Carolyn Brown was a dancer in Merce Cunningham’s Dance Company for twenty years from its very beginning at Black Mountain College in 1953; for a lot of those years she was also married to Earle Brown. She has recently published a memoir that time, which is called Chance and Curcumstance, and I’ve been reading it (and re-reading it) lately. At one point in the book she writes, “If one insists on putting one’s heroes on pedestals, it’s probably best never to meet them.” Even knowing the truth of that statement, she manages to write about Cunningham and Cage, who are clearly her heroes, and who are certainly the focus of the book, in a way that is at the same time clear-sighted as to their personal qualities, both attractive and less so, understanding as to the philosophical intentions of their work, and not just affectionate, but, unfailingly, downright loving about them as people.
Cage has become a sort of monumental icon, and one tends to think of him as some sort of serene celibate zen monk, with an endearing laugh, wearing denim trousers and blue work shirts, and observing a strict macrobiotic diet, without thinking that maybe he wasn’t always like that. Since I don’t think I’d ever seen any reference to their relationship in print, I was momentarily startled to read at one point early on in the book, “It was during these five days of intimate proximity that I first heard John speak about his feelings for Merce, about the sexual passion that Merce the dancer, who he likened to a Greek god, aroused in him.” One can agree with the very next sentence, “Because their public behavior was so circumspect, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that theirs was a sexual relationship.” It is equally surprising to read about Cage as a person who cooked steaks for the Cunningham Dance Company (“America’s Best-Fed Dance Company!” as they liked to think about themselves), and religiously had his first drink of the day (bourbon, beer, or wine, at various times), or whose uniform was “sober black suits, business shirts, black shoes, and black stockings. Only his ties were a bit peculiar–short dark knit oddities that looked as though they’d been chewed off by a chipmunk.”
Brown studied philosophy in college and is very insightful and articulate about Cage’s philosophical intentions. She is also clear about the moments when there was a tension between the ideas he espoused and the realities of his life, (When, in 1954, due to the building’s being scheduled for demolition, he lost a beloved apartment, he was not at all amused to have Brown, innocently, remind him of his constantly proclaimed goal of non-attachment), and she understands the connection between his evangelical zeal for his philosophical and musical ideas and his early plan to be a Methodist minister. (I think this highlights one of Cage’s central struggles as a composer: he was SUCH a composer, but he was continually trying–for philosophical reasons–to escape his composerness.) Her observations on Cage’s influence on Cunningham and Rauschenberg, who was for many years the company’s resident designer, lighting director, and, later, artistic adviser, and theirs on him, as well as the differences, due to the inherent differences of the different media, in their individual artistic realizations of their common aesthetic goals, are, to say the least, interesting. More substantively, the story that Brown tells makes one realize that Cage’s early work and musical developments were as tied to dance, as were those of Stravinsky. For the years that the book covers and beyond Cage was the music director of the Cunningham Company, and performed and toured with them consistently.
I’m always interested when performers talk about technique–how they work at obtaining and maintaining control of the instrument so they can do whatever it is they’re trying to do expressively (There’s an Auden poem that starts: “You need not see what someone is doing/to know if it is his vocation,/you have only to watch his eyes…”). I’m particularly impressed when singers talk about it, since their instrument is their body. But if it’s a dancer….whose instrument is all of her body, and she’s continually fighting to maintain control of it, but also continually fighting the body itself, which is continually deteriorating, and continually THINKING about it, it’s especially fascinating. Especially if the person who’s talking/writing about it is so smart and so adept at expressing what’s on her mind. There’s a place in the book which has stayed with me strongly: after the end of first complete season, at the Theatre de Lys in 1954, she saw Cunningham sitting, “dispirited and hollowed-eyed” in his dressing room, saying, “My jump is gone. I’ll never be able to jump again as I used to.” (Cunningham was 35 at the time.)
The most appealing thing about the book is that it points out that all those people–Cage, Cunningham, both of the Browns, Rauschenberg, Johns, Remy Charlip, David Tutor, and all the rest–as opposed to the way we (I, anyway) had come to think of them as ageless, but old, were young and were completely delighted with the idea that they were doing new things (this is something that separates the Americans from their contemporary Europeans, incidentally–they were not so concerned with the zero hour sense of having to start all over again to salvage a world that had been ruined by a failed civilization–they were just getting off on the fun and excitement of it) and completely in love with what they were doing and with each other, and the fact that, at least for a time, their art and their lives were inseparable. Of course, as they got older, and more successful–in a worldly sense, anyway—, and better off financially, all that changed.