Four Events that Have Led to Large Discoveries (About Merce Cunningham)
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Cunningham Centennial

Four Events that Have Led to Large Discoveries (About Merce Cunningham)

Composite image: Merce Cunningham with Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, décor from RainForest (1968), Buffalo State College, State University of New York, 1968. Photo: Oscar Bailey, courtesy Susan Stickney Bailey (interior). Emma Desjardins in Beacon Event (Serra Galleries), Dia: Beacon, New York, July 2008. Photo: Anna Finke, courtesy Anna Finke (exterior)

“What was it about Cunningham that made him stand out so,” asks art historian Douglas Crimp in his essay for the catalogue accompanying the 2017 Walker exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time. “I suppose you could say this about all the great modern dancers, but I saw it only in him: the dance movement he made—whatever its diverse sources in ballet and modern technique, observation of people in the streets and animals in nature, chance operations, pure invention—was uniquely suited to his own body, and he was its finest exponent.” Joining in a worldwide centennial celebration of choreographer/dancer Merce Cunningham’s birth—born on this day in 1919—we share Crimp’s essay online for the first time as a testament to Cunningham’s influence, innovation, and iconoclasm.


Merce Cunningham and his company were my first experience of concert dance—well, almost. I have a friend who was impresario Sol Hurok’s private secretary in the 1960s. Hurok always held in reserve a few prime seats for whatever performer or company he brought to New York, in case someone really important might need tickets at the last minute. On occasion, when no such important person appeared—as indeed happened one time in 1968 or 1969—my friend called to say, “If you can get to the Met quickly, you can have an eighth-row-center orchestra seat for the Royal Ballet with Fonteyn and Nureyev.” Knowing nothing of ballet, I didn’t fully appreciate what I saw. By contrast, when I first encountered Cunningham at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 1970, I was smitten. I loved everything about it. I went one night and then went again, and then again the next season and the next.

How to account for why I was immediately captivated by Cunningham’s dances? I once thought it was thanks to the sets, designed by artists whose work interested me. In those BAM seasons I saw, among other dances, Tread, Canfield, Scramble, RainForest, and Walkaround Time, with stage designs by, respectively, Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns (after Marcel Duchamp). I was seeing Minimalist and Post-Minimalist art in galleries at the time, and of course I knew Warhol’s and
Johns’s work. And, unlikely as it may seem, I had written an undergraduate term paper on Duchamp’s Large Glass, the model for Johns’s Walkaround Time set. The assumption that it was the sets doesn’t, however, jibe with what I remember as the thrill of seeing Cunningham. What moved me was the dancing, so much so that I wanted to be a dancer. Fat chance—becoming a dancer at the age of twenty-six! But I seriously thought at least momentarily of taking Cunningham classes. The friend who invited me along to see Cunningham was the daughter of an artist who taught at Black Mountain College, and she had known him since the early 1950s and taken his classes as a teenager with Carolyn Brown.

Of course, what I remember of those first experiences is little more than the enthusiasm I felt, not much specific about the dances. Here’s what I do remember: first, Cunningham himself, the way he stood out from the rest. No one else had anywhere near his charisma, even though there were extraordinary dancers working with him then, especially the women, each with a distinctive personality—Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber (who returned to the company to dance Crises), Valda Setterfield, and the much younger Meg Harper. What was it about Cunningham that made him stand out so? I suppose you could say this about all the great modern dancers, but I saw it only in him: the dance movement he made—whatever its diverse sources in ballet and modern technique, observation of people in the streets and animals in nature, chance operations, pure invention—was uniquely suited to his own body, and he was its finest exponent. Cunningham appreciated each of his dancers’ unique physiognomies and personalities, but while he was still able to dance well—he was fifty when I first saw him, and he danced very well indeed—his own idiosyncratic physiognomy and personality were the movement’s true source. Of course, it was also the case that he made roles for himself that distinguished him from the rest.

