company happened a year on from the previous summer session at Black Mountain, during which Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, or “Theater Event #1,” as Cunningham referred to it, had taken place. Cunningham described this now infamous and influential piece rather nonchalantly: “The audience was seated in the middle unable to see everything that was happening. There was a dog that chased me around the arena. Nothing was intended to be other than it was, a complexity of events the spectator could deal with as each chose.”[17]

Reflecting as it does an increasingly important expectation of the spectator to “unfocus” their attention to the work and learn to follow simultaneity itself, the pedagogical stakes were heightened, plentiful, and in motion at the time the company was formed. Indeed, many of Cage’s students at the New School recalled that they received and rejected his teaching in equal measure, which was exactly the responsive quality that he looked to instill through his teaching. Cage’s radical acceptance of incident and duration, along with a multilayered use of chance, cultivated what he described as “response ability” in the active listener.[18] To cultivate response ability is not to court followers to a method but to spur new levels of acceptance and residual impact, something that both Cage and Cunningham lived by in their pedagogical approaches. Cunningham’s students and company dancers alike worked through and off of the demands of his approach. As Yvonne Rainer wrote in a third-person passage recounting her experience working and studying with Cunningham, this could be both exhilarating and limiting: “‘You must love the daily work,’ he would say. She loved him for saying that, for that was one prospect that thrilled her about dancing—the daily involvement that filled up the body and the mind with an exhaustion and completion that left little room for anything else. Beside that exhaustion, opinion paled. And beside that sense of completion, ambition had to be especially tenacious. But while absorbing the spirit of his genius she fought its letter.”[19] This tension between Cunningham, the demands of his technique, and the rigorous level of challenge that members of his company regularly remark upon is no doubt part of what led so many dancers who were talented choreographers in their own right to work with MCDC over the years. The list includes Rainer but also Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton, key participants in the Judson Dance Theater (1962–1964), which brought its own radical questioning to the legacy of Western dance.

Even as any historic consideration of the use of everyday observed gesture or task-based movement (as Judson collaborators would describe it) has to begin with Merce Cunningham’s experiments, it was clear to Cunningham himself that the terrain of common time within choreographic inquiry required demanding and expansive training with inter- forms. As he reflected on the period, he contrasted his own trajectory with that of the Judson Dance Theater: “It all struck me as very limited. The instant they attempted something outside that, it didn’t work because they didn’t have the training. I was always interested in all kinds of movement. They said no to this and no to that, and my idea was to say yes—not to be fixed but to be flexible and open.”[20] His own path, by contrast, had been a polymorphous and constantly shifting path of acceleration and increased amplitude. Cunningham’s permissive yet rigorous style was not lost on the younger collaborators who joined MCDC, including the company’s first art director, Robert Rauschenberg. Minutiae (1954), Rauschenberg’s first collaboration with Cunningham, initiated a fertile decade of work together that would continue through MCDC’s 1964 world tour. Rauschenberg’s décor for Minutiae, which is considered his first Combine, premiered in the dance weeks ahead of his exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York City, a solo sho that featured a group of so-called Red Paintings and important early Combines such as Charlene (1954). In his invitation to Rauschenberg to participate in the company by making something for the “dance area” of what was then an unfinished piece of choreography, Cunningham gave the younger painter scant direction, noting only that it might be something with passages, and that “we could move through it, around it, and with it if he so liked.”[21]

