Carolyn Brown first saw Merce Cunningham dance in a master class in Denver in April 1951. She remembers him demonstrating a fall, “swiftly arching back like a bow as he raised his left arm overhead and sinking quietly to the floor on his left hand,” then “rising on his knees to fall flat out like a priest at the foot of the cross,” before rolling over and “arriving on his feet again.” The technique–Cunningham had been relentlessly developing his own movement since leaving Martha Graham’s company seven years earlier–was of unusual “speed and elegance, suppressed passion and catlike stealth,” and, Brown added, “my imitative dancer’s mind was caught short.” She and her husband, composer Earle Brown, were then in their early 20s, living off waiting tables and teaching, trying very hard to think about art in a way that felt alive and laying plans to go to California, where Earle hoped to study with Arnold Schoenberg. When Cunningham and John Cage arrived in town to do a lecture-demonstration, they seemed to the Browns a force at once delightful and visionary. Earle Brown wrote down everything they could remember of the hours they had spent in fascinated conversation with Cage, who had already begun to explore the use of chance operations in composition, simultaneous independence in performance and certain Eastern aesthetics. The Browns’ first impressions of Cunningham had less to do with what he said than how he moved. “My first memory of Merce,” Earle Brown wrote some twenty years later, “is seeing his eyes follow Carol in diagonals across the studio floor of Jane McLean’s loft in Denver.”
Carolyn Brown was not at that time sure she wanted to be a dancer. Her mother, Marion Stevens Rice, was a well-known Denishawn dancer, and Brown had grown up in the repertory of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, so fundamental to all subsequent modern American dance and especially to Martha Graham. The possibilities suggested by Cunningham–the sense of the muscles themselves as at once faceted and fluid, in movement and stillness always in complex and evolving relationships–were to her compelling. In college Brown had studied philosophy and aesthetics, and dance alone was still not entirely satisfying. “I needed a reason,” she explains, “a philosophical raison d’être–for a life in dance to which to devote myself. It was John Cage who provided that.” And it is the life in dance that Brown did in fact find through these two artists that is the subject of her wonderful new book, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham. Though she modestly never says so, reading her book, one realizes that Carolyn Brown’s body carries within it an accumulated history of nearly the whole century of modern American dance.
Schoenberg’s death in 1951 decided the Browns on New York. They arrived the following year, and Carolyn Brown began taking Cunningham’s classes and was asked to be part of the group of dancers who went down to Black Mountain College for the crucial 1953 summer formation of Merce Cunningham and Company. Her book gives vivid descriptions of the storied moments of 1950s avant-garde life: the unveiling of Rauschenberg’s red paintings, the early Happenings, the Judson Dance Theater. Throughout, Brown achieves the difficult balance of reticence about other people’s private lives (she maintains a very affectionate circumspection about the fifty-year relationship between Cunningham and Cage, for example) and clear-eyed honesty about her own. We watch her and her friends moving among the landmarks of those days: the Orentalia bookshop on Twelfth Street; Jasper Johns’s loft on Pearl Street, and Rauschenberg’s upstairs; the “Bozza Mansion” on Monroe Street, where Cage had his austere rooms and Morton Feldman lived on a lower floor; and Cunningham’s rented studio in Sheridan Square. The Browns found a loft on Third Avenue between Ninth and Tenth–from the front windows they watched the El rattling past; from the back they could see de Kooning at work in his studio.
The life, though exhilarating, was not easy: The apartment was cold, the neighborhood unsafe, Earle Brown was often away on tour and the work was perpetual. Carolyn Brown was in dance class two or three times a day. She, like many other Cunningham dancers, found that what supported and supplemented her work were the classical ballet classes of Margaret Craske and Antony Tudor. One of the great pleasures of Brown’s book is the chance to live, briefly, in imagination, the life of a dancer; in her beautiful descriptions of classes and teaching, we can begin to see how a dancer forms herself in daily practice: “ballet…did not train the torso to twist, curve, tilt, attack percussively, or train the dancer to move various parts in isolation, nor did it train a dancer to fall and recover from a fall in a variety of ways. Cunningham’s own classes attempt to teach all these moves.” Even now, Cunningham’s unusual, nearly impossible combined positions are a challenge to the viewer’s kinesthetic sense in much the way dissonance challenges the ear.