Cage’s out-of-sync piano playing might have been a liability in the eyes of some dancers. But not for Cunningham, who shared Cage’s drive for newness. And so was born one of the great partnerships in dance. As Fred was to Ginger, and Fonteyn to Nureyev, so was Cage to Cunningham.
Since Cunningham went on to become the king of modern dance, it follows that the art form would not be the same without Cage, his longtime musical adviser, artistic collaborator and life partner. Nor would Cage be the same without dance. You wouldn’t know this from the meager dance references in the upcoming John Cage Centennial Festival.
In fact, Cage created his most famous invention, the “prepared piano,” for a dance.
Back in 1940, when he was a dance accompanist at Seattle’s Cornish School, a dance student named Syvilla Fort asked Cage to write the music for her graduation concert. Cage wanted to use a full percussion ensemble for one of the pieces he composed for her, called “Bacchanale,” but there wasn’t room in the theater. So he brought the percussion into the piano, laying screws, bolts and bits of leather on the strings so they thudded and pinged as he played.
What Cage did with the piano that night long outlasted what Fort did onstage (though she would go on to an important career in her own right, performing with Katherine Dunham and teaching Marlon Brando and James Dean how to dance). But what he gained from that concert was even more important than the curious new sound. In the creative problem-solving that working with dancers required, Cage discovered an immensely satisfying and fruitful process. This is what fueled his half-century of collaboration with Cunningham, which began in earnest a few years later.
Cage had already tapped the tall, elegant teenage dancer, also a student at Cornish, to be one of the members of his all-percussion sextet at the school. (All the “musicians” in the group, except Cage, were dancers. Maybe that was because Cage needed vigorous movers to thump around on the washtubs, tortoise shells and pipe lengths that he scrounged for them.)
By 1945, Cage had talked Cunningham into leaving his first professional gig as a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and going solo, with Cage at his side. After all, the two men had so much in common. They both wanted to defy how it’s done.
Cage’s lack of interest in timekeeping or other musical conventions (“I certainly had no feeling for harmony,” he once acknowledged) suited Cunningham just fine. As Cage adopted chance operations in his music, tossing coins to determine the pitch, volume and duration of sounds, Cunningham realized he could also use a coin toss to order sequences of steps and numbers of dancers, and revolutionize his field.