photos by Dan Bretl '07
Writing faculty member Rachel Cohen interviews Carolyn Brown
“New York City in the fifties was a place of new ideas,” said Carolyn Brown, a dancer who worked with modernist choreographer Merce Cunningham and avant-garde composer John Cage during that heady time. Brown joined dance, music, and art history faculty members in discussing the rise of modernism—as well as her memoir Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham—at an inaugural year event in October.
Cunningham’s theories revolutionized modern dance. He believed that dance should not be choreographed to existing music, and that music should not be composed to follow dance moves. “His dances didn’t rely on narrative, sets, or music to give them meaning; the dance existed for itself,” said dance faculty member Rose Anne Thom. The music, dance, and sets—which were created by visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg—came together in performance but otherwise existed independently.
The Cunningham Repertory Understudy Group performs Duet from Canfield
Cage altered the sound of the piano by inserting screws or chunks of cardboard between its wires, investigating the beauty of chance sounds. Despite the detailed directions Cage provided for the placement of objects in the piano, the sounds varied each time.
Cunningham’s choreographies were similarly cutting-edge. Some critics thought his dances were improvised, when in fact the dancers rehearsed endlessly.
“The material was rigorous, and the moves as set as those in Swan Lake. We weren’t up there on stage gatting about,” said Brown.
Performance space was difficult to secure in New York City in the 1950’s, so some dances were staged in venues obtained at the last minute, Brown explained. These performances were known as “events,” and the dancers often didn’t know the order they would appear on stage until the last moment, when Cunningham posted a list.
Cunningham and Cage were both affiliated with Sarah Lawrence in the 1940’s: Cunningham was a guest lecturer and Cage played his experimental piano music for dance classes. “Cunningham’s choreography was all about the experimental, and Sarah Lawrence’s dance program grew out of his theories,” said Sara Rudner, director of the dance program.
Brown said she didn’t fully realize the impact of Cunningham’s work on modern dance until she began to pen her prose, a process that took 30 years to complete.
“Only then did I have a sense that what I was involved in was really important. It was a great, great gift to be in the studio with Cunningham,” she said. “In rehearsing the dance, without music, breathing together as one, we had to allow the movement to shape us.”
—Connie Stambush MFA ’08