The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s farewell tour will bring it to the Kennedy Center Dec. 2-3, and in anticipation of seeing this one-of-a-kind choreography for the very last time, I’ve been reading Carolyn Brown’s engrossing 2007 memoir, “Chance and Circumstance” (Northwestern University Press). This is illuminating reading for any Cunningham fan, any dance lover — indeed, anyone interested in mid-century American art. As far as passions, drama and boundary-busting zeal go, the circles modern-dance choreographer Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and their pals ran in rival those of Updike, Bellow and other assorted modernists and beatniks.

Members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform the piece “Antic Meet.” (Anna Finke)

Carolyn Brown was a founding member of Cunningham’s company back in the early ‘50s, and danced with the troupe until 1972. Her massive book — nearly 600 pages — is a colorful, carefully written and detailed chronicle not only of how Cunningham and his longtime partner and music director John Cage revolutionized the performing arts, but also of the artist’s life in 1950s New York City.

On the Lower East Side apartment of avant-garde musician David Tudor (who created the sonic roar Kennedy Center audiences will hear when they see Cunningham’s “Sounddance”): “Up five flights, down a long hallway, dimly lit, smelling of yesterday’s cabbage and stale sausage and the rotting garbage that oozed putrescence from the brown paper bags outside each door...The kitchen window looked out on an air shaft...Toilet outside, down the hall.”

The insights into Cunningham’s art are especially valuable. Cunningham was deeply influenced by ballet technique (and no wonder he loved Brown’s dancing; she was a serious ballet student, even while dancing with Cunningham--she trained with ballet choreographer Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School). Cunningham, however, taught his dancers to use the torso, to make it “twist, curve, tilt, attack percussively,” and also, Brown writes: “The strong emphasis in his classes was on the workings of the spine, the legs and the feet.” Reading this, visualizing his dances, you see exactly where on the body and in space his movement innovations landed.

Merce Cunningham in "Antic Meet," 1958. (Marvin Silver/Marvin Silver)

And the dance? “The work as a whole seemed incongruous and inscrutable but at the same time excruciatingly honest. It was this naked honesty that was arresting. ...The plainness of the movement and the stoic stillnesses revealed the dancer utterly.”

These comments on a 1952 work, created at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, could be said of many Cunningham pieces over the ensuing years, works that are often difficult to “get,” at times accompanied by jarring, even painful music...and how revealing it is to read such candor from one of the choreographer’s primary collaborators. I so admire a history that has the warmth of affection and some measure of nostalgia, yet is also disarmingly honest.

But that’s not all--more pleasures abound. Brown does not limit her writing to Cunningham; she was partaking of many dance opportunities in those early years. One was to be a “walk-on” in a Royal Ballet production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” where she could observe the ballerina Margot Fonteyn at close range.

Fonteyn, she writes, “was modest (almost to a fault), utterly disciplined, self-critical, generous and never given to histrionics or temper tantrums backstage, and she seemed to be incapable of making a flashy or applause-catching gesture onstage. Her kindheartedness extended to stagehands, even to the loweliest super.”

On Cage, Zen and Eastern philosophy, which infused Cage’s experiments with music: Unlike most Western followers, it wasn’t meditation and yoga-style breath-awareness exercises that drew him. He chose instead “to employ different mechanical, chance procedures that required endless hours of disciplined, painstaking, repetitive work in an attempt to exclude his ego and thus his preferences and any vestiges of personal taste from his music....”

Sounds so strange for an artist to do — exclude his ego! Yet this is exactly what Cunningham, inspired by Cage, was after too. Brown quotes him as saying his work was “a spiritual exercise in physical form.” That rings beautifully true. And her writing puts that exercise in yet another form — literary, and very much alive.


Merce Cunningham, modernist choreographer, dies at 90

Merce Cunningham’s modern dance steps in jeopardy with his passing

Full archive for Sarah Kaufman