Second, the conviviality of the occasions. In 1970 the critics were still not fully accepting of Cunningham’s choreography, much less of John Cage and his colleagues’ music, but the audiences seemed to love it all as much as I did. I remember two things particularly: the delight at Cage and David Vaughan sitting at a table downstage left in How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run, sipping champagne, and reading stories from Cage’s lecture “Indeterminacy” at varying speeds so as to make each one exactly a minute long; and the entr’acte of Walkaround Time, during which about half the audience decided to take a break and head for the lobby while the other half stayed in the auditorium to watch the dancers taking their own break onstage; in both cases, everyone moved about, chatted, and enjoyed themselves.

Third, the wonderful titles, especially those two. Where I grew up, there was no such thing as concert dance. Even though Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is slightly larger than Centralia, Washington, there was no Maude Barrett and her School of Dance in Coeur d’Alene; there was only football and basketball. Organized sports had been the bane of my existence as a kid; with How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run I felt that I was seeing their polar opposite. It wasn’t aggressive and competitive; it was friendly and communal, yet it was clearly athletic and showed off attractive bodies. And Walkaround Time: I knew nothing of computers in 1970, so I didn’t know what it referred to—“YOU FEED THE computer information then you have to wait while it digests. There’s some argument as to whether the computer is walking around or those who are waiting1—but it resonated. So did others that were just wonderfully simple: Place, Scramble, Tread, Signals.

Charles Atlas, Walkaround Time (with Sandra Neels), 1972 (still), video (color, sound), 48 min. ©Charles Atlas, courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Fourth, the fact that the dances didn’t have endings; they simply ended when the curtain came down or when the dancers left the stage. I don’t know why that struck me so then, but I know now that it is telling about the open structure of Cunningham’s dances and their radical antinarrativity. (It would have been around this time that I first saw Andy Warhol’s My Hustler; writing about it a few years ago in my book on Warhol’s films, I said, “It is one of the signal achievements of Warhol’s cinema that it resists denouements. Warhol’s films don’t have happy endings. They don’t have endings at all. They just end.”2 That, by the way, is how I ended the chapter.)

All in all, what I remember is not much. But thanks especially to the Dance Capsules assembled by the Merce Cunningham Trust, I can reconstruct and say something more about Cunningham and his company when I first saw them.

I’ll start with How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run. The Dance Capsule contains a performance video from 1968 shot at Buffalo State College in New York. As
soon as the curtain goes up, Cunningham dances a brisk solo in which he propels himself into rapid-fire turns by either winding one arm like a propeller or spreading both arms, then darts and skitters back and forth downstage and up, left and right, with every part of his body moving every which way as if it had no need of coordination with any other part. He hops, jumps, runs, and turns; his head tilts up and down, right and left; he opens his arms, draws them back in, rounds them; his hands and working foot flex and flutter. He’s the most coordinated uncoordinated human being you’ve ever seen—Edwin Denby wrote admiringly of Cunningham’s “sense of where the body feels able to move and finding the place in which the body can move in any direction at any speed, without hesitation, without stammering.”3 The solo quickly comes to an end, but it reappears throughout the dance. (Can we say for sure it’s the same solo?)

When Albert Reid and Jeff Slayton replace Cunningham onstage, they also move swiftly, changing directions almost before you’ve managed to grasp where they’re heading. They briefly dance a male-male duet, each supporting the other in arabesque on half-toe. But the impossibly disarticulated quality of Cunningham’s movement is missing from theirs. Not that they’re not wholly wonderful, but what they do is more what we might expect of dancing bodies. Other dancers arrive. Meg Harper and Sandra Neels press each other’s hands above their heads and run in circles, kicking their feet behind them. Reid, Slayton, Gus Solomons jr, and Barbara Lloyd Dilley hold Carolyn Brown aloft, then lower her to her feet. Whatever any of them do, it looks like fun—fun and games. The movement of How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run is often described as sportive but without references to any actual sport. I want to push the distinction a bit. I find it sportive not in the sense of pertaining to sports but in the sense of frolic. And anyway you wouldn’t call all of the movement sportive. There are long adagio passages throughout that are neither like games nor frolicsome. For example, moving from upstage left to downstage right, Carolyn Brown executes an extended series of développés, rising on half-toe as she reaches the peak of each one. Eventually she’s joined by Barbara Lloyd Dilley and Sandra Neels, also performing développés, whereupon Brown begins a series of slow backward falls, the last of which lands her on a crouching Cunningham. Soon enough he’s back to his solo.

How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run, 1968 (still), directed by Roger Englander, filmed at Upton Auditorium, Buffalo State College, State University of New York, March 8, 1968. Photo courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust

Halfway through How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run, Cunningham and Brown dance a gorgeous pas de deux in which they mirror each other with repeated développés to the front, side, and back. Brown describes it in her memoir, Chance and Circumstance:

Then the phrase slowed down incrementally as he joined me doing the same movements, except that when I extended my leg back in low arabesque, arching my back away from him, he extended his to fourth front, curving his torso toward me, and vice versa. All the while, our opposing arms curved front, side, back, as if to stroke and embrace our partner. Sensuality, tenderness—that’s what I felt when Merce and I performed it. But when coaching the superb 2002 company in How to … , I couldn’t understand why the movement itself did not tell the couples this. The moment looked wooden, unfelt, mechanical. So, contrary to protocol, i.e., refusing to talk about such things, I risked spelling out what I believed was taking place: “Whatever your attitude may be in real life toward the person who is your dancing partner, at this moment you are in love with him or her, and if this doesn’t ‘read,’ then this section simply doesn’t work.” Merce chuckled. Nodding in agreement, he let me get away with it.4

What then to make of the fact that the two continue with the same movements as they move apart from each other, with Brown eventually leaving the stage and Cunningham dancing alone? Sweet parting? Fond memory? In any case, Cunningham suddenly jumps, and he’s joined onstage by others who jump along with him. It’s back to frolic.

Midway through the pas de deux in the 1968 Buffalo performance, Cage and Vaughan begin reading simultaneously.


Merce Cunningham’s parents were going to Seattle to see their other son, Jack. Mrs. Cunningham was driving. Mr. Cunningham said, “Don’t you think you should go a little slower? You’ll get caught.” He gave this warning several times. Finally, on the outskirts of Seattle, they were stopped by a policeman. He asked to see Mrs. Cunningham’s license. She rummaged around in her bag and said, “I just don’t seem to be able to find it.” He then asked to see the registration. She looked for it but unsuccessfully. The officer then said, “Well, what are we going to do with you?” Mrs. Cunningham started the engine. Before she drove off, she said, “I just don’t have any more time to waste talking to you.”5


Just the other day I went to the dentist. Over the radio they said it was the hottest day of the year. However, I was wearing a jacket, because going to a doctor has always struck me as a somewhat formal occasion. In the midst of his work, Dr. Heyman stopped and said, “Why don’t you take your jacket off?” I said, “I have a hole in my shirt and that’s why I have my jacket on.” He said, “Well, I have a hole in my sock, and, if you like, I’ll take my shoes off.”6

Most of the stories from “Indeterminacy” are mildly comical in this way. What, then, happens to the meaning of that pas de deux when they are its soundscape? How is its “sensuality, tenderness” affected when our attention is diverted by Cage’s mirth? Brown had this complaint about the score: “I was very disappointed. The dance is so extraordinary, I think, on its own. It doesn’t need ANY music or sound accompaniment.”7

Here, then, are two central topics that arise again and again in Cunningham criticism: the meaning of a dance when movement is intended to provide its own meaning, and the effect of the coming together of separately conceived elements—dance, music, décor—on that meaning.


In 2004 I taught a course about Yvonne Rainer. The graduate program in which I teach is called Visual and Cultural Studies, and although dance is not part of it, film is. Since Rainer shifted her attention from choreography to filmmaking in the early 1970s and didn’t return to dance until 2000, the medium of much of her work and scholarship about it would be accessible to my students, and I could sneak my interest in dance in by the back door, so to speak. But in order to discuss Rainer’s Judson Dance Theater career, I had to give my students a crash course on pre-Judson dance, especially Cunningham. It was then that I discovered the treasure trove of Cunningham dance films. Much to my delight, there were films of two of the dances I had encountered in 1970: D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock’s RainForest (1968) and Charles Atlas’s Walkaround Time (1972). The former seemed an especially momentous find. Not only was it made by a filmmaking team whose Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968) were documents that had made an enormous impression on me at the time of their release, but it also recorded RainForest’s premiere, the very moment when Cunningham’s dancers first literally bumped up against Warhol’s Silver Clouds to the tune of David Tudor’s electronic score.

Merce Cunningham, RainForest,  1968 (stills), directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, filmed at Upton Auditorium, Buffalo State College, State University of New York, March 8, 1968. Photo courtesy Pennebaker Hegedus Films

The film does what many dance films do. The camera moves almost as much as the dancers, sometimes with them, sometimes against them. There are close-ups that cut off legs and feet and sometimes heads. We see facial expressions that we could never see unless we were sitting in the front row. The film shows the dance from the wings, including lens flare caused by stage lighting from the opposite side of the stage. There’s even a quick shot from above. (Where was that camera?) When Carolyn Brown and Albert Reid begin their duet, the camera moves in so close that all we see is a blur of arms and torsos. Pennebaker and Leacock’s RainForest is “interesting” filmmaking, but not necessarily good dance filmmaking. Still, it’s an important document of a major Cunningham work with its original cast and Cunningham dancing in, if not his prime, then something like his second prime, at a time when his company finally began to garner the attention it deserved.

Walkaround Time is one of Charles Atlas’s earliest films. Atlas had been Cunningham’s stage manager since 1970, and thus knew Cunningham’s work well. He shot Walkaround Time on 16mm film during two performances, the first with a single handheld camera in Berkeley, California, the second in Paris using three cameras. Although it shares some of RainForest’s film language—camera movement, close-ups, light flares—it does so to an obvious purpose. For example, in the sequence following the opening, Atlas focuses almost exclusively on Valda Setterfield’s solo. Whatever else might be happening onstage is seen only peripherally or not at all. Atlas goes in for a close-up that cuts off Setterfield’s head and feet. Indeed, all we see is her torso from breast to thigh. We watch her stomach muscles engage as she thrusts her hip to the right, thus revealing the flexible spine so characteristic of Cunningham’s style. Atlas then tilt-pans up to the head as she lowers her arms, then shrugs her shoulders. Shrugged shoulders: imagine such a thing in classical ballet or even in classical modern dance! But the slightest movement of any part of the body can be dance movement in Cunningham’s lexicon. (Come to think of it, there are single-shoulder shrugs in Balanchine’s ballet Agon.) When I say that Setterfield shrugs her shoulders, you might think she’s expressing something like “beats me,” but the unchanging expression on her face and the same weight given to her shrug as to, say, her hip thrust, suggests that it isn’t expressive of anything in particular. In just this short close-up, then, Atlas is able to show us things that are essential to Cunningham’s choreography.

