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Chance and Circumstance

Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham

Chance and Circumstance
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The long-awaited memoir from one of the most celebrated modern dancers of the past fifty years: the story of her own remarkable career, of the formative years of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and of the two brilliant, iconoclastic, and forward-thinking artists at its center—Merce Cunningham and John Cage.

From its inception in the l950s until her departure in the l970s, Carolyn Brown was a major dancer in the Cunningham company and part of the vibrant artistic community of downtown New York City out of which it grew. She writes about embarking on her career with Cunningham at a time when he was a celebrated performer but a virtually unknown choreographer. She describes the heady exhilaration—and dire financial straits—of the company’s early days, when composer Cage was musical director and Robert Rauschenberg designed lighting, sets and costumes; and of the struggle for acceptance of their controversial, avant-garde dance. With unique insight, she explores Cunningham’s technique, choreography, and experimentation with compositional procedures influenced by Cage. And she probes the personalities of these two men: the reticent, moody, often secretive Cunningham, and the effusive, fun-loving, enthusiastic Cage.

Chance and Circumstance
is an intimate chronicle of a crucial era in modern dance, and a revelation of the intersection of the worlds of art, music, dance, and theater that is Merce Cunningham’s extraordinary hallmark.


From the Hardcover edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; December 2009
645 pages; ISBN 9780307575609
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Excerpt
Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance or necessity.
—Democritus, c. 460–370 B.C.

1

Beginnings

One day, a year or two after I’d stopped performing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, I received a phone call from Maxine Groffsky, who had left her position as the Paris editor of the Paris Review and had returned to New York. “I want to be your agent,” she said. Astonished, I asked, “For what?” “Your book.” “What book” “The one John Cage says you’re going to write.” “Well, maybe, someday.” “No, now.” I resisted; she persisted. So I wrote a sample chapter and Maxine presented it to Bob Gottlieb, the editor in chief at Knopf, and suddenly I found myself committed to the daunting project of writing a book. That was over thirty years ago. The writing and the not writing took that long.

The book chronicles a twenty-year period in the life of the company based on voluminous journals and letters—admittedly self-referential—that I’d written during that time. It is just one version of the story, but surely there are as many other versions as there were people involved—plus that impossible, truly objective one.

With rare exception, books I’ve read—describing events I’ve experienced firsthand—have had factual errors. No doubt there will be errors here as well, but facts are not the essence of this book so much as feeling.



The taxi moved slowly along the rue du Bac and across the Pont Royal. Hazy, late morning sunlight filtered through the remaining chestnut leaves, spilling on damp cobblestones and the darkly glinting waters of the Seine. Paris. Autumn. October 29, to be exact, a Sunday, with scarcely another automobile on the boulevard, and only an occasional pedestrian walking by the river. I held hard the hand of my friend Jim Klosty in the hope that it would relieve the knot thickening in my throat and quiet the fear that I wouldn’t be able to control the excess of feeling that had been steadily mounting since the first day of our weeklong run at the Théâtre de la Ville. For the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, this day, with a matinee performance, was the end of the Paris season and the end of the 1972 tour begun in Iran in early September. For me, it was the end of a twenty-year way of life.

I had deliberately chosen to end that life abruptly, telling no one but those most intimately concerned, and to end it where I loved performing most—in Europe. A romantic gesture, certainly, but one that insured a happy ending to a life I cherished and had been nourished by. Most of all, I wanted to leave “well.” Only one of Merce’s dancers had managed that in the past: Marianne Preger. With grace and good humor and abundant love, she managed to depart the company, having chosen motherhood and family after more than eight years dancing with Merce. Without feeling rejected, Merce was able to accept her decision. Like Marianne, I wanted to leave without ill feeling, rancor, or bitterness. I believe I managed it, though certainly not without pain on both sides. One cannot leave, after dancing in the company of Merce Cunningham and John Cage for any number of years, without suffering enormous loss. A loss never to be retrieved. But I knew, and had known for several years, that I needed to move on; perhaps what is surprising is that I stayed so long.

It was shortly after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, marrying Earle Brown, my childhood sweetheart, and moving to Denver, Colorado, that I first saw Merce Cunningham dance— not perform, I hasten to add, but dance, in a master class that he taught and I took in April 1951. He was slender and tall, with a long spine, long neck, and sloping shoulders; a bit pigeon-breasted. There was a lightness of the upper body which contrasted with the solid legs, so beautifully shaped, and the heavy, massive feet. The body was a blue-period Picasso saltimbanque, though the face and head were not. I remember Merce most clearly demonstrating a fall that began with him rising onto three-quarter point in parallel position, swiftly arching back like a bow as he raised his left arm overhead and sinking quietly to the floor on his left hand, curving his body over his knees, rising on his knees to fall flat out like a priest at the foot of the cross, rolling over quickly and arriving on his feet again in parallel position—all done with such speed and elegance, suppressed passion and catlike stealth that my imitative dancer’s mind was caught short. I could not repeat it. I could only marvel at what I hadn’t really seen. His dancing was airborne then; critics and audiences of that time still cannot forget his extraordinary gift for jumping. An Aries, born April 16, 1919, about one month before and in the same year as Margot Fonteyn, Merce Cunningham had an appetite for dancing that seemed to me then, as it does today, to be his sole reason for living.

I was brought up on dancing; for fourteen years or more my mother, Marion Stevens Rice, had taken me to dance events in Boston—ballet, modern, ethnic. I’d watched her take class from Ted Shawn and members of the Braggiotti Denishawn school, caught glimpses of Miss Ruth (Ruth St. Denis) through open studio doors, sat mesmerized in a box in the old Boston Opera House for scores of performances of Ballets Russes and later Ballet Theatre, and each summer we went faithfully to Ted Shawn’s Jacob’s Pillow for every new program. Despite that exposure, I’d never seen anyone move like Merce: he was a strange, disturbing mixture of Greek god, panther, and madman.

But seeing Merce move and experiencing vicariously his hungry passion for dancing in the two classes he taught was not a reason to pack up, leave Denver, and follow him back to New York. It would never have occurred to me to do that. I had no intention of becoming a dancer. Born to a dancing mother, having danced since I was three, I had rejected life as a dancer or dancing teacher. I wanted to write, and with that in mind, I went off to college for four years to major in philosophy, taking no tights or leotards, convinced that my dancing days were over. My mother said nothing, but she admits to an “I knew it!” smile at my frantic letter two weeks later requesting my practice clothes by return mail. I danced and choreographed all four years at college, but refused to write my honors thesis on dance aesthetics as my philosophy professor Holcombe Austin suggested. Dance wasn’t serious enough. I needed a reason—a philosophical raison d’être—for a life in dance to which to devote myself. It was John Cage who provided that, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

John and Merce were on a tour of the United States. Just the two of them. John performed his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano and Merce gave master classes. Together they gave concerts with Merce performing an evening of solos and John playing the piano or percussion for Merce’s dances, although in Denver there was no dance concert. John’s Sonatas and Interludes were exquisite; beautiful, quiet, gently percussive, rhythmically tantalizing music, seductively and hypnotically easy to listen to. Earle found them “pretty” but not compelling. His own interests at the time were the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern, and the ideas of Joseph Schillinger. In Denver, where he taught the Schillinger System of arranging and composition, Earle found no one to talk with except his students, most of them jazz musicians (Broadway and Hollywood composers had been prominent among Schillinger’s students), and Eric Johnson, a young pianist-composer who accompanied dancers and composed for Jane McLean. It was Jane who had arranged for Cunningham and Cage to appear in Denver, although she could not afford to present them in a dance concert, and it was Jane (a dancer formerly with Martha Graham and thereby an acquaintance of Merce) with whom I was then studying and performing. Johnson, her pianist, had met John Cage in New York and reported back to us that John was charming but completely crazy, a common consensus in those years. Charming John Cage most certainly could be; completely crazy he was not, had never been.

At each of two parties given for Cage and Cunningham that weekend, Earle and I “rather cornered John” (as I wrote home) “and talked the evening away.” The first real question Earle asked him was “Do you feel there is an affinity between your music and the music of Anton Webern?” It was still rare in the United States in 1951 for anyone to know Webern’s work. Cage looked quickly toward Earle and replied, “What do you know about Webern?” The conversation took off from there. We heard for the first time the names Pierre Boulez, a young French composer whom Cage had met two years earlier in Paris; David Tudor, an extraordinary young pianist; Morton Feldman, a young New York composer writing graph music. All these young men, more than a decade younger than Cage, were born within a year or two of each other and were Earle’s immediate contemporaries. Cage told us about his own Music of Changes, which he was then writing, and about his use of “chance operations” in composing. Eventually the talk moved away from music to art in general, and to philosophy and religion; specifically to Zen Buddhism and the I Ching. I was tremendously disturbed by much that he said.

The second night, we talked again—just Earle and John and I, for the most part—and in a letter to my parents describing that weekend I wrote: “John Cage is more than a startlingly original musician—he is living his philosophy of life which is a vital and free one. His philosophy of life is the thing I wrote my paper about last year!” (In my senior year at Wheaton College, I’d written an honors thesis on “Creativity in Ethics” that had not been understood by my New England–born Episcopalian mother and Baptist father. For some reason they had taken it to be a criticism of their values and philosophies. It wasn’t.) After our second evening with John Cage, Earle wrote down all that he and I could remember of our conversation. I believe we both understood then that the weekend had altered our lives, that we had to leave Denver and go to New York. But we had no money to make such a move; it wasn’t until August 1952 that we packed our belongings in a wagon trailer hitched behind our Ford station wagon and headed east.

In April 1951, Earle was already working at three jobs daily. From nine to five he worked at Cabaniss, a contemporary furniture store and interior design shop that sold Eames, Saarinen, Mies van de Rohe, Herman Miller, the Knoll line, and Schiffer prints. Earle got the job when we were down to our last dollar—a silver keepsake. He used the dollar for a haircut and got the job the same afternoon. From that job, he went to his own studio in a midtown professional building where he gave private lessons to four young jazz musicians and also taught a class with five students. After that he came home to compose. In the early hours of the morning he wrote a string quartet, a passacaglia (for Jane McLean and me to dance to), and a trio. When he finally did go to bed he had trouble sleeping, music still on his mind.

I, too, had been trying to write. A few short stories. A review of Martha Graham’s performance of Judith with the Denver Symphony. Dutifully I sent them off, hoping for publication. They were returned—sometimes with a few kind encouraging words attached, but returned nonetheless. I was utterly lost. I suppose I was not unlike many young married female college graduates in the fifties who despite their love for their husbands, felt as though they had dropped into a void. It was Earle, not I, who sensed that I missed dancing. His boss, Mrs. Adelaide Cabaniss, told him about Jane McLean, and he encouraged me to seek her out; he even took me to her studio the first time! Partly, I’m sure, this was self-defense on Earle’s part: with so much to do, so much he wanted to do, he must have felt suffocated by my attempting to live vicariously through his activities.

It was with a sense of relief that I stopped trying to write and started again to dance. I took daily classes with Jane McLean and performed in her concerts and lecture demonstrations. Her classes were my first exposure to “real” Graham technique after fifteen years of studying and performing Denishawn and ballet, plus four years of the usual hodgepodge taught in the dance classes of liberal arts colleges’ physical education departments at that time.

Before meeting Cage and Cunningham, Earle and I had enrolled at Colorado College Summer School, Earle to study with Arnold Schoenberg and I with Hanya Holm. On our honeymoon the previous summer, we had made a pilgrimage to 116 North Rockingham Avenue in Los Angeles, parked our battered but beloved ’42 station wagon in front of Schoenberg’s home and, for about an hour, just sat there quietly. Ten years later, when we met Schoenberg’s daughter Nuria in Venice, we told her of our silent homage. “Oh, you should have come in! He would have been so pleased to meet you,” was the gist of her reply as she expressed her sorrow over the reticence of those who truly respected her father and the audacity of those who came merely sightseeing.

John Cage had been Schoenberg’s pupil from around 1934 to 1936, both privately and at the University of California, Los Angeles. Music critic Peter Yates quotes Schoenberg on Cage: “He is not a composer, but an inventor of genius.” In May 1951, we learned that Schoenberg would not come to Colorado. Earle was deeply disappointed and decided to ask Schoenberg if he could study with him later that summer, privately. On June 27, 1951, Schoenberg replied:

Dear Mr. Brown:

If it is not too expensive for you to pay $25.00 per lesson and if I am well enough to teach you, I could suggest that you come to Los Angeles for a number of weeks. I hope I will be able to teach you, but I cannot guaranty it. Anyway, in a space of several weeks there will probably be a possibility once or twice a week.

Let me hear from you.

Sincerely yours, Arnold Schoenberg

And so of course we would go to Los Angeles.


From the Hardcover edition.