the order we are not looking for
To watch a Cunningham piece is to see diverse elements moving at different speeds, crossing paths, holding the stage together for a moment, then scattering, like the accidental groupings of people on a city sidewalk. As the famous story goes, when one of his dancers asked him in 1954 what a dance he was working on was all about, Cunningham escorted her to the window, showed her the people mingling in the street below, following their different paths to different destinations, and said, “That!”
Cunningham and Cage used chance operation, relying on procedures that allowed them not to impose their will on certain elements of the work. They allowed the universe to do what it does. This is not to say they didn’t believe in discipline. A Cunningham dance was not improvisation. Cunningham used trained bodies and muscles to perform movements that seemed awkward, noisy, sometimes ordinary. But these movements were always keyed to Cunningham’s unusual sense of rhythm, and of an expression rooted in the body and musculature itself.
Costumes, sets, and lighting were arrived at separately, too, and hastily grafted on just before the first performance, often without proper rehearsal. When Robert Rauschenberg was the Cunningham Dance Company’s stage manager and artistic director—a period from about 1961 to 1964 that the artist once referred to as one of the most rewarding in his life—set décor was often improvisational, last minute, on the cheap and on the fly. As Carolyn Brown, a dancer and choreographer who was part of Cunningham's company when he founded it in 1953, and stayed with him for over two decades, once recollected:
In Winterbranch, Bob made a “monster” (as we affectionately called it) out of backstage stuff, different in every performance, but always with some kind of light or lights casting eerie shadows as it was pulled across the darkened stage on a long rope…Sometimes the set he made was alive: at the Dartington Hall in England, he and his assistant, Alex Hay, ironed their shirts upstage. At the Sadler’s Wells, Bob dyed clothes many colors and hung them to dry on clothes lines, where they dripped into buckets throughout the performance. We never knew what we would find when we returned to the theater each evening to make up; it was something we looked forward to, a handmade gift. He never seemed to repeat himself, and his enthusiasm never seemed to diminish.
The extent to which the elements of a Cunningham dance appear to work together seems to depend on a certain amount of perseverance, faith, and blind luck—which sounds like a nice summation of Cunningham’s early career. When asked once what he would do after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, Cunningham gave another fabulous one-word answer: “Eat!”
Cunningham operated without the institutional support that was enjoyed by a handful of other modern dance companies. Jose Limon was connected to Julliard; Martha Graham had regular private funding. Merce, meanwhile, relied on the good will of artist friends who could be counted on to sell an artwork and donate the proceeds at a critical moment. The Foundation for the Contemporary Performance Arts, Inc. was the short-lived nonprofit entity that helped bankroll Cunningham's European tour in 1964; eighty artists donated funds to the corporation from the sale of their own artworks. The list of donors included Marcel Duchamp, Phillip Guston, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Larry Rivers, Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella, Willem DeKooning, David Cornell, and Andy Warhol.
Needless to say, Merce Cunningham had the right friends.