Dancing on His Own

Love, Icebox: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham edited by Laura Kuhn. Red Hook: The John Cage Trust. 144 pages. $25.
Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary BY Carrie Noland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 304 pages. $35.

In a letter toward the end of Love, Icebox, a collection of correspondence from John Cage to his partner Merce Cunningham, doubt about their relationship creeps in. Cage, who was seven years older than Cunningham, is concerned that Cunningham doesn’t love him and “will love other misters.”

Nothing is more desirable to me than the feeling of being possessed by you but I don’t know whether you like to be possessed by me. . . . God knows my love for you has grown and grows continually so that it is with me always and in every place my spirit is. The thought of your body near me is heaven.

Cage wrote this in 1946; at that point the two had been lovers for almost four years and collaborated on fifteen performances. Though not as famous as he would later become, Cage had garnered enough notoriety to befriend Peggy Guggenheim, whose network included Jackson Pollock and Marcel Duchamp, among other luminaries. Cunningham, by contrast, had had some success in the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York, but his work was mostly confined to college campuses and niche studios. Eventually, the couple’s joint works would herald a radical shift in performance. But for a time, the two men weren’t on equal footing. Does the letter reflect a standard-issue lovers spat or Cunningham gradually becoming more independent? In a relationship between artists, is such a distinction even possible?

Love, Icebox details the extent of Cage and Cunningham’s romantic involvement, and, along the way, reveals the mundane side of the composer’s life. Readers will learn about Cage’s favorite artists as well as about his alimony payments, dinner guests, and drinking habits. In putting the book together, Laura Kuhn, the executive director of the John Cage Trust, prioritizes chronology and a deluxe presentation, tracing the genesis of Cage and Cunningham’s relationship through thirty-nine letters reproduced on matte, heavy-stock paper and interspersed with gorgeous reproductions of the couple’s household objects, as well as reprints of Cage’s handwritten or typed letters.

Though the first letter dates from 1942, the pair met several years earlier at Seattle’s Cornish School. Cage was there to “teach, compose, and accompany dance” lessons, and was married to a woman, Xenia Kashavaroff, at the time. Cunningham, a nineteen-year-old student, later remembered hearing the composer referred to as “the handsome new man in the red sweater.” He occasionally performed with Cage’s ensemble—which included Cage’s wife—throughout Seattle, but neither remained in the city for long. The pair’s paths crossed again when Graham’s dance company appeared at Chicago’s Civic Opera House and remained entwined until Cage’s death fifty years later.

The letters begin as a testing of the waters. Soon, they become flirtatious: “Nobody recognizes Nijinsky when they see him,” Cage writes, comparing Cunningham to the great dancer, after the Graham company were greeted with a tepid reception at the Civic. By July of 1943, they succumb to pure love and lust:

Thought you’d be amused to know that Dad’s newest inhalation medication is designed to increase the male’s resistance to orgasm.

Maybe you’re angry or disgusted because I write too full of desire and getting sexy. . . . Make me a dance that is a sex love dance, sans frustration.

I am in oestrus now thinking of you—such a full-fledged need.

Four Walls, Cunningham’s dance play written to accompany a solo piano piece by Cage, is the work that dominates this short packet of letters. Performed in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, at the Perry-Mansfield Workshop, the performance featured a Cage piano score played only with white keys accompanied by a free-verse script. Although the original choreography has been lost, a 2014 performance paired Cage’s brooding, spiky piano piece with Doubletoss, the first new work that Cunningham completed after Cage’s death. Eight dancers previously employed by the now-shuttered Merce Cunningham Dance Company dutifully executed his distinctive style, alternating between clusters and alternating pairs within his decentralized focal point, their hierarchies perpetually asymmetrical.

The collaboration appears more about passion than ladder-climbing—reflective of one of dozens of projects the pair would work on together during their lifetimes—but at one point Kuhn refers to the project as Cage’s, even though Cunningham wrote, directed, and choreographed it. While it’s clear that a newly ascendant Cage helped Cunningham’s career, even procuring several translation gigs for him, we never get to read Cunningham’s own perspective on this mingling of the professional and the personal.

In Love, Icebox, Cage’s excitement about “the muse . . . hovering near” is palpable. How did Cunningham feel about it? We don’t have his replies—only Kuhn filling in the blanks in her footnoted commentary. It’s not exactly erasure, but the book does read as though Cage is talking to himself.

If Kuhn’s book sheds light on the porous barrier between life and work for artistic couples like Cunningham and Cage, Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary, by professor Carrie Noland, aims to disentangle the choreographer from his partner. In this insightful and comprehensive new work, Noland makes the case that we should decouple the dancer’s aesthetic methods from Cage’s chance-driven operations. Cage’s compositional process was lauded by art critics. But Cunningham, whose procedures were just as thought out, is given far less critical attention. Noland attributes part of this asymmetry to the prestige of art criticism relative to dance criticism. As she points out, Cage started giving lectures on his compositional methods in the late 1930s, soon after he began composing. Cunningham did not discuss his methods in public until the 1950s, more than ten years into his career. This silence meant that his methods weren’t as closely scrutinized as Cage’s during their lifetimes. So, Cunningham’s groundbreaking choreography techniques, such as coin flips to determine random dance sequences, were generalized as “chance operations”—a phrase that stuck, though Cunningham only used it sparingly.

Like the title of her book, which carries a dual meaning (“after” demarcates both the point in which Cunningham’s seemingly random methodologies straighten out into what could be considered “dance,” as well as a general assessment of where modern dance stands within Cunningham’s wake), Noland’s goal is twofold: to disentangle Cunningham from Cage, and to recontextualize his process as deliberate rather than chance-driven. Through readings of six of Cunningham’s pieces, she seeks to distinguish his use of indeterminacy as a highly structured method “of selecting, framing, and highlighting what he found most interesting visually and kinetically.” To Noland, chance was merely a pathway to the organic—a conduit for Cunningham’s preferred movements to interact with one another in unexpected ways.

One of the pieces Noland analyzes is Walkaround Time, Cunningham’s homage to Marcel Duchamp, in which he organized clusters of dancers into rotating arrangements that mimic the geography of The Large Glass. Though the artwork reflects the modular and collaged methodology that came to define Duchamp’s work, Noland points out that Walkaround Time is “one of Cunningham’s least chance-generated works.” He even went as far as to organize dancers’ groupings by elements present in the piece, “listing the order of dance events as (1) ‘Bride’; (2) ‘Choc. G.’ (or ‘Chocolate Grinder’); (3) ‘O’s W.’ (for ‘optical witnesses’); (4) ‘Sieves’; (5) ‘Malic Molds’; (6) ‘Glider’; and (7) ‘Inscription.’”

Noland sees a similar level of organization in Cunningham’s other choreographed pieces. Cage famously said that composition is one thing and performance another, but Noland seeks to show how intimately linked the two were for Cunningham. Rather than being spontaneous, the choreographer’s performances were based on extensive written notes. His papers at the New York Public Library feature “steps, positions, and phrases to be entered into charts and used in a movement gamut,” along with diagrams of the stage space, symbols codifying phrase and positions, dance notations to be used as mnemonic devices, and other handwritten materials.

Noland’s insistence on the importance of writing to Cunningham’s choreographed permutations allows her to draw his practice into the present and connect it to the philosophy of Fred Moten. Intern(in)animation—Moten’s term to describe the capacity of disparate elements to vitalize and shadow one another—“is a useful term in the context of the choreographic practice” to Noland “for it captures well the relationship Cunningham sets up between inscription and performance, a disembodied symbolic code and embodied movement.”

Noland finds the same relationship between code and movement in Cunningham’s use of LifeForms, a software program employing avatars and diagrams to propose sequences of steps. Developed in 1986 by Tom Calvert, Catherine Lee, and Thecla Schiphorst at Simon Fraser University, the program divided the body into segments that could be combined in several ways. Cunningham initially used the program as a form of storage for movements that he had performed. Later on, he began using a sequence editor to visualize potential combinations before trying them out on the stage. Though Cunningham trusted his dancers to emphasize rhythm and dynamics, Noland argues that that the appearance of spontaneity in this procedure is misleading; Cunningham’s painstaking process of writing, notating, and running scenarios of dances suggests the opposite of a reliance on chance.

Noland makes a convincing case for Cunningham’s autonomy, but an insistence on clear-cut distinctions within artistic relationships seems unrealistic. There’s something to be said for accepting how much a shared life, with its joint trafficking of thoughts and influences, affects both public action and popular opinion, and how creative partnerships feed off of one another.

J. Howard Rosier is a Chicago-based artist and critic.