A Brave, Illuminating, Terrific New Book

August 1, 2007

For anyone who has devoted herself to a choreographer and still wonders what he/she thinks of her,

For anyone who has been puzzled by Merce Cunningham and John Cage’s work,

For anyone who loves the Cage/Cunningham work,

For anyone who has ever seen Carolyn Brown dance,

For anyone who separates modern from ballet, Cunningham from Denishawn,

For anyone who sees a continuum between all forms of dance,

For anyone who wants to understand how modern dance morphed into postmodern dance,

Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham
(Knopf, 2007), by sublime dancer Carolyn Brown, will give you hours of pleasure, demystification, and insight.

    This book is one dancer’s account of working with one choreographer. I learned so much about Cunningham’s early work that it made me want to re-see his work right away and apply the new knowledge. Not theoretical knowledge, but something more real: knowing what a struggle it was to become accepted…how many years and tours their audiences were either indifferent or battling each other…how many years Cunningham, with his unstoppable passion for dance and making dances, met with scant success…how many years John Cage’s enthusiasm and love for Merce kept the company going—in finding performance dates, organizing the tours, keeping the dancers cheerful, and of course, providing music ideas and THE idea that was the conceptual foundation of the Cage/Cunningham work. (Which was that separating the choreography, music, and visual decor in the creative process produces an entity in the eyes of the viewer that is different for each person but valid for everyone.)

    If you want to know about Cunningham, Cage, Rauschenberg——— –people, not the theories—–gorge yourself on these 600 pages. Every page has insights and realizations, small and huge, that help us understand the evolution of dance (and art) in the 20th century. Every page carries Brown’s absolute honesty—–about herself, her insecurities, her interactions, her observations about Merce. About John. About Merce and John. About Merce and John and Bob (Rauschenberg). You start to realize that though there were many obstacles and few triumphs during those years (1953-73), Merce and John and Bob were a charmed circle that collectively exploded all previous rules of choreography. Their three-way collaboration (though there were other major players like David Tudor) was the crucible in which all of Cunningham’s work is made.

    One of the surprises is that Brown, for years, flirted with possibly dancing with the Metropolitan Opera and with Antony Tudor. (She did occasionally take gigs as an extra.) She adored Margaret Craske’s ballet class and would nearly go broke paying up her debt on classes. Another surprise (or non-surprise) is that the book is written beautifully. (See Nancy Dalva’s review in our June issue.)

    Though Brown’s dancing was serene, she was not. Her life was filled with ups and downs and doubts galore. Like any dancer who strives, falters, gets frustrated, gets tunnel-minded, opens up, loses her footing as a performer, has exhilarating moments onstage, she sometimes gets depressed.

And like any other genius choreographer, Cunningham has his moments of bad behavior, i.e. non-communicativeness, depending on others to do damage control.

    But this is also a book about love. The love between a choreographer and dancer of longstanding partnership, however unspoken, demonstrated solely in the gifts they gave each other. He gave her many challenging roles to dance, and she gave him her beautifully fluid and alert dancing, which nudged his ideas of pure movement onto a heavenly plane of existence.