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Root of an Unfocus: On Cunningham, Cage, and “Common Time”

This essay is excerpted from “Root of an Unfocus,” published in the exhibition catalogue for the Walker-organized landmark exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view February 8–July 30, 2017. With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances […]

Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus New York City, 1944 Photo: Fred Fleh © Estate of Fred Fleh

Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus, New York City, 1944. Photo: Fred Fleh © Estate of Fred Fleh

This essay is excerpted from “Root of an Unfocus,” published in the exhibition catalogue for the Walker-organized landmark exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view February 8–July 30, 2017.

With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances that made up his first solo concert. The performance took place in New York City in 1944, five years after he moved there from Seattle to dance in the Martha Graham Company and two years into his partnership with composer John Cage. All six dances were prepared in collaboration with musical compositions by Cage, who also presented additional works of his own that April evening. For this do-it-yourself affair, Cunningham made his own costumes, Cage designed the program flyers, and both footed the bill to rent out the theater. More importantly, however, this self-acknowledged debut registers on a level beyond being brash and self-starting: it demonstrates just how early the duo’s radical approach to collaboration gained momentum. Unencumbered by expectations of accompaniment, their alliance was driven rather by a principle of simultaneity and independence for dance and music within a shared register. For Cunningham, this moment was the beginning of a career that operated out of a “root of an unfocus” that was based in collaborative work and would stretch over six decades of restive creation.

Cunningham later told an interviewer that Root of an Unfocus was made “when I was still concerned with expression. It was about fear.”1  Even so, the dance marked a crucial moment of development for both Cunningham and Cage, as it pivoted around the notion that time, rather than melody or narrative motif, should constitute the underlying relationship between dance and music. Having agreed on a durational structure where sound and movement would align only at the transitions between the dance’s three sections, Cunningham and Cage were free to create independently of one another, with their shared aesthetic only fully revealed in the performance itself. The radically deconstructed space and time that began with this work was subsequently inscribed as existing in between dance and music.

As Cunningham told it to author Calvin Tomkins as early as 1962, the ripple effect implicit in this first work’s title quickly became concentric and widening:

The main thing about it—and the thing everybody missed—was that its structure was based on time, in the same sense that a radio show is. It was divided into time units, and the dance and music would come together at the beginning and the end of each unit, but in between they would be independent of each other. This was the beginning of the idea that music and dance could be dissociated, and from this point on the dissociation in our work just got wider and wider.2

This dissociative experiment would be developed into a praxis that would not only endure but also thrive over nearly six decades of shared work and hundreds of collaborations across disciplines. The “root of an un-” swiftly became a network, circulating what Cunningham would later describe as “a shared history that reflects to me a change or enlargement of the underlying principle that music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.”3

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College, was the catalytic engine, an unparalleled and unique nexus of collaborative practice oscillating within the frame of choreography that continues to reverberate today. By dismantling hierarchies and conventional boundaries, Cunningham and Cage’s “common time” made possible an expanded field of dance, music, moving image, and visual art based in their own brand of recombinatory aesthetics. Their concept can almost be seen as a how-to guide for creating vital new forms that are rooted in the enduring scenic space of a new common time.

With common time as the core ethos of their work, Cunningham and Cage overturned a succession of conventions during their first decade together, in the process opening up the fertile and nervy ground from which MCDC emerged. With a propulsive imperative that demanded what Cunningham called “a continuing flexibility in the relation of the arts,” their collaboration shape-shifted the landscape of modern art as no other had ever done, creating a nearly cellular approach to recombinant composition methods.4  It was understood from the outset that MCDC could expand but also contract, serving as an inter- platform and fluctuating organism for unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary experimentation. Through its many iterations, the company and its network of collaborators maintained an attitude of openness to change (and changes). Exits and entrances abound. Working within and through common time demands acceleration, deeply focused technique, and a highly adaptive use of version and variation that Cunningham described as ongoing: “We are involved in a process of work and activity, not in a series of finished objects.”5

Cunningham’s own retrospective assessment of Root of an Unfocus, which he acknowledged “still worked with expressive behavior,” benefits from a comparison with two solos created ten years later that taken together show the expanding nature of common time over these pivotal early years of collaboration.6 The differences between them reveals the crucial role “chance operations” (Cage and Cunningham shared the use of this term) played at this time in expanding and focusing the evolution of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary. In Untitled Solo (1953), Cunningham first used the ritual of the coin toss to determine, through chance, the outline for a sequence of isolated movements that could be combined with unexpected, fresh results. “[Using chance means] I also began to see that there were all kinds of things that we thought we couldn’t do, and it was obviously not true.… If you try it, a lot of the time you can do it, and even if you can’t, it shows you something you didn’t know before.”7 Untitled Solo follows Cage’s first use of chance in composing Sixteen Dances (1950–1951), the sound accompaniment for Cunningham’s Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, a breakthrough that Cage saw as moving him outside of inclination, or predetermined creation. As he put it, “I reached the conclusion I could compose according to moves on these charts instead of according to my own taste.”8 By applying chance operations to the core of their respective compositional practices, Cage and Cunningham moved beyond taste and toward unexpected amplitude, folding time in on itself in the process. For Cage, this move was directly related to his increased use of electronics and the micro-exploration of sound within their collaborations during the 1950s. For his part, Cunningham experimented first on himself, and then on the body of a company. The space between nerve and expanded gesture opened up.

In Changeling (1957), the embodied motif of chance concatenation moving against memory and familiarity is taken even further than in Untitled Solo. Ten minutes in length, Cunningham’s performance expresses the dynamic of a “changeling,” a being masquerading as human but with otherworldly presence. The incredibly difficult choreography, in which possible movements for head, torso, arms, and legs were determined separately, exemplifies his striking ability as a performer. Disassembled into isolated phrases only to be recombined via a series of coin tosses, the movements contort in a push-and-pull tension when fit together.


Changeling is one of Cunningham’s most enigmatic early solo dances. Capturing an essential dissolution at the heart of acutely observed gesture, it was concerned with what Cunningham called “the possibility of containment and explosion being instantaneous.”9 In just a single sequence, Changeling encapsulated the unique compression central to the elaboration of his choreography as a recombinatory aesthetic. (Indeed, Cunningham would often share with friends that he was convinced he himself was a changeling.)10 Recently discovered film footage of the dance, shot during a 1958 European tour by the company, displays Cunningham’s virtuosic technical skill and daring decentralization of the body, a mix that would characterize his style as a solo performer and choreographer from then on. Now free to combine ordinary movement drawn from everyday observation and social behavior with modern and classical dance technique, Cunningham’s choreography embraced a new hybridity and acceleration through a field of wide-ranging quotation fueled by chance operations.

As the technique and rigor of Cunningham’s choreography intensified, so did the level of his experimentation. His training in ballet and modern dance mixed with his direct experience of a grab bag of American vernacular dance forms from vaudeville, dance hall, soft-shoe, solo dances from the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, and beyond. Just as he disrupted hierarchies among dance styles early on, his company further jettisoned conventional understandings of décor and the musical score as backdrop and accompaniment. Stage space was decentered in favor of a simultaneity that maintains music, dance, and décor in a precarious proximity that nevertheless refuses to ever integrate. Each discipline operates uneasily beside the other.

During three formative summers at Black Mountain College in 1948, 1952, and 1953, Cage and Cunningham were exposed to an impressive array of artists, composers, designers, architects, and writers, and experienced a flurry of approaches to radical pedagogy. Embracing an evolving praxis, Cunningham himself began to offer regular classes in dance technique in New York in 1951, while Cage taught musical composition at the New School of Research for four years beginning in 1956. Playing an increasingly pivotal role in the burgeoning downtown New York art scene, Cage and Cunningham directly influenced the most risk-taking and influential art movements of the era in no small part through their own distinctive “how to” experimental pedagogies, from Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater to Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) and a remarkable group of the next generation of innovators, including George Brecht, Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn, Deborah Hay, Takehisa Kosugi, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. But nowhere was this ever-widening influence more profound than within the company itself.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed by Cunningham after an exhilarating summer at Black Mountain College in 1953. He had brought to that session a group of young dancers who had been studying with him off and on in New York; among them was Carolyn Brown, who would be his principal dancer for more than fifteen years. The founding of the company happened a year on from the previous summer session at Black Mountain, during which Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, or “Theater Event #1,” as Cunningham referred to it, had taken place. Cunningham described this now infamous and influential piece rather nonchalantly: “The audience was seated in the middle unable to see everything that was happening. There was a dog that chased me around the arena. Nothing was intended to be other than it was, a complexity of events the spectator could deal with as each chose.”11 Reflecting as it does an increasingly important expectation of the spectator to “unfocus” their attention to the work and learn to follow simultaneity itself, the pedagogical stakes were heightened, plentiful, and in motion at the time the company was formed.

Robert Rauschenberg Merce Cunningham and John Cage observing Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton in class, Third Avenue studio, New York City, circa 196, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage observing Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton in class, Third Avenue studio, New York City, circa 196, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Indeed, many of Cage’s students at the New School later noted that they received and rejected his teaching in equal measure, which was exactly the responsive quality that he looked to instill and expose thorough his teaching. Cage’s radical acceptance of incident and duration, along with a complex, multilayered use of chance, cultivated what he described as “response ability” in the active listener.12 To cultivate response ability is not to court followers to a method but to spur new levels of acceptance and residual impact, something that both Cage and Cunningham lived by in their pedagogical approaches. Cunningham’s students and company dancers alike worked through and off of the demanding focus of his approach. As Yvonne Rainer wrote in a third-person passage recounting her experience working and studying with Cunningham, this was both exhilarating and something to contend with or possibly counter. “ ‘You must love the daily work,’ he would say. She loved him for saying that, for that was one prospect that thrilled her about dancing—the daily involvement that filled up the body and the mind with an exhaustion and completion that left little room for anything else. Beside that exhaustion, opinion paled. And beside that sense of completion, ambition had to be especially tenacious. But while absorbing the spirit of his genius she fought its letter.”13

This tension between Cunningham, the demands of his technique, and the rigorous level of challenge that members of his company regularly remark upon is no doubt part of what led so many dancers who were talented choreographers in their own right to work with MCDC over the years. The list includes Rainer but also Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton, key participants along with Robert Rauschenberg in the Judson Dance Theater (1962–1964), which brought its own radical questioning to the legacy of Western dance.

Even as any historic consideration of the use of everyday observed gesture or task-based movement (as Judson collaborators would describe it) has to begin with Merce Cunningham’s experiments, it was clear to Cunningham himself that the terrain of common time within choreographic inquiry required discipline and training with inter- forms that was demanding and expansive. As he reflected on the period, Cunningham contrasted his own trajectory with that of the Judson Dance Theater: “It all struck me as very limited. The instant they attempted something outside that, it didn’t work because they didn’t have the training. I was always interested in all kinds of movement. They said no to this and no to that, and my idea was to say yes—not to be fixed but to be flexible and open.”14 His own trajectory, by contrast, had been a polymorphous and constantly shifting path of acceleration and increased amplitude.

Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954 Photo: John G. Ross

Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954 Photo: John G. Ross

Cunningham’s permissive yet rigorous style was not lost on the younger collaborators who joined MCDC, including the company’s first art director, Robert Rauschenberg. Minutiae (1954), Rauschenberg’s first collaboration with Cunningham, initiated a fertile decade of work together that would continue through MCDC’s 1964 world tour. Rauschenberg’s décor for Minutiae, which is considered his first Combine, premiered in the dance weeks ahead of his exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, a solo show that featured a group of so-called Red Paintings and important early Combines such as Charlene (1954). In his invitation to Rauschenberg to participate in the company by making something for the “dance area” of what was then an unfinished piece of choreography, Cunningham gave the younger painter scant direction, noting only that it might be something with passages, and that perhaps “we could move through it, around it, and with it if he liked.”15 Years later, when further describing the highly independent collaborative work of Minutiae to Calvin Tomkins, Cunningham remembered the collaboration with charming matter-of-factness:

Bob had made a very beautiful object that hung from the ceiling, with ribbons trailing from it. I knew right away it wouldn’t do because it couldn’t be installed in the sorts of places we performed in then—college auditoriums where there were no flies to hang anything from. Bob understood at once. He’s always been completely practical in his work with us. He said he’d do something else, and what he did the second time was really wonderful. It was a freestanding construction in two sections, so the dancers could go in between them, and there was a lot of collage. I loved it because you couldn’t say just what it was. One critic, after the first performance of the piece, complained for this reason. She said she didn’t know whether it was supposed to be a bathhouse at the beach or a fortune-teller’s booth, or what. That was just what I liked about it.16

The décor was small and mobile enough that it could be deconstructed and carried with the company in John Cage’s Volkswagen bus, the chief method of transportation for the young company at the time. Minutiae’s choreography, meanwhile, was made of complex and detailed chance-derived sequencing, inspired by the small, short, abrupt movements Cunningham observed in people walking the streets of New York, while the accompanying music was an existing work by Cage, Music for Piano 1–20 (1952/1953). Pleased with the collaboration, Cage and Cunningham invited Rauschenberg to join the company as its first art director, expanding the common time of the company to a triangulated form that would continue from then on. Cunningham recounted this turning point succinctly: “So there were now three elements, the movement, the sound, and a visual action.”17

Robert Rauschenberg Décor for Minutiae 1954/1976 oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror and string, on wood 84 ½ x 81 x 30 ½ in. (214.63 x 205 x 77.47 cm) Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, Gift of Jay F. Ecklund, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation, Agnes Gund, Russell Cowles and Josine Peters, the Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Dorothy Lichtenstein, MAHADH Fund of HRK Foundation, Goodale Family Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, David Teiger, Kathleen Fluegel, Barbara G. Pine, and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011.

Robert Rauschenberg, Décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976. Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

The full network was now up and running, neatly captured in a Cage aphorism that could read as a motto for the company: “Time … is what we and sounds happen in. Whether early or late: in it. It is not a question of counting.”18 At the onset of the 1960s, MCDC found an increasingly global reach as it performed in a variety of international settings and incorporated a wider range of collaborators and dancers within the core of the company. With an ever-refined mobility and provisional acuity in regard to flexible set, costume, and sound design, the company continued to push the boundaries of stage space.

Notes

1 Merce Cunningham and Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance (New York: M. Boyars, 1985), 79.

2 Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde: Duchamp, Tinguely, Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 245.

3 Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1992), 139.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Merce Cunningham quoted in Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.

7 Cunningham and Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, 81.

8 Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 105.

9 Merce Cunningham quoted in David Vaughan, “Changeling,” Dance Capsules, accessed September 13, 2106.

10 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 102.

11 Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, 139.

12 Branden W. Joseph “Chance, Indeterminacy, Multiplicity,” in The Anarchy of Silence, ed. Julia Robinson (Barcelona: Museu Dart Contemporani de Barcelona, 2009), 228.

13 Yvonne Rainer, “This Is the Story of a Man Who …” in Merce Cunningham, ed. Germano Celant (Milan: Charta, 1999), 120.

14 Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.

15 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

16 Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Deckle Edge, 2005), 93–94.

17 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

18 John Cage, “45′ for A Speaker,” in John Cage, Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 151.

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