Years later, when further describing the highly independent collaborative work of Minutiae to Calvin Tomkins, Cunningham remembered the collaboration with charming matter-of-factness: Bob had made a very beautiful object that hung from the ceiling, with ribbons trailing from it. I knew right away it wouldn’t do because it couldn’t be installed in the sorts of places we performed in then— college auditoriums where there were no flies to hang anything from. Bob understood at once. He’s always been completely practical in his work with us. He said he’d do something else, and what he did the second time was really wonderful. It was a freestanding construction in two sections, so the dancers could go in between them, and there was a lot of collage. I loved it because you couldn’t say just what it was. One critic, after the first performance of the piece, complained for this reason. She said she didn’t know whether it was supposed to be a bathhouse at the beach or a fortune-teller’s booth, or what. That was just what I liked about it.[22] The décor was small and mobile enough that it could be deconstructed and carried with the company in John Cage’s Volkswagen bus, the chief method of transportation for the young company at the time Minutiae’s choreography, meanwhile, was made of complex and detailed chance-derived sequencing, inspired by the small, short, abrupt movements Cunningham observed in people walking the streets of New York, while the accompanying music was an existing work by Cage, Music for Piano1–20 (1952/1953). Pleased with the collaboration, Cage and Cunningham invited Rauschenberg to join the company as its first art director, expanding the common time of the company to a triangulated form that would continue from then on. Cunningham recounted this turning point succinctly: “So there were now three elements, the movement, the sound, and a visual action.”[23] The full network was now up and running, neatly captured in a Cage aphorism that could read as a motto for the company: “Time… is what we and sounds happen in. Whether early or late: in it. It is not a question of counting.”[24] At the onset of the 1960s, MCDC found an increasingly global reach as it performed in a variety of international settings and incorporated a wider range of collaborators and dancers within the core of the company. With an ever-refined mobility and provisional acuity in regard to flexible set, costume, and sound design, the company continued to push the boundaries of stage space.

At the same time, Cunningham experimented with site-specific presentations in which he collaged excerpts from past works with unique and in-process movement passages. Variations on evening-length pieces, these collage works were also a testing ground for new work. Events, as he called them, were first presented publicly in 1964. MCDC would use this groundbreaking format for the next fifty years, versioning hundreds of variations on MCDC repertory works. When an Event was performed, Cunningham would often include the following program note as an introduction to the format: “Presented without intermission, this Event consists of complete dances, excerpts of dances from the repertory, and often new sequences arranged for particular performance and place, with the possibility of several separate activities happening at the same time—to allow not so much [for] an evening of dances as the experience of dance.”[25] As the company continued to both enlarge and nuance its compositional devices, it took part in a pivotal 1964 world tour to thirty cities in thirteen countries, in Western and Eastern Europe and Asia. Through this tour and many subsequent ones like it, Cage and Cunningham expanded the internationalist brand of MCDC while exposing collaborating artists to a larger context. That this corresponds with the growing international presence of American art during the same period is significant, as Cage, Cunningham, and MCDC developed a capacity to frame and reframe their work within a recombinatory aesthetic that Robert Rauschenberg likened to entering “a labyrinth with no exits.”[26] Even as the term “Pop art” helped introduce artists like Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to a rapidly expanding international audience, it was exposure to Cage and Cunningham in the 1950s that left an indelible trace on many of the central figures of European and Asian postwar art. Even as Rauschenberg’s reputation continued to rise like a comet over the coming years, it was for the performances of MCDC’s Story (1963) during the 1964 tour that his last Combines were made. He created a different one for every presentation of the dance, each indeterminate in nature, with a
changeable order, and meant to be dismantled after the performance. The last one he made was excerpted and saved after MCDC’s London engagement.

A sampling of the list of collaborators and works produced for MCDC during this period speaks to the impressive expansion within the company’s landscape of the “visual action” that Cunningham first attributed to Rauschenberg and then circulated into an expanding network of visual artists. From the latter’s Summerspace (1958), Antic Meet (1958), and Travelogue (1977) to Jasper Johns’s Walkaround Time (1968) and Second Hand (1970) as well Frank Stella’s Scramble (1967), Bruce Nauman’s Tread (1970), Robert Morris’s Canfield (1969), Morris Graves’s Inlets (1977), and Andy Warhol’s RainForest (1968), MCDC’s imprint on the era was profound. The company’s work with visual arts collaborators was singular and timely, as Cunningham repeatedly worked with artists at formative moments in their practices. Describing the impact of MCDC upon his work, Rauschenberg said: “Traveling with Merce and John was the most constructive time in my life. There was a carte blanche trust, independence was to be respected.”[27] Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that the artistic evolution of common time shifted the postwar American landscape of the visual arts by creating an alternative inter- space of experimentation within the common time of collaboration and travel that allowed for a dismantled theatricality of stage space to play an increasing role in the vanguard of American art. In its sustained impact and level of activity, the MCDC model is unique to the era.

