One of the most influential choreographers of the twentieth century, Merce Cunningham is known for introducing chance to dance, often using the roll of the dice and other “chance” procedures to challenge traditional concepts of dance, the limitations of the stage, and the relationship between dance, music and visual arts. In a career spanning 70 years, he was a dancer, choreographer, writer, teacher, innovator, collaborator and even a film producer.
Far too often, however, accounts of Cunningham’s work have neglected its full scope, focusing on his collaborations with the visionary composer John Cage or insisting that randomness was the singular goal of his choreography.
In her upcoming book, Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary (The University of Chicago Press, 2019), Carrie Noland, professor of French and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine, brings new insight to this transformative artist’s philosophy and work. Noland utilizes a rich and previously unseen archive that includes photographs, film footage, and unpublished writings by Cunningham, as well as personal interviews with his former dancers and collaborators, to expand on and also counter prior understandings of his legacy.
Below Noland discusses her inspiration behind the book and what she hopes readers will ultimately take away from it.
You began your career as a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century French poetry, and over time you’ve turned your research toward performance genres. What brought about this shift?
That’s a great question. But if you look at my first book, Poetry at Stake (Princeton University Press, 1999), you’ll see that I was already writing about performance artists—Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson. I was interested in how poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Blaise Cendrars predicted the movement of the word off the page and onto the stage, into the street, and onto radio waves. Then I started exploring the world of performance poetry in France (sometimes called “Action Poetry” or “Sound Poetry”) as well as Spoken Word and Slam Poetry here in the United States. I realized that I am attracted to crossover genres, the tension between the static page and intonation, dynamics, and especially movement and gesture. So, in part to engage with the theoretical tendencies of deconstruction and social constructivism (both of which de-emphasize the role of individual agency in symbolic practices), I wrote my second book on gesture and movement. This brought me into contact with phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty who discuss “the gestural” as a context-based, unpredictable, but motivated response within social and linguistic constraints. I should note that my third book, Voices of Negritude in Modernist Print (Columbia University Press, 2015), is also a study of the relation between the text and non-textual, “gestural” components of performance. From there, it was a short hop over to dance. I began my book on Merce Cunningham while writing Voices of Negritude in order to provide another kind of case study, a concrete illustration of the theory of the gestural that I had set forth in Agency and Embodiment (Harvard University Press, 2009).
What is your background in dance, theatre and other performance genres?
Before I was born, my mother was an actress. When I was young, she ran a small improvisational theater. In 1969, we moved into the Westbeth Artist Housing in Greenwich Village, and she taught improvisational theatre in the unfinished studio on the 11th floor that became Merce Cunningham’s studio in 1970. I took dance classes from age 7 to 17 at the Martha Graham Studio uptown, but I would sometimes take a Cunningham technique class during high school. I have no theatre experience—other than performing small parts in my mother’s plays—but I was a serious student of dance all the way to age 32, when I had my son, got my first job at Columbia, and had to quit taking technique classes.
How and when did you first discover Merce Cunningham?
Merce was a presence in the building where I grew up. We would see him and John Cage waiting for the elevator in the hallway. Merce did not live in Westbeth—I think he lived with John on Bank Street—but other choreographers did: Edith Stephen, Sally Gross, Ze’eva Cohen, Dudley Williams. It was normal for the kids growing up in the building to take dance classes once in a while on another floor, or learn drawing (with live nude models) from a weekly class in the basement, or study piano with a musician down the hall.
You took dance classes at his studio in high school. What are your memories of those classes? Did you discover something in his technique that sparked your imagination or gave you a different perspective on dance?
For the most part, I think I was just intimidated by the Cunningham dancers. They were like exotic birds—tall, lean, strikingly upright. Sandwiched between them when they crowded into the elevators on their way to class, I felt awe and envy. My body is not appropriate for Cunningham technique; those who excel at it often have a strong ballet background…and no hips. I was more comfortable in classes where we danced to music, such as modern, jazz, and especially Brazilian dance. So, my attraction to Cunningham’s choreography is as a scholar, not as a dancer. I am fascinated by the astringency of his sculptural aesthetic as well as the philosophies that inspire his compositional practices. I resonate to the look and feel of the dances but also admire his innovative spirit. As a student of experimental art forms, I am drawn to him and the artists he worked with—Cage, of course, but also Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Marcel Duchamp.
How did you unearth the previously unseen archive of photographs, film footage and unpublished writings that inform your new book and shed a new light on Cunningham’s work?
Cunningham had a brilliant archivist, David Vaughan, who collected notes, scores, correspondence, programs, videos, films, oral interviews, and so on for at least 50 years. The archive was located on the 2nd floor of Westbeth, so I had easy access to it. Even after the archive was moved to the New York Public Library, the officials of the Merce Cunningham Trust gave me permission to see the materials. In the archive, I found records that very few if any other scholars had ever consulted, and these (especially the workshop notes) enlarged my understanding of his work immeasurably. I was also very fortunate to start my research before a host of other scholars did, and so company members were willing to meet with me.