There is a moment when Cunningham walks onstage and leans over the Ocular Witnesses portion of the set from behind it, framing one corner with his hands. He holds perfectly still in that position for more than half a minute. Atlas shows Cunningham in medium shot as the company moves across the stage behind him; then, in close-up, other dancers swirl around him, including even running right in the camera’s way. Cunningham as still center, stillness as movement: another characteristic of his choreography illustrated by Atlas’s camera work. Filming Cunningham through a portion of the set is virtually a leitmotif of Atlas’s Walkaround Time, notably at the famous end of the entr’acte, when, seen through the Nine Malic Moulds, Cunningham takes off one pair of tights and shirt and puts on another, all the while jogging in place and never missing a beat. Shortly thereafter, Cunningham begins a solo directly behind the Chariot, followed by Carolyn Brown’s long, exquisite solo, the centerpiece of the dance. We see her mostly alone onstage dancing among the Large Glass ’ s seven elements. Not surprisingly, she begins right underneath the two suspended elements that represent the Bride.8 Brown’s solo is followed by Cunningham’s own, much of it danced directly behind the Chocolate Grinder. Atlas’s emphasis on Walkaround Time’s set— one of the most beautiful of all dance décors9—even at the expense of the dancing, is telling in at least two ways: it gives fittingly equal importance to set design and choreography, and it shows that at some moments that equivalence will cause the set to get in the way of our seeing the dance movements.


Seeing Atlas’s Walkaround Time led me to look at the films and videos Atlas and Cunningham made together between 1975 and 1983. In many of these works, it’s no longer a question of the camera recording a dance but of choreography conceived expressly with the camera in mind. And although dances made for camera were reconfigured for stage, the films and videos are not only stand-alone works but are different in important ways from the dances seen live. Take Fractions I (1977),10 which used four video cameras and four television monitors arrayed throughout the company’s Westbeth studio space. Atlas explains, “This way, I could do live editing as it were. Any camera could shoot the dance directly, or it could shoot the dance on a monitor that showed another camera’s perspective.”11 Cunningham’s dance vocabulary isn’t appreciably different from what he employs for a work for the stage, but the way we see it certainly is. Like the later stage version, we see what’s happening in different parts of the space “live” and on monitors simultaneously. But unlike that version, we see color and black-and-white imagery, also simultaneously. We see a body moving in the studio and at the same time see two close-ups of different parts of that body on stacked monitors. We see monitors within monitors in a mise-en-abyme. Often, the camera moves in one register, and in another it remains static; in the first, the dancer moves and in the second the dancer stands stock still. In one register the dancers jump; in the other they turn. “Live,” the dancers occupy deep space; on the monitors, space is flattened. A monitor is framed by the camera so as to fit perfectly into the corner of the film frame. You might reasonably expect to see there a detail of what you see in “real” space, but instead you see something shot in a different part of the studio.

Dancers jump in black-and-white and land in color. Thump! The edit is perfectly timed. You watch a group circling the stage; cut, and you’re watching just one dancer jumping in place. A soloist is seen in “real” space, a pas de deux on the monitor. Now it’s a duet in “real” space and a trio on the monitor. A dancer dances with his own double; cut, and he’s dancing in unison with another dancer, who runs to another part of the studio to dance with his double on a different monitor. A close-up shows a dancer’s head in profile; he turns to look at us and the camera pulls back to reveal that what we’ve just seen is on a monitor, then four women leap right behind that monitor in tight close-up. Sometimes the juxtaposition of a close-up detail on a monitor of the dance taking place in “real” space adds dimension or otherwise useful information about it; other times, what’s on the monitor complicates, competes with, or distracts from what’s happening in “real” space.

Did I mention that there’s also a stage set? Mark Lancaster placed three differently colored rectangular walls in the space of the studio. They tend to delineate space in the “real” register but merely juxtapose various shades of gray on the monitors. Sometimes a dancer emerges from behind one of them. There is a brief finale in which all eight dancers dance in unison underneath the credits: “Fractions I, A Video Dance by Merce Cunningham and Charles Atlas.” Continually reconfiguring themselves, eventually each dancer in turn runs toward the camera as his or her name appears on the screen.

Fractions I is just one in a series of remarkably inventive works by Cunningham and Atlas for which dance, cinematography or videography, and editing are choreographed in relation to one another.12 However broadly or narrowly we might wish to define dance film, Cunningham and Atlas’s work in the genre is among the most sustained and accomplished that exists. Moreover, the films and videos furthered Cunningham’s choreographic experimentation. Jacqueline Lesschaeve put it well in one of her conversations with Cunningham: “In your choreographies, you have integrated so much of the knowledge brought out by visual techniques, developed by movie as well as TV or video. By doing so, you have invented for dancing stage equivalents for close-ups, dissolves, and shifts from one camera to another. I have not seen any other choreographer so aware of that, and doing it so much.”13 In “Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries,” Cunningham wrote, “Working with video and film … gave me the opportunity to rethink certain technical elements. For example, the speed with which one catches an image on the television made me introduce into our class work different elements concerned with tempos which added a new dimension to our general class work behavior.”14

Charles Atlas, Fractions I, 1977 (still), video (color, sound), 32 min. ©Charles Atlas, courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York


In 2007, I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s first Beacon Event, staged on two raised platforms in the gallery devoted to Andy Warhol’s Shadows at Dia: Beacon in New York. Just as when I first saw Cunningham in 1970, I was smitten—so smitten this time that I decided I wanted to write about the Beacon Events, eight of which were scheduled over a two-year period.15 Impulsively, I proposed an article to Tim Griffin, then editor of Artforum, and he agreed. This would be my first writing on dance—well, almost. After teaching the course on Rainer, I wrote an essay on her use of music in dance and film. But to write about the first four of Cunningham’s Beacon Events, for the first time I would need to remember the movement I was seeing and describe it to my readers. That would be a big challenge, but I persuaded myself that, at the very least, I knew and had things to say about both the building and the art that would provide the setting for the Events—Robert Irwin’s unobtrusive but glorious conversion of the 1929 Nabisco box factory into a museum, and in addition to Warhol’s Shadows, Walter de Maria’s Equal Area Series, Bruce Nauman’s Indoor Outdoor Seating Arrangement, and Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses.

I had seen only one Event before the Beacon ones. It was at the Joyce Theater, and I was disappointed by it. I preferred Cunningham’s repertory works, especially in a proscenium theater—or so I thought. In fact, the Events would turn out to be my most ecstatic experience of Cunningham’s work, beginning with the Beacon Events and ending with the final Park Avenue Armory Event, on New Year’s Eve, 2011. Cunningham explained, “The word ‘event’ I have used in my work to characterize those performing situations which are not conventional—that is, conventional evenings of several works done in a conventional theater. Rather, the word is used to give me a chance to present an unconventional evening of dance and music and the visual elements in an unconventional situation and not of a necessarily expected length.”16

Cunningham devised the Event format for the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts in Vienna during the company’s 1964 world tour. The museum wanted to present Cunningham’s work but had no theater, so Cunningham strung together ninety minutes of excerpts from the repertory his company was touring with. He called the work Museum Event No. 1. Museum Event Nos. 2 and 3 were performed at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm later in the tour. Eventually, as Events began to be performed in other sorts of venues, the word “museum” was dropped, but it seems to me not without significance to the form. By the time of the Beacon Events, these performances had increasingly become “site-specific” (a term devised, of course, not for dance but for visual art). That is, their staging was configured in relation to the settings in which they would appear—in the case of the Beacon Events, in relation to Dia’s vast gallery spaces and the art installed there.

In the sixth Beacon Event, for example, Cunningham positioned five separate marley floor stages—two on one side, three on the other—of the long zigzag wall on which Dan Flavin’s “Monuments” for V. Tatlin (1964–1990) are displayed. This meant, obviously, that no spectator, no matter how well positioned or how mobile, could possibly see all of the dancing. This distribution of the dance across several stages—an innovation that occurred toward the end of Cunningham’s life—seemed to me analogous to something that he had done choreographically throughout his career. He treated the stage as a field and placed discrete dance activities around it, thus requiring that at any given moment you had to choose what part of the stage and what dancer or dancers to watch. In my article about the Beacon Events, I wrote:

When Cunningham began making dances like this over half a century ago, it was an enormous break with existing choreographic practice, and audiences were nonplussed. Without necessarily realizing it, people had accepted the fact that choreography would make their decisions for them. In following its dictates, they were more or less assured that they wouldn’t miss anything. But Cunningham no longer afforded that assurance. On the contrary, his audiences were made aware of the fact that they would miss things, maybe even most things. They were, in short, made aware of their inability to see totality, aware of themselves as having the limitations that a single subjectivity entails.17

These limitations also turn out to be an advantage: with them Cunningham demonstrates his respect for the partiality of our individual subjectivities by allowing us the freedom to make our own meaning of what we see. Partiality is not autonomy, however; while we are partial in the sense of bringing our subjectivity to bear upon what we see, we are also partial in the sense that our subjectivity is constituted always and only in relation to what is external to us.

Think of it this way: the first event that Cunningham cites as having led to a large discovery is his and Cage’s separation of music and dance. “From the beginning,” Cunningham wrote, “working in this manner gave me a feeling of freedom for the dance, not a dependence upon the note-by-note procedure with which I had been used to working. I had a clear sense of both clarity and interdependence between the dance and the movement.”18 No longer depending on music, dance movement achieves a new clarity as movement; but when it eventually comes together with the music, it combines with it in an interdependence that affects, in indeterminate ways, the meaning of that movement. How much more must that meaning be affected when sets and costumes, also separately conceived, are added to the mix. And how much more still, as is the case with the Events, when movement conceived in one time and context is brought together with—shown alongside of or in succession with—movement conceived in other times and contexts. Now add to this the subjectivity of the spectator, who comes with her own parti pris.

Of course, Cunningham’s subjectivity was partial, too, and he inevitably imposed his own meanings on the dances he made. But he worked assiduously against his subjective impositions. He constantly experimented with ways to get outside himself—his habits of mind, his emotional impulses. His most famous method for doing so was, of course, the use of aleatory procedures to determine such choreographic decisions as the ordering of dance phrases, how many and which dancers would dance them, where in space the dancers would appear, when they would enter and exit, and so forth, “presenting almost constantly situations in which the imagination is challenged,” as he put it.19 Even if the dance phrases themselves are always recognizably his, based as they are on his combining the back and torso of the modern dancer with the legs and arms of the ballet dancer, their variation, arrangement, spatial distribution, and the tempos at which they are performed always make for surprising new dances—and all the more surprising when performed with their autonomously conceived music and settings, which also affect the choreography, also by chance.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Beacon Events (sixth performance) in the gallery with Dan Flavin’s “Monuments” for V. Tatlin, Dia: Beacon, New York, February 21, 2009. Photo: Anna Finke, courtesy Anna Finke

I don’t know whether Cunningham ever used chance operations to determine which and in what order passages of repertory works would appear in Events, but in any case the Events extend even further the openness of his choreography with regard to meaning.20 When Cunningham constructed new dance works by combining passages from his ever-expanding repertory, to be performed in a great variety of spaces each with its own physical attributes, with new music composed or improvised or appropriated for the occasion—when, in other words, he made the Events, hundreds of them over the years—he added even greater serendipity to how we would perceive his choreography than the already great serendipity entailed in any particular repertory work. The Events thus forcefully demonstrated that meaning does not reside in a dance, waiting to be properly deciphered by its spectators. Meaning is context-specific. It is, as I said, for us to make. We bring to bear what we know, how we watch and listen, what we feel.

Still, it would be wrong to discount the distinctiveness of Cunningham’s sensibility, his partnership with Cage, and his (their) choices of collaborators. Just try to imagine a Cunningham dance performed to the music of, say, Rachmaninoff or Berlioz. You can’t. Yvonne Rainer did just that with one of her Three Seascapes (1962) and We Shall Run (1963), respectively, and she did so in order to create a dissonance that took “radical juxtaposition” further than Cunningham ever cared to.21 Or imagine as the décor of a Cunningham dance a projected hard-core porn film. You can’t. Rainer did that, too, in Rose Fractions (1969). It was, she said, a literally dirty movie, not only an outdated example of a debased genre but a scratched-up, blotchy print.