The importance of Rauschenberg’s 1954 commission to produce décor for Minutiae has already been discussed. Later, during Johns’s tenure as artistic director from 1965 to 1979, MCDC enlisted many other artists at key moments in their artistic development. For example, Stella’s work on décor and costumes for Scramble allowed him to develop on a large, three-dimensional scale the motifs that would recur in his later shaped paintings. Likewise, breakthrough works from Nauman, including Two Fans Corridor and Green Light Corridor (both 1970), were created in the same year as his collaboration with MCDC on Tread. Thus, Johns’s curatorial redirection of the underlying principle of common time made concentric the direct dialogue and impact that MCDC’s work had on an expanded understanding of sculpture and installation during these years. This choreographic turn within contemporary sculpture and installation practice is a major story in itself that deserves to be explored to a much greater degree art historically; it will be considered here, however, through a closer look at Cunningham’s Tread. Just over twenty minutes in length, Tread packs a potent mix of comic and bracing turns laced with subtle shifts in Cunningham’s choreographic approach. Along with other works from this period, notably Second Hand, it marks the beginning of his move to gradually limit his role as a performer and set his work squarely on the company. In this way, he was simultaneously in control of the dance yet outside it, equal parts inciter/ agitator and cool observer.

This shift is illuminated by a close reading of Tread, which was documented in a 1970 film directed by Richard Leacock.[28] The dance begins with a pause, a casual moment of waiting in which the ten dancers, scattered across the stage, sit in rehearsal-like poses, arms hugging legs, as if observing something closely, perhaps a demonstration. The piece springs to life as two of them make the sudden shift from distraction into focus by popping up and into a series of spins. The ensuing choreography is packed with stops and starts, inversions, interruptions, redirections, reversals, and exits and entrances. The dancers seem to be playing a game with strange rules. Isolated statuesque poses are held at intervals, introducing pauses in the fast-paced action during which other dancers arrive and observe. These holds represent compressed moments of redirection that allow the dancers to manipulate, move through, or join the pose, ahead of the next group flurry. Nauman’s incisive décor was composed of ten industrial standing fans, one per dancing body, arranged in a straight line across the front edge of the stage. All of them blew toward the audience, five of them oscillating and five stationary. The fans furthered the theme of circulation and relay even as they created multiple apertures—or, depending on one’s vantage point, obstacles—through which to watch the action unfold. This screenlike motif would be explored in many subsequent Cunningham works. Nauman’s décor had particular importance for one key passage in Tread. Cunningham sneaks close to a rapidly twirling Carolyn Brown and puts his hands on her waist, signaling the end of her rotation and the transition into the next sequence. Building on the metaphor of cylindrical movement and excess energy embodied by the fans, Cunningham pulls Brown’s arms behind her as she attempts a series of leaps and lunges around the central area of the stage, with Cunningham in tow. He eventually releases her arms and backs away, his jesterlike legs splayed as he jogs in place. Brown then begins the central solo of Tread, crossing time and time again with mechanical grace into a pool of light behind the fans. Toward the end of the dance, the group finds itself downstage close to the fans, twisting and turning into a singular body that is intertwined as if on a vine or circuit board. Arguably a minor work from a fertile period in Cunningham’s career, Tread nevertheless marked a critical turning point for the company. It was within this dance that the principle of “containment and explosion” became a choreographic hinge that allowed Cunningham to retreat from his role as MCDC’s lead performer while he tested the tension and all-over possibilities of the company’s collective body. The virtuosic bursts and combustive compression so central to his own movement moved gradually yet resolutely from Cunningham’s body to that of the company. This counterpoint of stillness and rapid bursts of energy became the circuitry of MCDC. As New York Times critic Clive Barnes noted in a review of Tread’s premiere, Cunningham’s dances “surge rather than flow,” as the visible stillness of an unmoving figure acts as a transistor or relay to what can only be described as controlled frenzy.[29]

Despite its abundant humor and frolicsome, gamelike movement, Tread revealed a loss of contact with the ecstatic in dance, which until then had driven Cunningham’s pleasure and confrontation with his art form. As always, he was incisive in observing his own tendencies. Writing in regard to one of his darkest works, Winterbranch (1964), he reflected in quasi- poetic form on confronting this dynamic in his work: I asked Robert Rauschenberg to think of the light as though it were night instead of day. I don’t mean night as referred to in romantic pieces, but night as it is in our time with automobiles on highways, and flashlights in faces, and the eyes being deceived about shapes by the way light

IN ME…[30]

