Root of an unfocus: how Merce Cunningham developed common time into an artistic strategy

With John Cage and others, the choreographer invented a new way of thinking about movement

by Fionn Meade  |  10 February 2017
Root of an unfocus: how Merce Cunningham developed common time into an artistic strategy
Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event for the Garden    Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, 12 September 1998. (Photo: Walker Art Center Archives)
Merce Cunningham: Common Time, an exhibition opening this month at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (8 February-30 July) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (11 February-30 April), looks at the seminal choreographer's 70-year career and his collaborations with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Nauman, among many others. In this edited excerpt from introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the show's lead curator, Fionn Meade, explains the genesis of Cunningham's idea of "common time."

Barbara Morgan, Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus (1944).(Collection UCLA Library Special Collections Barbara and Willard Morgan Archives)
With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances that made up his first solo concert. The performance took place in New York City in 1944, five years after he moved from Seattle to dance in the Martha Graham Company and two years into his partnership with composer John Cage. All six dances were prepared in collaboration with musical compositions by Cage, who presented additional works of his own that April evening. For this do-it-yourself affair, Cunningham made his own costumes, Cage designed the program flyers, and both footed the bill to rent the theater. More importantly, this self-acknowledged debut registers on a level beyond being brash and self-starting: it demonstrates just how early the duo’s radical approach to collaboration gained momentum. Unencumbered by expectations of accompaniment, their alliance was driven rather by a principle of simultaneity and independence for dance and music within a shared register. For Cunningham, this moment was the beginning of a career that operated out of a “root of an unfocus” that was based in collaborative work and would stretch over six decades of restive creation. Cunningham later told an interviewer that Root of an Unfocus was made “when I was still concerned with expression. It was about fear.” Even so, the dance marked a crucial turning point for both Cunningham and Cage, as it pivoted around the notion that time, rather than melody or narrative, should constitute the underlying relationship between dance and music. Having agreed on a durational structure where sound and movement would align only at the transitions between the dance’s three sections, Cunningham and Cage were free to create independently of one another, with their shared aesthetic only fully revealed in the performance itself. The radically deconstructed space and time that began with this work was subsequently inscribed as existing in between dance and music. As Cunningham told it to author Calvin Tomkins as early as 1962, the ripple effect implicit in this first work’s title quickly became concentric and widening:

The main thing about it—and the thing everybody missed—was that its structure was based on time, in the same sense that a radio show is. It was divided into time units, and the dance and music would come together at the beginning and the end of each unit, but in between they would be independent of each other. This was the beginning of the idea that music and dance could be dissociated, and from this point on the dissociation in our work just got wider and wider.

This dissociative experiment would be developed into a praxis that would not only endure but also thrive over nearly six decades of shared work and hundreds of collaborations across disciplines. The “root of an un-” swiftly became a network, circulating what Cunningham would later describe as a shared “history that reflects to me a change or enlargement of the underlying principle … that music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.”

Indeed, “common time” as made operative by Cage and Cunningham is an inter- register in which things are taken apart in order to be reassembled. Borrowing promiscuously in order to discover unforeseen configurations, Cunningham and Cage did not create a pure vocabulary but rather an alongside sensibility that was, as Cunningham put it, independent yet interdependent. They pursued this inter- approach by maintaining autonomy within shared duration, a trajectory that early on crossed from modern into contemporary aesthetics. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College, was the catalytic engine, an unparalleled and unique nexus of collaborative practice oscillating within the frame of choreography that continues to reverberate today.

With common time as the core ethos of their work, Cunningham and Cage overturned a succession of conventions during their first decade together, in the process opening up the fertile and nervy ground from which MCDC emerged. With a propulsive imperative that demanded what Cunningham called “a continuing flexibility in the relation of the arts,” their collaboration shape-shifted the landscape of modern art as no other had ever done, creating a nearly cellular approach to composition methods. It was understood from the outset that MCDC could expand but also contract, serving as an inter- platform and fluctuating organism for unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary experimentation. Through its many iterations, the company and its network of collaborators maintained an attitude of openness to change (and changes). Exits and entrances abound. Working within and through common time demands acceleration, deeply focused technique, and a highly adaptive use of version and variation that Cunningham described as ongoing: “We are involved in a process of work and activity, not in a series of finished objects.”