You were able to interview former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. How did these interviews change or expand your knowledge of his choreographic process?
I had a long and precious interview with Cunningham’s longest and most significant former company member, Carolyn Brown—probably one of the last she gave. I learned a great deal from all these materials and encounters, but the most enlightening experiences were provided by a former Cunningham dancer, Jennifer Goggans, who allowed me to attend the rehearsals for two reconstructions—a workshop performance of Crises (1960) in New York and a professional reconstruction of Winterbranch (1964) at the Opera Ballet of Lyon.
The choreographic process doesn’t end when the actual steps have been chosen. Cunningham devised some of his dances by using chance procedures: he would select a gamut of movements and variables (e.g. how many dancers onstage, whether they touch or not), number the options, then let a random number sequence decide what would be used and in what order. Dice and coins were certainly part of the story. But the rest of the story lies in the decisions made after the coins were tossed. Cunningham always said that if a sequence of (random) steps doesn’t come out as “dancing,” then what’s the point. And “dancing” means allowing for the dynamics and the rhythm, the “kinetic melody” of the phrase, to come alive in the bodies of the dancers. To choreograph a dance means taking into account the specific features of the dancers and the venue involved. That is why it was so valuable for me to interview dancers about their own contributions, their experience during the process of bringing the choreography to the stage. That is why I learned so much from watching how a dance is mounted on a specific set of dancers, all the nuances that must be introduced to transform what is called “realized” movement (the repeated routine of a classroom exercise) into performed movement, or dancing.
There’s been much written about Merce Cunningham. What inspired you to explore his work again and to challenge previously held beliefs (i.e. chance operations were perhaps not his primary compositional technique, randomization of relations was not his primary goal)?
I wouldn’t want to say that randomizing relations wasn’t his “primary goal,” it just wasn’t his only goal. Cunningham cared very deeply about challenging all the givens of the traditional modern dance piece: that it must have a plot or be “about” something; that it must convey identifiable emotions; that it should have a beginning, middle, and end; that there should be one center of attention in a legible stage space; that the dancers should dance to the music; and so on. As you say, many other scholars have already written about these important elements of his aesthetic. But when I studied the archive, I found other preoccupations as well: his interest in gesture, how particular movements performed by particular individuals suggest relationships; his love of theatre and a desire to make his pieces compelling, even dramatic; his soft spot for vaudeville, tap, ballroom, and folk dancing (and the fact that he integrated elements from those “lower” forms into his “high” modernist choreography). What was most surprising to find was how obsessed he was with certain mythic archetypes and narratives—the Fall in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the story of Krishna and the Gopis (or the relation between the teacher and his pupils), the Odyssey, the death of Socrates and narratives of coupling and decoupling.
Your book seems to be saying that Cunningham was not using change operations or “continuities” for avoiding moments of encounter and contact, but rather as devices to incite new configurations or spatial relationships. Can you explain this in a bit more detail?
Yes, I think I found evidence that while he didn’t want to thread a romantic love plot throughout the entire dance, he was still interested in those moments when chance encounters on the stage suggest the germs of a romantic involvement. Chance procedures allowed him to discover these unplanned encounters and configurations as they occurred without his intervention; but chance procedures also allowed him to move quickly from one encounter to the next so that no plot could develop fully. Some of his dances, however, were explicitly meditations on intimate couple relationships. I do not believe he used chance to choreograph the section in Antic Meet (1958) in which two men acrobatically roll about and leap over each other. (This male duet has been interpreted alternatively as a portrait of his playful relationship with his brother and as a veiled homosexual partnering). Chance played a small role, if any, in the choreography of Duets (1980). There are many dances that were composed in part by tossing coins and in part by inventing phrases; many that were composed entirely without the use of chance procedures.
While conducting research for your book, what was your most surprising discovery?
Perhaps this isn’t so much a discovery as a confirmation of my initial intuition that Cunningham was an artist who wanted most of all to keep an open mind, to see things clearly, as they are, in that peculiarly Buddhist way of not wanting them to be different. Yet at the same time, I discovered how often he found himself bound by his own tastes and preferences.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope my readers will see that all experimentalism is conditioned by history, limited by the personality and socialization of the artist as well as by the opportunities available at his/her/their moment. Cage and Cunningham both made decisions and used terms that we might now find unfortunate or objectionable. But within their own time period, they opened more doors than most other artists ever manage to do. It is fascinating to me to witness the evolution of the Merce Cunningham Trust; former dancers are teaching Cunningham technique and compositional methods to students in all walks of life: for instance, at The Wooden Floor, a studio in Santa Ana, a former Cunningham dancer reconstructed the “Irish” dance, Roaratorio (1983) with predominantly Latinx students; the “100 Solos” Centennial performances in New York, London, and Los Angeles engaged dancers of every age and background to re-enact Cunningham’s steps. There is an effort to bring Cunningham into the 21st century that is entirely in keeping with his greatest wish: to keep moving, to change.
Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary publishes in December.
Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI