A Note on Merce Cunningham and John Cage

February 18th, 2012  |  Published in *, February 2012  |  2 Comments

Editor’s Note:

ÆQAI has invited contemporary dance critic and still occasional dancer/teacher Kathy Valin to write for us in an interdisciplinary fashion.  Look for ÆQAI to do more of this kind of crossover writing.  Maria Seda-Reeder’s review of the Nick Cave installation on all three floors of the Cincinnati Art Museum is featured in this issue and Kathy Valin reviews the actual performance that Cave did on the first two evenings of the opening of his installation.  Chris Reeves’ review of the John Cage and Friends exhibition at Carl Solway Gallery gave us the idea of asking Kathy to write an essay on the relationship between artist/musician Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham to give our readers greater depth into these early days of American modern and contemporary art.  Look for Kathy’s biographical information and credentials preceding her review of the Cave performance.

Daniel Brown


When I was asked by my editor Daniel Brown to write about Merce Cunningham, the American choreographer, as sidebar piece to accompany aeqai’s review of the Solway Gallery John Cage retrospective (Cage was Cunningham’s companion of fifty years and closet artistic associate) the first thing I thought of was the one glimpse I had of the famous man. It occurred at the Dance Critics Association annual meeting at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City. Merce, as those in the dance community are wont to call the man born Mercier Philip Cunningham in Centralia, Washington in 1919, was sitting in a wheelchair along with other officers and presenters as the membership filed into the risers.

His hair was a silvery ring of curls, his eyes were piercingly set over what I perceived as bags of age and wisdom. His presence drew my eye immediately and why not? A riveting performer, compared in his heyday to Nijinsky and Fred Astaire for his virtuosity (especially the loftiness and suspension of his jumps),  and an iconic physical presence whose long neck and sloping shoulders were likened to a Picasso acrobat, the man still had it going on.

I had long been a fan of his dances for their virtuosity, their use of groundbreaking aspects of ordinary pedestrian movement and city life, not to speak of their wit and humor, but had never seen the company live. To see him, however, in all his haloed glory, in the flesh, was like seeing myth made real. I was in awe.

But back to Danny’s request. I already knew a bit about Merce’s work with John Cage, but a little more research during the past few days has yielded some interesting insight into their partnership. I’ve come to believe that Cunningham was probably at heart a solo act, but that his collaborative relationship with Cage allowed to him grow and mature as an artist. In Alastair Macaulay’s 2009 New York Times obituary, Cunningham is described as a visionary who transformed the nature and status of dance theater on a level with Isadora Duncan, Serge Diaghilev, Martha Graham and George Balanchine.

There’s no doubt that Cunningham was a significant and central part of John Cage’s life.  His collaboration and companionship with Cage began in 1942 (with the first of his own work he produced after dancing with the Martha Graham Company as its second male soloist) and continued for fifty years, until Cage’s death.

It is probably not mentioned all that often in discussions about the two, but their meeting involved considerable passion. In 1941, Cage (who was already acquainted with Cunningham) arrived in New York with his wife Xenia. It played out that Cunningham and Xenia actually appeared together in a 1943 percussion orchestra performance at the Museum of Modern Art. Afterwards, Cage encouraged Cunningham to choreograph. They became lovers and the Cages’ ensuing divorce was not pretty.

Though an open secret, their relationship was so much subdued that it came as a surprise to some in 1989 when Cage replied in public to an unexpected question by saying “I do the cooking, and Merce does the dishes.”

After he lost Cage, Cunningham soldiered on. Until 1989, when he was 70, he was said to have appeared in every single performance given by Merce Cunningham Dance Company. At 80 he performed with Mikhail Baryshinikov and observed his 90th birthday with “Nearly Ninety” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He seemed to have an endless fascination with dance. To those who visited him as he was dying, he said he was still creating dances in his head.

He once wrote “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, and nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

Cage, who was intimately involved with the Cunningham company as composer and designer from its inception, once wryly said “I have given Merce the stage . . . I have stayed in the curtains.” And Cunningham once said equally wryly of life without the notoriously controlling Cage: “On the one hand, I come home at the end of the day, and John’s not there. On the other hand, I come home and John’s not there.”

One thing is for sure. As two major artists of the twentieth century with a shared avant garde vision, they proposed, created and executed important works. Most famously, in the relationship of dance and music in performance they conceived a situation where each was independent of the other. It was left to the audience to bring their own meaning to the work, to discover the unity between sounds and dance.

Cunningham’s dances for his company draw as well on the theory of indeterminacy, which Cage championed as a composer. In Chance and Circumstance, by Carolyn Brown, Cunningham’s longtime leading co-dancer, she notes that the composer and choreographer were, however, different in the stringency with which they applied the theory, especially early on. As she saw it, Cage’s philosophical commitment to making music that was indeterminate with respect to its performance, and his unwavering optimism and hope that his performers would respect the work and “act nobly” was not exactly shared by Cunningham, whom she thinks came to indeterminism “reluctantly” and “never truly believed in its practicality for dance.”

Both artists experimented extensively with chance as a tool (often by means of a consultation with the I Ching but also with cards and dice), but in Merce’s case much more as a way to shake up habits of composition rather than a spur for improvisation. Once a dance was created, it was almost always performed the same way afterwards. Merce, was also influenced by Zen Buddhism from his company’s beginning. In the Times obit, Macaulay mentions that Cunningham though “always a superlative dance soloist, now created a dance theater in which the basic condition was soloism. Even in a duet or trio, each dancer retained marked degrees of independence and detachment.”

I’ve come to believe that the relationship between Cunningham and Cage, assuredly a great 20th century love story, is most fascinating in its contradictions. Cunningham was said to be a remarkable dance partner who could show in his dances how people can be intensely involved and isolated at the same time in a relationship – both cooperating and independent. It seems that the shared artistic dictum between the composer and the choregrapher – that in the relationship between dance and music in performance each was independent of the other – plus the fact that these two men were willing to continue as life partners in time together with united goals in their very productive artistic endeavors while somehow, especially in Cunningham’s case, maintaining an individual presence, has special resonance.

–Kathy Valin



    March 1st, 2012at 2:42 am(#)

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  2. mickey says:

    March 4th, 2012at 6:47 pm(#)

    Gads, you’ve gotten so good in your writing! Truly scholarly writing.
    One odd speck of sand: in Buddhism of any sort (she wrote after her nose rose at the mention of her 12 years of Tibetan Buddhist practice), the word “independent” might be considered an impossibility. How can I be independent, completely independent? I would be dead, because everything around me is the result of the kindness of another. I depend on everyone else: housepainter, mail person, table built for you, food available to eat, jobs, cars, those who designed the cars, those who put it together in such a pleasing way that now comforts you. How sweet to think of it that way, eh?
    So the big buzz word might be Vietnamese Theravadan (Zen) Buddhism Thich Nhat Hanh’s coined term: Inter-dependence.

    In that sense, we don’t deny the net of light strands of connection amongst us all. Aren’t we all One? Do you believe we are All One? I’m still working on my conviction in that one.

    So in the case of Cage and Cunningham, and Cage’s insistence on the sound’s countering of the dance movement (if I understand you right), it could be looked at thus: the massive universal concept of divisiveness vs oneness . . . here they are, both on the one hand divided and on the other hand intimately alive to each other in the ineffability of dance and music and other such spiritual enhancers.

    Thanks for all your research. I learned alot.
    mickey morgan