Autonomy in collaboration, independence and interdependence: this was not business as usual. Their success derived in no small part from an early mutual acknowledgment of the different skills each brought to their collaborations. Not surprisingly, their experiments began in a studio. In 1938, Cunningham was a second year student at the Cornish School (now the Cornish College of the Arts) in Seattle, and Cage was the new dance accompanist and composer, just arrived from Carmel, California, with his then wife, Xenia. Cage was already beginning to explore “the simultaneous composition of both dance and music,” and it was immediately apparent to both Cunningham and Bonnie Bird, who ran Cornish’s dance department, that Cage was radical and risk-taking. As Bird recalled, “John was marvelously stimulating. The creative work of the students took on a whole new dimension. … I remember his using the floor like a great blackboard, on which he drew; he got the students to recognize time in terms of divisions of time and space, and made visual analogies for them.” Cunningham, too, recalled a wholly immersive “how to” attitude in the classes that Cage taught for Bird when she was traveling. “[It was] a revelation—suddenly there was something very precise and very strict to work with. He simply made us make things. You had to think about it, not just have some feeling about what you were going to do next, but think about it, and that was an extraordinary experience.”

In Cage's work, time was privileged over progression and duration became the central frame of experimentation. In 1941, for example, Cage collaborated with fellow composer Lou Harrison on a work entitled Double Music, for which each wrote a part independently and combined them without alteration into the final composition. This simultaneity of independent work extends to the durational method further developed with MCDC, as Cage and Cunningham adopted an approach to collective production inspired by a wide range of sources, from the Bauhaus to their own early studio and concert experiments at Cornish.

Merce Cunningham with dancers at Westbeth, 1971. (Photo: James Klosty, courtesy of the photographer)

Cunningham’s retrospective assessment of Root of an Unfocus, which he acknowledged “still worked with expressive behavior,” benefits from a comparison with two solos created ten years later that, taken together, show the expanding nature of common time over these pivotal early years. The differences between them reveal the crucial role “chance operations” (Cage and Cunningham shared the use of this term) played at this time in expanding and focusing the evolution of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary. In Untitled Solo (1953), Cunningham first used the ritual of the coin toss to determine, through chance, the outline for a sequence of isolated movements that could be combined with unexpected results. “[Using chance means] I also began to see that there were all kinds of things that we thought we couldn’t do, and it was obviously not true. … If you try it, a lot of the time you can do it, and even if you can’t, it shows you something you didn’t know before.” Untitled Solo follows Cage’s first use of chance in composing Sixteen Dances (1950– 1951), the sound accompaniment for Cunningham’s Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, a breakthrough that Cage saw as moving him outside of inclination, or predetermined creation. As he put it, “I reached the conclusion I could compose according to moves on these charts instead of according to my own taste.” By applying chance operations to the core of their respective compositional practices, Cage and Cunningham moved beyond taste and toward unexpected amplitude, folding time in on itself in the process. For Cage, this move was directly related to his increased use of electronics and the micro- exploration of sound within their collaborations. For his part, Cunningham experimented first on himself, and then on the body of a company. The space between nerve and expanded gesture opened up.

In Changeling (1957), the embodied motif of chance concatenation moving against memory and familiarity is taken even further than in Untitled Solo. Ten minutes in length, Cunningham’s performance expresses the dynamic of a “changeling,” a being masquerading as human but with otherworldly presence. The demanding choreography, in which possible movements for head, torso, arms, and legs were determined separately, exemplifies his striking ability as a performer. Broken into isolated phrases only to be remixed via a series of coin tosses, the movements contort in a push-and-pull tension when fit together.

Changeling is one of Cunningham’s most enigmatic early solo dances. Capturing an essential dissolution at the heart of acutely observed gesture, it was concerned with what he called “the possibility of containment and explosion being instantaneous.” In just a single sequence, Changeling encapsulated the unique compression central to the elaboration of his choreography as a recombinatory aesthetic. (Indeed, Cunningham would often share with friends that he was convinced he himself was a changeling.) Recently discovered film footage of the dance, shot during a 1958 European tour by the company, displays Cunningham’s virtuosic technical skill and daring decentralization of the body, a mix that would characterize his style as a solo performer and choreographer from then on. Now free to combine ordinary movement drawn from everyday observation and social behavior with modern and classical dance technique, Cunningham’s choreography embraced a new hybridity and acceleration through a field of wide-ranging quotation fueled by chance operations.

During three formative summers at Black Mountain College in 1948, 1952, and 1953, Cage and Cunningham were exposed to an impressive array of artists, composers, designers, architects, and writers and experienced a flurry of approaches to radical pedagogy. Embracing an evolving praxis, Cunningham began to offer regular classes in dance technique in New York in 1951, while Cage taught musical composition at the New School of Research for four years beginning in 1956. Through their distinctive “how to” experimental pedagogies, Cage and Cunningham played an increasingly pivotal role in the burgeoning downtown New York art scene, directly influencing the most risk-taking and influential art movements of the era, from Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater to Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), as well as a remarkable group of the next generation of innovators, including George Brecht and Trisha Brown. But nowhere was this ever-widening influence more profound than within the company itself.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed by Cunningham after an exhilarating summer at Black Mountain College in 1953. He had brought to that session a group of young dancers who had been studying with him off and on in New York; among them was Carolyn Brown, who would be his principal dancer for more than fifteen years. The founding of the company happened a year on from the previous summer session at Black Mountain, during which Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, or “Theater Event #1,” as Cunningham referred to it, had taken place. Cunningham described this now infamous and influential piece rather nonchalantly: “The audience was seated in the middle unable to see everything that was happening. There was a dog that chased me around the arena. Nothing was intended to be other than it was, a complexity of events the spectator could deal with as each chose.” Reflecting as it does an increasingly important expectation of the spectator to “unfocus” their attention to the work and learn to follow simultaneity itself, the pedagogical stakes were heightened, plentiful, and in motion at the time the company was formed.

Indeed, many of Cage’s students at the New School recalled that they received and rejected his teaching in equal measure, which was exactly the responsive quality that he looked to instill through his teaching. Cage’s radical acceptance of incident and duration, along with a multilayered use of chance, cultivated what he described as “response ability” in the active listener. To cultivate response ability is not to court followers to a method but to spur new levels of acceptance and residual impact, something that both Cage and Cunningham lived by in their pedagogical approaches. Cunningham’s students and company dancers alike worked through and off of the demands of his approach. As Yvonne Rainer wrote in a third-person passage recounting her experience working and studying with Cunningham, this could be both exhilarating and limiting: “‘You must love the daily work,’ he would say. She loved him for saying that, for that was one prospect that thrilled her about dancing—the daily involvement that filled up the body and the mind with an exhaustion and completion that left little room for anything else. Beside that exhaustion, opinion paled. And beside that sense of completion, ambition had to be especially tenacious. But while absorbing the spirit of his genius she fought its letter.”

Even as any historic consideration of the use of everyday observed gesture or task-based movement (as Judson collaborators would describe it) has to begin with Merce Cunningham’s experiments, it was clear to Cunningham himself that the terrain of common time within choreographic inquiry required demanding and expansive training with inter- forms. As he reflected on the period, he contrasted his own trajectory with that of the Judson Dance Theater: “It all struck me as very limited. The instant they attempted something outside that, it didn’t work because they didn’t have the training. I was always interested in all kinds of movement. They said no to this and no to that, and my idea was to say yes—not to be fixed but to be flexible and open.” His own path, by contrast, had been a polymorphous and constantly shifting path of acceleration and increased amplitude.

Cunningham’s permissive yet rigorous style was not lost on the younger collaborators who joined MCDC, including the company’s first art director, Robert Rauschenberg. Minutiae (1954), Rauschenberg’s first collaboration with Cunningham, initiated a fertile decade of work together that would continue through MCDC’s 1964 world tour. Rauschenberg’s décor for Minutiae, which is considered his first Combine, premiered in the dance weeks ahead of his exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York City, a solo show that featured a group of so-called Red Paintings and important early Combines such as Charlene (1954). In his invitation to Rauschenberg to participate in the company by making something for the “dance area” of what was then an unfinished piece of choreography, Cunningham gave the younger painter scant direction, noting only that it might be something with passages, and that “we could move through it, around it, and with it if he so liked.” Years later, when further describing the highly independent collaborative work of Minutiae to Calvin Tomkins, Cunningham remembered the collaboration with charming matter-of-factness:

Bob had made a very beautiful object that hung from the ceiling, with ribbons trailing from it. I knew right away it wouldn’t do because it couldn’t be installed in the sorts of places we performed in then— college auditoriums where there were no flies to hang anything from. Bob understood at once. He’s always been completely practical in his work with us. He said he’d do something else, and what he did the second time was really wonderful. It was a freestanding construction in two sections, so the dancers could go in between them, and there was a lot of collage. I loved it because you couldn’t say just what it was. One critic, after the first performance of the piece, complained for this reason. She said she didn’t know whether it was supposed to be a bathhouse at the beach or a fortune-teller’s booth, or what. That was just what I liked about it.

Fionne Meade is the lead curator of Merce Cunningham: Common Time

Merce Cunningham: Common Time, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 8 February-30 July Merce Cunningham: Common Time, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 11 February-30 April

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