8 Cezanne Lane on Merce Cunningham
Cezanne Lane is a senior pre-med and biology major at UW. She was raised by an oil painter and a doctor. Her parents met in a dance class and both worked with instructors who were students of Merce Cunningham. Cezanne enjoys being outside, working with her hands, moving her body, and exercising her mind.
Mercier Philip “Merce” Cunningham (1919-2009), was an American dancer and choreographer who worked at Black Mountain College and is known for his collaborations with composer John Cage.
In Cunningham’s 1994 essay, Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries, he discusses his most influential findings and events throughout his lifetime. Among these are; The separation of music and dance, the use of chance operations in choreography, the integration of video and film into choreography, and the use of a ‘dance computer’ via a computer program called Life Forms.
My own background is of course very different from Merce Cunningham. But I feel that we connect in many ways. Among these is my background, being raised by two ex-modern dancers, one of which was trained by one of Cunningham’s students. Another connection I have discovered is my own making process. In my own time I dabble in sewing garments, water coloring landscapes, and producing one of a kind embroidery pieces. In this class I engaged in two making projects. My first was a wearable piece that explored my own personal experience of waiting. My second making project was Rhino CAD recreation of my MacBook Pro. This project served as a time capsule which explored the complicated and nuanced relationship that modern society (myself included) has with social media and technology.
In this letter to Merce Cunningham I will discuss our connections in ideology, making processes, world view, and integration of technology. I will also discuss a theme in Cunningham’s work that I find most compelling, a pull and tug between limitations and freedom as well as chaos and order.
Letter to Merce Cunningham
Dear Merce Cunningham,
When I imagine a dance, I have expectations of continuity and narrative. You rejected drama, narrative, and psychological information in favor of the infinite possibilities that accompany a focus on human movement. You also rejected continuity of movements, shapes, even natural human movement. Your lifetime of rejecting what was already known or assumed to be true and correct was the catalyst for postmodernism of dance and performing arts. You shifted the focus away from music and plot that can be seen in pieces like Swan Lake and instead emphasized the movement of bodies. It reminds me so much of a scientist removing variables and observing changes. Again and again, throughout your life’s work, there seems to be a pull and tug between limitations and freedom and in some ways, between chaos and order. It seems that your work uses the process of creating interactions between choreography, dance, music and technology as a way to investigate and manipulate this pull and tug.
You stripped dance down to its bones, its very foundation, when you began to toy with the methodology of “chance operations” as a choreographic development technique. In your 1994 essay, Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries, you state “From the beginning, working in this manner gave me a feeling of freedom for the dance, not a dependence upon the note-by-note procedure which I had been used to working. I had a clear sense of both clarity and interdependence between the dance and the music”. I am fascinated by the fact that chance operation uses actual chance, as in literally rolling a dice or flipping a coin. I am amazed that you were able to let go of what movement you may have felt was “right” and let chance take its course. This technique in itself is full of order and chaos. It seems that the order is brought by the algorithmic structure of rolling a dice and choosing between a set of movements or combinations, these are limitations. Whereas the freedom is found in the chaos of leaving decisions to chance rather than reason or desire. It seems that your process of creating choreography served as a way to grapple with this tug and pull between freedom and limitation.
Your use of chance operations feels similar to my own process of embroidery. Like the sewing needle, your choreography makes dance out of movement. Like the sewing needle, there are rudimentary steps, a subtle flick of the wrist or tuck of the pelvis is not too dissimilar from the in and out of the fabric that the needle does. Each step is seemingly random and yet methodical at the same time. But together they make a piece of art (whether it be a choreographed dance or an embroidered fabric). Additionally, there seems to be a sense of humility in this making process. It seems that in utilizing chance operations, you let go of the goal of the final product or expectations for the finished piece and just goes with where the movement seems to go. This really reminds me of my own experience of embroidery. I do have an image in mind for what I want my final product to look like. But really all I can do is focus on one stitch at a time. And while I do that, one stitch may be a little crooked or may guide me in a different direction. This can be seen in my embroidered jeans piece titled Waiting. This piece features two primary embroidery techniques, one of which was new to me. The familiar chain stitch is used to create fireworks. This stitch is repetitive, orderly, and evenly spaced. The firework images themselves are predictable colors and vary in size only slightly. This leg is used to represent the predictability and repetitiveness of waiting. The second leg utilizes patchwork and a blanket stitch. This stitching is uneven, the colors unpredictable, and the textiles themselves appear random. This leg is used to represent the possibilities of what can be built and created while waiting. It utilizes a seemingly repetitive and simple stitch to create a beautiful unpredictable sort of chaos, capitalizing on the privilege of available idle time spent waiting. The contrast of the two legs symbolizes personal choice and allows the viewer to essentially decide which foot they’ll put forward. The wearable aspect of this piece is intended to serve a purpose for the wearer themselves, to look down at their pant legs and choose to make something beautiful and unpredictable out of their idle time. I attempted to use chance operation with each stitch. I let the needle itself toy with reliability and unreliability. Each new piece of fabric was chosen randomly, placed on the jeans randomly, and sewn with a random colored thread (I literally closed my eyes when picking from my box of embroidery thread). I attempted to embrace the play between chaos and order with my piece, as you have with your chance operations making process. It is this experience that made your work and process of making so compelling to me.
Another groundbreaking experiment that you engaged in was the separation of dance and music. I love imagining you setting out to make a 20 minute dance choreography and enlisting John Cage in making 20 minutes of music, with no other boundaries other than time. This collaboration, or lack thereof, freed dance to be its own stand alone, living breathing thing. You broke the shackles of traditional dance which was dependent on music to carry it and guide it.
I watched one of your collaborative pieces with John Cage titled Roaratorio. It honestly made me quite uncomfortable. It is chaotic and it doesn’t feel like it sat right. The “music” is mostly random sounds. There seem to be a wide variety of bird noises included. The dancers run in and out of stage, each seems to be performing their own strange set of movements. Some are just hopping up and down, others run around, others leap side to side. I tried to push past my own discomfort and consider why I felt the way I did in response to this piece. I myself believe dance and music were created for each other. In my experience of the two of them, they are the blood that pumps through the other’s veins. To me, separating them is depriving, isolating, and limiting. For me, I imagine it would be like separating texture and flavor in food or the needle and the thread in textiles. Also, so much of music and dance are deeply rooted in culture, history, and a diverse human experience. I worry that separating them from each other makes them mechanical and surgical and abandons their emotionality (and with this, limits their freedom). I think my discomfort was not an accident. In fact I think my response, to question what music and dance really was your exact intention. Is that true? Did you strip these art forms to their core and set them to be performed independently and simultaneously of each other to push me, the viewer, to completely reassess my views of the two of them?
Your choreography is described by a dancer, Carolyn Brown, she writes, “‘this release from the [musical] beat could validly be called deprivation,’ a strict adherence to that beat could ‘rob both the dancer and the dance of the subtle rhythms unique to each human body’”(Brown, 2007). I am struck by the descriptions of strictness and deprivation. However when Eva Díaz writes “separation of the music from the dance resulted in a movement style that accentuates “the rhythm of a body in movement”(Díaz, 2014) I think that I hear your intentions loud and clear. I wonder if I am missing the details and nuance when too much is happening at once, when music and dance are combined. As an experiment, I attempt to investigate this a little by watching videos of famous ballerinas. I am engaging in the practice of questioning my own perceptions and assumptions, in a way that I believe you would approve of. I switch the music on and off during one viewing. Next, I watch it all the way through without music. At one point, I close my eyes and listen to the music alone. Each time I notice something different. Without the music the dance is completely different. My focus on the dancer is sharpened, I begin to notice the pointing of her feet, the angle of her head, even the tilt of her hips and pelvis. But with the music alone, I feel my own body begin to twitch in response to the stillness. I certainly do not break in to dance but it draws my attention inwards, at the way I am sitting at my own chair. Your daring move to separate dance from music and music from dance is less deprivation and more about appreciation of the minutiae that goes into each movement and the freedom that is gained by this discovery, is it not?