His gradual transition from featured solo performer to leader of a company body coincided with the loss of his close working relationship with Carolyn Brown, who had long been his principal dancer, regular duet partner, and partial muse.31 In the years after Brown’s 1972 departure from the company, Cunningham explored new working methods, making dances for camera and experimenting with computer-based notational technologies. Both moves finalized the turn toward an aesthetic of dispersion within the company’s body that would become the hallmark of MCDC. Although he had embraced and nurtured the intercapacity of technology from early in his career, technology increasingly drove the experimental charge of the choreography. From a signature early work such as Variations V (1965), in which sound was triggered by the dancers’ movements and altered or delayed by the musicians onstage, to David Tudor’s groundbreaking electronic score for RainForest (1968), and later to BIPED (1999), which explored live motion-capture animation and mixing techniques, Cunningham’s application of technology ranged wide.

Further experiments with crosscutting and live video looping abound in the company’s later decades. Many of them were made in collaboration with filmmaker and media artist Charles Atlas, including Fractions I (1977), which morphed from a “filmdance” (Cunningham’s phrase) to stage work, and Channels/Inserts (1982), which was made exclusively for camera. Cunningham’s work with Atlas marks another critical collaborative moment in which new technologies and scenographic partnerships across disciplines were constantly in dialogue. Cunningham continued his restless explorations for the rest of his life, pioneering the use of DanceForms (an animated choreographic notational software) and working with a range of interdisciplinary artists, including sculptor Ernesto Neto and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo.

The “visual actions” made during MCDC’s later years map another major chapter in the arc of its history that is still waiting to be fully explored. The work from this period captures the tension between Cunningham’s deep appreciation for movement observed in nature and his longstanding interest in movement pushed into abstract structural forms aided by new technologies. The friction between these inclinations is palpable in this later era and follows from Cunningham’s own receding role as a primary performer and active coercive factor in the roiling center of his own choreography. But Cunningham’s continual push to keep time open, in all its vital bursts and dark inevitability, was his existential constant from the outset of his career to the closing gestures of his work. One is reminded of theorist Gilles Deleuze’s notion that cinema and filmic time have the metaphysic potential to upend the set configurations of empirically measured time. “There are, finally, time-images, that is, duration-images, change-images, relation-images, volume-images which are beyond movement itself,” he wrote. [32] Deleuze could have been describing the impact of common time as explored by MCDC. As previously noted, Robert Rauschenberg described working with Cage and Cunningham as akin to entering a labyrinth with no single exit. Rather, their practice existed in a subterranean “common time” replete with returns to and borrowings from former work, recombined fragments of multiple works, and, always, a concatenation of time that remains open to change. In the last collaborative work of their long partnership, Cage and Cunningham transported the labyrinth to the ultimate nexus known on earth, the ocean. Originally conceived in 1991, the year before Cage’s death, Ocean was awesome in scale, designed to exist in the round with a concentric structure, one that demanded a new scale of “response ability” for performer and spectator alike. Designed for up to fifteen dancers and 150 musicians, Ocean was not realized until1994, taking on a commemorative layer when a commission for performances in Brussels and Amsterdam brought this final collaboration fully alive. Concentrically layered, the work positions the audience around a circular stage and the musicians around the audience. Creating a sensation of swell and pull, Ocean suggests that what lies behind and beyond is as present as what holds the center, and reminds us that common time—indeed, time itself— is vast and unfixed. A 2008 production by the Walker Art Center staged Ocean in a granite quarry forty miles north of Minneapolis, taking the swift currents of this monumental work into deep geological time. In Ocean’s final passage, as documented in a film by Charles Atlas, the company moves fervently yet intently, without a center, as if returned to the ocean’s buffeting tides. [33] The open stance that takes over their bodies is wide, like an X, as if Cunningham had translated and reassembled the tendu à la seconde effacé into an organic, cellular proto-form. This final, fractured movement in the round opens up Cunningham’s own observation that Ocean animated “not flat space, but curved” space. [34] And though chance operations had determined where each dancer faced in the final sequence of choreographic phrasing, the open X eerily recalls the solo that Cunningham had performed in Second Hand, itself a reprise of one of his earliest solos, Idyllic Song (1944).[35] The positioning of that solo within Second Hand, a work done in collaboration with John Cage and Jasper Johns, had forced a circular motion on the company. Cunningham recalled: “I began the movement standing alone at the back of the stage, and the dancers gradually entered and throughout the dance we made this spiraling circle before the final exit of the dancers leaving me on the stage alone. The circle is in no sense explicit. Dancers break off and move in different directions as the dance continues, but the diffused circular pattern is present.”[36] This affinity mixed with distance, or contact within dissolution, is also present in the oceanic feeling embedded within Cage and Cunningham’s final collaboration. It is what philosopher Henri Bergson describes as the balance and constant shuttling between isolation and joining: “A part is no sooner detached than it tends to reunite itself, if not to all the rest, at least to what is nearest to it. Hence, throughout the whole realm of life, a balancing between individuation and association.”[37] Indeed, there is a cell-like embrace of form at the end of Ocean, as if life reduced to its essence has been returned to the origin. The body of each dancer is splayed wide like an X as they uneasily intermingle, seeking and circling in a controlled frenzy, without a fixed center. It is a packed and fervid way to end a lifelong collaboration, and one that is unfinished in a profound way. The acceptance of common time within this final collaborative work evokes poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s call to know “your own most intense vibration,” and suggests that we each seek to make vital the common time that Merce Cunningham so daringly held open throughout his life.