Rainer was both an antagonist to and a disciple of Cunningham. Her first book, Work 1961–73, ends with an homage to him:

It all comes flooding back to her: those early impressions of him dancing with that unassailable ease that made it look as though he was doing something totally ordinary. She knew that she would never dance like that. The ballet part of the shapes he chose she could only parody. But that ordinariness and pleasure were accessible to her.

… Then she visualizes herself running some years back and remembers the exhilaration and freedom and knows that she came as close as she would ever come to what she imagined he must have felt when he wheeled and dipped and glided in the studio on 14th Street. And she gives him his due for the part he played in that running.22

For my part, I give Cunningham his due for introducing me to dance and dance film, and for inspiring me to write about both. I have used words like “smitten” and “ecstatic” to characterize my experience of Cunningham’s dances. When the Merce Cunningham Dance Company danced for the last time on New Year’s Eve 2011, I was there. Indeed, I was there three nights in a row for all six iterations of the Park Avenue Armory Event. Like others, I found it hard to let go. Many people cried and hugged one another as the final evening came to an end. Although Cunningham had passed away two and a half years earlier, in those final Events you could still feel his presence. Cunningham’s dances will continue to be performed, of course, but never as well as by that company—or by Merce himself. I count myself lucky to have also seen Merce “dancing with that unassailable ease.”




1 Merce Cunningham, Changes: Notes on Choreography, ed. Frances Starr (New York: Something Else Press, 1968), unpaginated. Capitalization and italics in original.
2 Douglas Crimp, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 94.
3 Edwin Denby, “Merce Cunningham,” in Dance Writings, ed. Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 408.
4 Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 461.
5 Cage’s story appears online in the compilation Indeterminacy: John Cage, ed. Eddie Kohler,
6 Ibid.
7 Brown, Chance and Circumstance, 461–462.
8 The original film shows Brown’s solo in medium shot. Atlas recut the film for a digital version in 2012, and showed the solo in double screen so as to add a long shot beside the medium one, thus further emphasizing Brown’s relation to the set.
9 “A strong case could be made for its being the finest decor American dance has ever known… a thing of almost miraculous beauty.” Clive Barnes, quoted in Brown, Chance and Circumstance, 501.
10 There was also a Fractions II, “a completely different edit of the same dance,” according to Atlas, but it doesn’t survive. See Charles Atlas, Charles Atlas (New York: Luhring Augustine and Prestel, 2015), 32. The stage work was called simply Fractions.
11 Ibid.
12 I write about Cunningham and Atlas’s film and video at length in “Inside the Dance: Charles Atlas’s Early Collaborations with Merce Cunningham,” in Charles Atlas, 278–291.
13 Merce Cunningham and Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, Merce Cunningham (New York: M. Boyars, 1985), 198–199.
14 Merce Cunningham, “Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries (19 September 1994),” in David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, ed. Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997), 276.
15 In the end, only seven Beacon Events were done, in September 2007; January, May, July, and December 2008; and February and May 2009.
16 Merce Cunningham commentary in Video Event for Camera 3, CBS television, 1974.
17 Douglas Crimp, “Dancers, Artworks, and People in the Galleries,” Artforum 47, no. 2 (October 2008), 351.
18 Cunningham, “Four Events…,” in Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 276.
19 Ibid.
20 Although the author asked several people who were close to Cunningham whether or not he used chance operations to determine the choice and order of parts in his Events, none of them were able to answer the question.
21 “Radical juxtaposition” is the term Susan Sontag applied to Happenings; see her “Happenings: An art of Radical Juxtaposition,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966), 263–274.
22 Yvonne Rainer, Work 1961–73 (Halifax: Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1974), 327, 329.

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