Charles Atlas’s film Ocean (2011)—which captured the 2008 performance of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean (1994) in a granite quarry in central Minnesota—screens February 9, 2017, as part of the opening celebration for the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time. In conjunction with the screening, we share this essay by Walker Performing Arts curator Philip Bither from the Walker-designed exhibition catalogue.
Ocean was conceived in 1990, the year John Cage was invited to make a special work with Merce Cunningham for a James Joyce/John Cage Festival in Zürich. Long inspired by Joyce’s writings, Cage accepted immediately.1 When he discussed the idea with Cunningham, they both recalled mythologist Joseph Campbell’s speculation that if Joyce had lived to write another novel, it would have been about the sea. With that in mind, Cage named the new work Ocean. He imagined an immersive, ninety-minute piece realized within a constellation of concentric rings. At the center would be a large, circular dance stage surrounded on all sides by audience members, who would in turn be encircled by a large orchestra. Since Joyce’s final two novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, had seventeen and eighteen parts respectively, Cage and Cunningham decided that Ocean should have nineteen sections. Cage thought the work deserved an orchestra of 150 musicians, each of whom would be playing her own individual score with a musical structure based more on time than on notes.2 He also wanted his longtime collaborator David Tudor, who was at that time music director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), to create an electronic soundscape that would be played live, simultaneously with the acoustic orchestral score.
In the end, no suitable venue in Zürich could be found to meet the work’s unique demands, and the idea was shelved.3 Then, in 1992, not long after Cage’s death, Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust, suggested to MCDC that the score for Ocean be completed posthumously so that the project could at last be realized. To do the work, Kuhn suggested Andrew Culver, a composer who had worked as Cage’s assistant since 1981. Culver and Cage had discussed Cage’s ideas for the music for Ocean; since Culver had stored notes from their conversations on his computer, he was confident that a score could be created that Cage would have approved. After commissioning funds were secured from several European festivals, Culver went to work, using the indeterminate theoretical concepts and early compositional ideas favored by Cage.4
Rigorous conception guided Culver’s score, which he titled Ocean 1–95 (1994). Culver explained its complex structure:
Ocean 1–95 consists of 32,067 events spread over 2,403 pages divided [among] 112 musicians. There is no score, no place where all that will sound simultaneously can be viewed simultaneously. There is no conductor. […] Played throughout are five simultaneous but non-synchronous sequences of compositions, the players jumping from place to place, layer to layer, as they become available, each of the five layers having nineteen compositions in sequence, hence the ninety-five compositions referred to in the title. Each time a player enters a new composition he or she will find it composed according to a different set of rules and parameters (1 of 20), and that it must be performed according to 1 of 7 sets of performance practices. Ocean 1–95 is my homage to John Cage.5
David Tudor took a different tack to create his electronic score. Soundings: Ocean Diary (1994) is an otherworldly soundscape made from the processed sounds of gurgling water, barking seals, arctic ice, whale calls, and other underwater effects, providing Ocean’s most literal connection to its title.
Cage’s plans for Ocean focused on the immersive sonic allure of having an audience surrounded by a complex construction of overlapping acoustic and electronic sound. Cunningham now took up the challenge of devising a movement score of equal complexity. In a sense, it was a given that he would do so; aside from his Events, which were often realized in museum galleries and public spaces, he produced very few large-scale choreographed pieces meant to be performed outside of standard theaters, and no substantial works in which the audience was seated on all sides. The 360-degree viewing environment required an entire reevaluation of his approach to choreographing movement. Years later, Cunningham recalled that when Cage had first suggested he create a dance in the round, he had agreed, even though he had had no idea what that would mean. “I prefer ‘yes’ to ‘no,’” he explained. “‘No’ cuts everything off; with ‘yes,’ you can go on.”6
In hindsight, it is clear that working in the round was less a departure for Cunningham than a dramatic expansion of two strategies he had long employed: rejection of the conventional, centrally oriented proscenium stage (for him, every foot of visible stage space held equal importance); and the embrace of Einstein’s belief that there are no fixed points in space. He called the process of creating Ocean “an extraordinary experience for my psyche. … It was absolutely, incredibly difficult, but it was fascinating.” To accustom his dancers to a creation that strove to be “constantly in the round, constantly moving,” Cunningham told them, “You have to put yourself on a merry-go-round that keeps turning all the time.”7
In the end, Cunningham constructed 128 different movement phrases. He began by making one for each of the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams, and then doubled the total so he would have enough movement variety to fill a ninety-minute work.8 He organized the phrases into solos, duets, trios, quartets, and dances for groups of any number from five to fifteen. He used tossing of dice and the I Ching to determine not only how the 128 phrases would be choreographically sequenced for each dancer but also which way each dancer faced, which entrances and exits they used, and when they used them. “For reasons of practical sanity,” Cunningham also split the stage into twelve different areas and used the I Ching again to decide where the dancers would be placed onstage.9
Notions of time and space were visibly reinforced by Cunningham’s decision to place large digital clocks on the four “corners” of the stage, which counted down the work second by second from ninety minutes to zero. These bright numbers not only provided cues to musicians and dancers but also confronted audiences with constant evidence of the unstoppable passage of time, even as the unfolding sound and movement of the piece did the opposite—it stretched, condensed, or distorted one’s temporal perception, reinforcing the Einsteinian ideas that were foundational to Cunningham’s thinking. The time-based structure also served to create dramatic tension—a sense of breathless kinetic and sonic energy that built as the work raced toward its full ensemble climax.
Ocean premiered at the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels on May 18, 1994; two months later it was presented in Amsterdam as part of the Holland Festival.10 Both productions attracted a high level of international attention, but in later years the work was produced only infrequently; thus, it became a pilgrimage for Cunningham’s ardent fans and something of a holy grail for live arts producers, festival directors, and programmers tempted by its scale and inherent challenges. With each of the subsequent nine productions, Ocean took on greater rhythmic complexity as Cunningham found further solutions to the problems of choreographing in curved space and even discovered new ways to choreograph curvature within the human body. He later reflected that Ocean’s success gave him confidence to take on other complex challenges that required new choreographic or conceptual solutions, and often, as with Ocean, demanded tremendous perseverance to solve.11
During MCDC’s 2005 residency at the Benedicta Arts Center at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, MCDC executive director Trevor Carlson was given a tour of some local sites by Benedicta staff, including the nearby Rainbow Quarry. Upon seeing it, he thought it might be a remarkable place to produce Ocean, although at the time he couldn’t foresee the complexity of such an undertaking. But Cunningham was also intrigued, so the staff began exploring what it would take to produce the massive work at the site. It soon became clear that the difficulties would be extreme, perhaps insurmountable. If it were to happen, a lead producer would clearly be needed.
As the central beacon for Cunningham and Cage in the Midwest since 1963, the Walker Art Center was the logical choice to take on the challenge; as the Walker’s curator of performing arts, I jumped at the chance when Trevor and longtime Cunningham friend and patron Sage Cowles came to meet with me about it. For eighteen months, the Walker’s staff threw itself fully into the challenge, raising a half million dollars, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers, and overseeing, with the quarry managers and workers, the building of new roads and parking lots around the site and the hiring of dozens of transport buses to carry Twin Cities audiences the 108 miles from the Walker to the quarry. The partnership with Rainbow Quarry’s corporate owner, Martin Marietta, local managers, and hourly workers was an unexpected joy. Although at first skeptical, they ultimately embraced the utopian undertaking with gusto. On September 10, 2008, quarry staff and their families nearly filled the 1,200 seats for the final dress rehearsal.
Three performances of Ocean took place September 11 through 13, 2008. All shows sold out, and nearly five thousand audience members got to experience the enigmatic, cool beauty of Cunningham and Cage’s conception. The choreography alternated between statuesque stillness and flowing circularity and ranged from solos and duets to sections featur ing the full ensemble of thirteen dancers.12 The combination of the orchestral and electronic music, in tandem with the constantly evolving gestural language of the dancers, produced a remarkable energy, even though only a fraction of the kinetic and sonic information being delivered could actually be absorbed by any one viewer. Cunningham and his lighting designer, Andrew Coop, devised a dramatic finish: during its final eight minutes, the surrounding quarry cliffs, which had only been dark silhouettes though most of the piece, were fully and spectacularly lit up while the stage was flooded with white light—a dazzling effect suggestive of an unnaturally long lightning strike. At the exact moment the last dancer departed, the lights were extinguished and the audience, plunged into darkness, erupted in applause.
There was unplanned drama, too. Unseasonably cold and wet weather dogged every rehearsal, requiring us to install heaters in the dressing room tents and around and under the stage. Thousands of gallons of rainwater, which threatened the stage and seating area, had to be removed by industrial-size pumps. The rain stopped long enough to fully realize the first two public performances, but on September 13, during the final performance, a light drizzle turned into a downpour and the various parts of Ocean slowly disintegrated. String players scrambled to pack up their valuable instruments while others musicians forged on; dancers continued to perform even as the audience fled for shelter in waiting buses; and the show was ultimately cut short by twenty minutes. In hindsight, it seems fitting that nature and chance played such large roles in the final performance ever of this monumental piece.
As with all site-based producing, the process was part of the creative act for everyone involved. Cunningham had wanted more than just a successful production in a stunning natural setting; he also hoped that this Ocean would inspire people creatively and generate a sense of discovery and ownership, particularly within the communities that surround the quarry. In the months leading up to the performance, talks, presentations, and information sessions with a wide range of central Minnesota civic and community groups were offered by the staffs of the collaborating copresenters: the Walker, Northrup Dance at the University of Minnesota, and Benedicta Arts Center. In addition, MCDC company members offered classes and talks during their final two-week residency. These activities, combined with the involvement of 150 classical musicians drawn mostly from that area of the state, led to a work that would be widely embraced throughout the region. In the end, Ocean was the largest, most complex single performing arts project in the history of the Walker Art Center. It may never be surpassed.
Alone for a moment backstage following the last performance, the normally reserved Cunningham was visibly moved as he thanked me, telling me that the production was one of the artistic highlights of his life. Although he always preferred to look ahead rather than back, I sensed that he was allowing himself a moment of reflection on his long creative and personal life with Cage. Certainly for me, and I think for the thousands who attended, this mounting of Ocean in an unforgiving but awe-inducing setting felt like a moment of completion in the life of one of the most fearless, inspired artists of our times.
1Cage was particularly taken with Joyce’s final literary work, Finnegans Wake, which inspired his 1979 composition Roaratorio and the 1983 dance-music collaboration of the same name with Cunningham.
2Because of cost and complexity, the original producers balked at the requirement that the orchestra include 150 musicians, so Cunningham and Culver compromised at 112. This was the number used for all subsequent Ocean productions until 2008, when the Minnesota production realized Cage’s original concept of 150 for the first time.
3 Instead, Cage and Cunningham created the repertory work Beach Birds for the Zürich Festival. David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, ed. Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997), 258.
4John Rockwell, “Reporter’s Notebook: A Valedictory Dance from Cage and Cunningham,” New York Times, July 4, 1994.
5Andrew Culver quoted in “News,” mercecunningham.org.
6Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008, Walker Art Center; transcript, Walker Art Center History: Cunningham Collection, Walker Art Center Archives, Minneapolis.
7Quotes in this paragraph are taken from Cowles and Culver (see notes 5 and 6).
8Known in English as The Book of Changes, the I Ching is an ancient divination text and the oldest, most influential of the Chinese classic texts. Cage and Cunningham used it as a system for chance operations, because they felt it would offer fresh approaches to structuring their works.
9Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008.
10Following the presentations in Brussels and Amsterdam, productions were mounted between 1997 and 2006 in Venice, Belfast, Berkeley, London, São Paulo, Miami, New York City, Montpellier, France, and Niigata, Japan.
11Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008.
12According to former company director Trevor Carlson, Ocean was always intended as a work for fourteen dancers, although there was a short time when there were fifteen dancers in the company because two were needed to dance one role due to the departure of a major company member. However, the work was performed in Minnesota with only thirteen dancers because company member Andrea Weber sustained an injury a few days before opening. Carlson, telephone conversation with the author, May 31, 2016.
Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.