In April of 1997, you choreographed a dance that used a specialized computer program which collected data, tracked movement with optical sensors and reflective spheres attached to dancers (Vaughan, 1997). Your work that combined dance, music, performing art, technology, and film pushed the boundaries of art. I have read your essays in which you discuss the challenges that came with working with video and film in regards to speed and space. You are known to have repeatedly quoted Albert Einstein in saying “there are no fixed points in space”. I understand that this quote stuck with you and influenced the way you used space on the stage. The way that you reassessed the way that we value space opened up limitless opportunities for reshaping dance performance (beyond center stage). When I read this quote, it reminds me of the process of using computer aided design technology (CAD). In our CAD Rhino making project we used the computer to map specific points of an object. I made a computer and at first I tried to map it directly as I saw it. In attempting to make an exact replica of what I knew, I found that I could change dimensions and reject what physics or reality might require of most objects. Working in CAD allowed me to make a normal looking MacBook laptop with the apple logo jumping out of the screen and the words of the screen written backwards. I attempted to reject space. It was hard to commit to and to unlearn what I had already seen and been undeniably influenced by. Not unlike today’s CAD programs, you utilized the program LifeForms to map out movement of figures in space. You embraced the use of film, body sensors, and motion-capture technology soon after their very inventionI love imagining you moving the figures, or ‘Michelin men’ as you call them, joint by joint to create new human shapes. I watched the very first dance that you created with LifeForms, ‘Trackers’. I must say, it was not beautiful. It was quite uncomfortable. Your movement and form was almost inhuman, dare I say robotic. But again, this performance forced me to question what ‘dance’ really is. Does it have to be beautiful? Does it have to have a narrative? I found myself searching for a narrative. I saw you move to the metal ballet bar and I began to make something up, a message you were conveying.
I see a similar theme to this in modern CAD work. For so many years textiles and clothing were produced by individual people or small groups of people. The loom was used to weave cloth with the help of a person’s fingers. Its many iterations played a key part in changing the way textiles and clothing were made. And today we have CAD programs that print pieces of clothing. These CAD-enabled designs do not just try to recreate what is already made, rather they appear to be attempting to redefine what clothing, fashion, and design really are. For example, the Spider Dress created by Anouk Wipprecht has mechanical arms that extend and retract in response to external stimuli. This dress is certainly not beautiful, but it pushes the viewer (and probably the wearer/user) to rethink our society-wide definitions and standards for beauty and design and the functions which they serve. This seems to mirror your use of LifeForms to map out movement of dancers, and the way that it forces us viewers to question what we define as beauty and dance and how we choose to integrate technology into these age-old concepts.
It turns out that yet again the limitations and possibilities that came with utilizing brand new technology gave you new ways to expand and evolve dance and performing art. As you put so gracefully put it, “I am aware once more of new possibilities with which to work”(Vaughan, 1997). You embraced the use of film, body sensors, and motion-capture technology soon after their very invention. In contrast, I myself felt infuriated while learning to use computer aided design technology. In our CAD making project we used the computer to map specific points of an object. This process bears an uncanny resemblance to your work in which you used motion-sensing technology to map dancers’ movements. While exploring the CAD program, I found myself frustrated with the limitations of trying something for the first time and being a beginner. I imagine that you felt a similar frustration while learning to utilize brand new technology with a background in dance in choreography (very much not a computer scientist). And yet, it seems that you were excited by the adventure of using something new and abandoning expectations (for himself and the viewers). I am forced to wonder why you chose to experiment so vastly. Was it driven by a desire to discover new realms of creativity or did it simply come from a place of humility? Rather than fighting the discomfort and limitations of trying something new or unexpected, you embraced it.
I can’t help but wonder what you would think of our current limitations, amidst a global pandemic. I wonder what you would imagine using the platform of zoom, and working within the limitations of social isolation. This reminds me of the very first day of Honors 211 when we watched a Julliard video of students and professors performing their respective art form in their respective homes. They were limited by their situation but they brought each isolated piece together, utilized and embraced the available technology, and created a whole new form of art. I believe this very piece speaks volumes to your influence and relevance on today’s art and culture.
I hope to carry your curiosity, humility, and bravery to rethink what is already known. I think this way of thinking will serve me well as a scientist in the future.
Thank you for your work.
Brown, Carolyn. “Chance And Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage And Cunningham”, 2007. 1st ed New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Díaz, Eva . “Black Mountain College.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 2014, Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 2014-01-01.
Gross, Terry. “Remembering Choreographer And Dancer Merce Cunningham.” NPR. NPR, April 5, 2019.
Vaughan, David. Merce Cunningham : Fifty Years /. First ed. New York, NY :: Aperture, 1997.