Indeed, it was in the realm of everyday living where Cage displayed his true mastery. His renown for whimsical sound experiments was one thing, his debatable merits as a composer another. But as the music director of Cunningham’s company and, for many years, its de facto manager, chief fundraiser, tour cook, bus driver, resident philosopher, morale-booster and liaison between the moody, introverted choreographer and his dancers, Cage was the indispensable sherpa who kept Cunningham and the artists around him relatively sane.
“John was like everyone’s father, in a way,” said Susana Hayman-Chaffey, a Cunningham dancer in the 1960s and ’70s.
Cage’s influence over Cunningham’s art continued beyond his death in 1992. In 2003, the British rock band Radiohead accepted Cunningham’s invitation to compose for a new dance. (The piece was called “Split Sides,” and yes, Radiohead, which sold out Madison Square Garden at around the same time, performed as the dance troupe’s pit band at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) The band didn’t know much about Cunningham’s choreography, their manager, Chris Houfford, told me at the time. What clinched the deal was that for bandleader Thom Yorke, Cage was one of his “all-time art heroes.”
Lately, little recognition has been paid to Cage’s connection to dance. That is, until July, when, in homage to Cage, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed an engrossing piece called “Story/Time.” It was modeled on Cage’s 1958 work “Indeterminacy,” in which he sat alone onstage, reading aloud a series of one-minute stories he’d written. In the engagement at Wolf Trap, Jones took on the Cage role, reading from his own one-minute stories, selected and ordered by chance. Dancers from Jones’s company performed as he read. It was a lovely tribute from one experimental artist to another, a bow across time to a man who was a great friend of dance.