Performer’s Choice: Indeterminacy in Merce Cunningham’s <i>Field Dances</i>
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Performer’s Choice: Indeterminacy in Merce Cunningham’s Field Dances

Field Dances in the Walker's Cargill Lounge, June 3, 2107. Photo: Alice Gebura

Merce Cunningham’s Field Dances (1963), also titled Dances for Everyone, is one of the choreographer’s most indeterminate or flexible dances. Two former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Patricia Lent and Jamie Scott, spoke about the process of adapting the dance into a pedagogical workshop format for more than 40 Twin Cities dancers and movement makers with performing arts intern Kaya Lovestrand and Mary Coyne, curatorial assistant for the exhibition Common Time, ahead of the showings of Field Dances at the Walker Art Center of June 3.

Kaya Lovestrand: For a technique that requires a lot of past training, I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the groups that you have taught it to, how their relationship with seeing Cunningham work changes after getting that taste of it. Even they’re not able to do a lot of the technical aspect of his work, but understanding more about the forms that he is working with and ideas that he is processing, and how that allows people to relate to it differently in a viewership sense?

Patricia Lent: I don’t know, because it is an unusually indeterminate dance. There are not many examples of this level of indeterminacy in Merce’s choreography. Canfield (1969) and Scramble (1967) have some elements of indeterminacy in them, but they are within a highly structured format and there are lots of parts of it that are set. Apart from Story (1963) this is the only super open-ended dance there is. Whether that changes how you see the other work, I don’t know.

Field Dances in the McGuire Theater, June 3, 2017. Photo: Alice Gebura

Jamie Scott: It almost gives a false impression. So introducing that in the work is very prescribed. One thing it does illustrate is the lack of frontally-directed movement and the use of space but apart from that it’s quite departed from the rest of the choreography.

Mary Coyne: It feels like the movement, however, even though the movements are simple and varied, when you started the workshop and the class, you started with the torso, and the class warmups.

Lent: Which we then abandoned! I supposed there’s a connection of the idea of movement as a task. This is what you need to do: you need to do this and then this and then that. And that holds true in pretty much all of Merce’s work. It’s about what you’re doing, not anything you’re expressing or explaining. In doing a Field Dances workshop you’re getting involved in the activity. Approaching Merce’s work as activity is helpful. Merce said that this dance was derived from watching children play; there are a lot of references to watching life on the street of movement as it unfolds in the natural world as an inspiration. I suppose approaching looking at the movement life you would watch activity on the street or on a playground is a helpful way of looking at it. But it is misleading in that the dancers are making most of the choices in Field Dances, and that is not the case in most of the work.

Coyne: The original Field Dances premiered in 1963 as a proscenium repertory piece, with costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, which are rather ornate actually. Your notes are derived from that original formulation. How did the dance change from that to a larger company of nine to the workshop exercise?

Field Dances in the Cargill Lounge, June 3, 2017. Photo: Alice Gebura

Lent: It’s been used as a workshop because it’s accessible. And we’re modifying it to make it more accessible in some ways. It’s the fact of the vocabulary that made it workable. And the vocabulary came from the inspiration, which was watching children play. They’re running, they’re skipping, occasionally connecting, and then going on to do their own thing. Can I make a dance like that? And he made a dance like that. And then it went full circle. If it came from watching people without dance training moving, could it then be taught to non-dancers?

He was working on ideas of indeterminacy at that point in time. It looks like it’s working titles was Dances for Everyone and it took the title Field Dances before it premiered.

Lovestrand: What do you see the value in teaching, and the workshop element?

Lent: I proposed the idea of it to Philip [Bither] as a community activity. There are other dances of Merce’s that you can modify greatly and teach bits and pieces. But in this one, what was happening today is what the dance is. It is an authentic version of the dance.

It allows people to play and to work together. And it teaches you something about the focus which is not towards the audience but towards each other. You’re not busy with appealing or entertaining.

Field Dances in the McGuire Theater June 3, 2017. Photo: Alice Gebura

Coyne: Is that why you were fairly clear about the vocabulary, calling them “showings” instead of performances?

Lent: Workshop showings. You’ve workshopped something, and you’re allowing people to come and see where you are in the process. We’re not getting music together, we’re not costuming it. We’re not casting the dance; it is more about: whoever comes, we’re going to use them. It’s an exploration dance more than a reconstruction of this dance.

Coyne: There’s no singular dance to reconstruct, is there?

Lent: No. We’re working off notes. But there’s no video of the dance. When we’re reconstructing a dance we have notes and there’s a video, and there’s some discrepancies between the two. When Merce wrote notes he wasn’t writing notes so someone could reconstruct the dance 30 or 40 years later. He wrote the notes for rehearsal that day. He then demonstrated and the dancers saw and then it was worked on. In this case, we have to guess and make decisions. So it doesn’t feel like the same process, it’s a different process altogether. Which is why its been used as a workshop.

Scott: It is much more exploratory than a workshop would ever be.

Lent: We’re allowing the movements to be tasks as described. And there is choice embedded over and over in the notes. Performer’s choice. There are a lot of options. As Jamie was saying, it plays with people’s idea of what chance is. This is not chance operations. It’s indeterminacy. Chance operations is not the dancers out there making a lot of decisions about what to do next. For the most part, you’re making decisions about how to accomplish what comes next.

Scott: I’m finding it fascinating for me just to understand why he ended up where he did and scaling back on it, too. It relates to what we’re talking about with chance in other contexts. When you start working on it you realize that there are all these possibilities and all that possibility is too much, possibly. It becomes interesting when you reign it in and close down on some sides of that shape, so I’m learning a lot about that and why things, after Field Dances, became so set in his work. It’s hard to sustain interest in chaos.

Field Dances in the McGuire Theater, June 3, 2017. Photo: Alice Gebura

Lent: This is 1963. So [John] Cage and Cunningham began exploring chance in the 1950s. So this is rather early on in the process and they reached this point, opening it up and letting the performers make the decisions. From this point onward, Cage began to explore indeterminacy more and more and more, and Merce, less and less and less. Merce was more interested in constructing a structured, relatable dance work but Cage continued to go this direction where the performers were making a lot of choices and there was a lot of open-endedness. And it may have been their own interest as artists, or it may have been something about the nature of dance vs. music.

Coyne: At this point you’ve led one workshop out of the next six with Twin Cities dancers who are learning Field Dances. How has it been working with this group of dancers?

Lent: It’s nice! It’s a very eclectic group, and that’s a nice thing about this dance: it works well so long as you’re game! If you’re interested in in entering into it, it is very welcoming. It’s been nice to have people of all ages, all dance backgrounds.

Scott: It invites variety in tempo. It keeps separation in what is going on.

Lent: Its nice to see people in a room, busy with a task. There’s no mirror so it’s not about how the task looks.

Scott: It’s funny that there is improvisation. When Trisha [Brown] built work, there was improvisation, but then they had to figure out how to repeat it so they could do it over and over again. There would be a happy accident and you want to re-create that. But in this, you can’t. This afternoon there was agreed cluster, and then it unraveled. It moved around again. I wanted to save that and redo it but you can’t because its indeterminacy and you can’t. It’s illuminating seeing different people’s approaches to making work. And how and why.

Lovestrand: Do you have a sense of how the different Cunningham company members felt about the amount of indeterminacy? You can speak for yourselves as well.

Scott: I didn’t like making choices in Merce’s work. It’s grown to be something I’ve done subsequently, but it takes so much rehearsal to be able to make clear choices in movement. Some people are amazing improvisers and that is their thing, but most people need practice, and practice making choices takes a lot of rehearsal. I felt like there wasn’t that time built in.

Lent: There were a lot of dances being made when I was in the company where it was a lot of us on stage, and we all had a certain phrase to be doing. In the process of building the dance, Merce would ask if the phrase could move “that way.” For me it was important to preserve the integrity of the phrase. I would make very deliberate choices about direction so I was driving the phrase that way. Or he would say, “Face any direction.” The way that was interpreted by me, and many other dancers as well, was that you can choose any direction, but then once you choose that direction, that’s the direction you’re always going to face. For me I was interested in deliberate choices that stayed choices. Which is not what Field Dances as about. Field Dances is about preserving choice making.

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