Be—and yet know the great void where all things begin, the infinite source of your own most intense vibration, so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent. To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums, joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count. [38]

-- Fionn Meade

[1] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Henry Holt, 1911), 17.
[2] Merce Cunningham and Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance (Boyars, 1985), 79.
[3] Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde: Duchamp, Tinguely, Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 245.
[4] Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1992), 138.
[5]. ibid.
[6]. ibid.
[7]. John Cage, “Goal: New Music, New Dance” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 88.
[8] David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, ed. Melissa Harris (New York:Aperture, 1997), 17.
[9] ibid
[10] Carolyn Oja, Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 193.
[11] Merce Cunningham, quoted in Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.
[12] Cunningham and Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, 81.
[13] Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 105.
[14] Merce Cunningham, quoted in David Vaughan, “Changeling,” Dance Capsules, capid=46042.
[15] Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 102.
[16] John Cage, in Marie Cieri, “Chance Conversations: An Interview with Merce Cunningham and John Cage,” April 6, 1981, Walker Channel video, 32:05 min., an-interview-with-merce.
[17] Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Kostelanetz, Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, 139.
[18] Branden W. Joseph “Chance, Indeterminacy, Multiplicity,” in The Anarchy of Silence, ed. Julia Robinson (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2009), 228.
[19] Yvonne Rainer, “This Is the Story of a Man Who…” in Merce Cunningham, ed. Germano Celant (Milan: Charta, 1999), 126–127.
[20] Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.
[21] Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.
[22] Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Deckle Edge, 2005), 93–94.
[23] Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.
[24] John Cage, “45' for a Speaker,” in John Cage, Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 151.
[25] Merce Cunningham, quoted in “Museum Event No. 1 (Events),” Merce Cunningham
Trust website, /dancedetail/params/work_ID/84/. Cunningham’s note was most likely written in the mid-1970s.
[26] Robert Rauschenberg to unknown recipient, November 8, 1992, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York.
[27] Robert Rauschenberg, quoted in The Collaborators: Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg, film on HD video, produced by KETC-TV Public Television, St. Louis (1983).
[28] Richard Leacock, a pioneer of direct cinema, or cinema verité, was one of a number of remarkable filmmakers to work with Cunningham during this period.
[29] Clive Barnes, “Dance: New Cunningham,” New York Times, January 6, 1970.
[30] Merce Cunningham, Changes: Notes on Choreography, ed. Frances Starr (New York: Something Else Press, 1968), unpaginated.
[31] An original member and remarkable presence within MCDC, Carolyn Brown chose to leave the company in 1972 after twenty years of close collaboration with Cunningham.
[32] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 11.
[33] Charles Atlas, Ocean (2010), HD video (color, sound), 100:26 min.
[34] Merce Cunningham, quoted in “Ocean,” Merce Cunningham Trust News (blog) n.d.,
[35] The music for Idyllic Song was the first movement of Socrate (1917–1918) by Erik Satie, who was unquestionably the most significant influence upon John Cage and a source to which he returned countless times over his career.
[36] Cunningham and Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, 89.
37 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, 258–259.
38 Rainer Maria Rilke, “Sonnets to Orpheus, II:13,” in Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. A. Poulin, Jr.
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 163.

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated