The Brown Decades

The Brown Decades

In an engaging new memoir, Carolyn Brown recollects her work with modern dance legends Merce Cunningham and John Cage.


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.

There is something terribly engaging in the story of Brown’s fight for mastery–with what sympathy I followed her progress–a young woman, though in the main encouraged and supported by her husband and parents, still very alone in the world. She felt in part trapped in the glamour and elegance of her own body; she still remembers with some pain her adored mentor Cage saying to her, “You’re so decorative.” She felt she was too prim in her dancing, too concerned with perfect lines. She would grow furious with herself–“how incapable I was…of jettisoning certain of my puritanical notions about movement”–and finish rehearsal or the rare performance in towering frustration. This struggle with perfectionism, I think, was one of the manifestations of the philosophical idealism that was a central motivation for her work.

Brown was a walk-on for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and the opera at the old Metropolitan Opera House, and she was in the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall, but mostly she kept turning down other work and it kept turning her down, and, a part of virtually every single thing he choreographed, she became more and more wholly a Cunningham dancer. Though famously and sometimes frustratingly aloof, Cunningham–in those years giving classes every day for meager financial survival–was, Brown felt, a master teacher, and, slowly, breakthroughs came. After seven years of working together, Cunningham showed Brown her solo for Crises:

My impression of it was only of his tremendous vitality, speed, and wildness. I think he purposely blurred the actual steps, forcing me into a way of moving beyond my experience at that time. My usual inclination had always been to want to know precisely what Merce wanted me to do, but on this particular occasion, I didn’t want to know the steps–I wanted desperately to be the wildness.

In the beginning, the Cunningham company appeared very infrequently–six or seven performances a year, mostly in regional theaters, often on wretched stages where they were lucky not to get injured. Consistently ignored by New York critics (much to the frustration of Cage, then acting as company manager), they were a sort of stepchild presence for several summers at the Connecticut College American Dance Festival, where at least they had time and space to develop repertory. Of their few performances, most were in Europe (Brown’s photos of their European triumphs are a pleasure to view), and it wasn’t until a world tour in 1964 with a monthlong, wildly successful season in London that the Cunningham company at last established a firm reputation.

By this time, the personnel of the company had transformed; after twelve years the only remaining original dancers were Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber (Farber left at the end of the 1964 tour). There are moments in the book, as there were in Brown’s dancing life, when she also tired of the company and the energy of zestful discovery wanes: “Confession: the dances choreographed during my last eighteen months in the company left no residual muscle memory from which to elucidate content or qualities.” But if in the last third of the book one occasionally senses the obligatory record, there remains throughout a sense of her continually reaching new heights as a dancer and interpreter.

For Carolyn Brown, those first seven years of grueling American touring were the most splendid. In 1956 Cage took the money he had won appearing as an expert on mushrooms on an Italian television quiz show and used it to buy a VW bus, which fit nine. By the end the regular cast included: Cunningham; Cage; David Tudor, pianist and contemporary musician extraordinaire; Brown; four other dancers; and Robert Rauschenberg, who was designing sets, lights and costumes (he worked on more than twenty Cunningham dances). They cooked out in parks, got caught in snow storms, ate uproariously and lived in the atmosphere created by “the mischievous” Rauschenberg and Cage’s “unsquelchable optimism.” Rauschenberg’s description of the “VW days” is Brown’s favorite, and she quotes it, wistfully, at a number of points in her book: “Life and art were one.” She had one abiding regret about this period: that Cunningham, who loved to perform, was only to be seen in these infrequent regional engagements, and some of the greatest years in the performing life of one of the greatest of American dancers passed almost entirely offstage.

The recorded evidence of the early years is slight–these last weeks I’ve sat rapt before the few soundless films preserved at the Performing Arts Library, work so fine one feels foolish to praise it–and, even still, as Brown very properly points out, “dance on television…can never equate with a living, breathing body on a stage.” Many of the important Cunningham works were never or poorly recorded when danced by him and the dancers for whom the pieces were developed–he himself wrote down complete notes for only one work, Rune, and later had real difficulty deciphering them. There are two excellent sources on Cunningham’s work: Jacqueline Lesschaeve’s interviews with Cunningham (The Dancer and the Dance, 1985) and Merce Cunningham, edited by James Klosty, who, after she and Earle Brown separated, became Carolyn Brown’s lifetime companion. (Klosty also took the extraordinary photographs used in Brown’s memoir.)

But reviews of performances were often uncomprehending; a book of Cunningham’s, Changes: Notes on Choreography, was printed so badly that it’s extremely hard to read; few of the dancers kept records. We should be enormously grateful to Carolyn Brown, who kept a thorough diary, wrote and saved and quotes from copious letters to her family and Earle Brown, painstakingly combed through the material record, and interviewed the other dancers and those associated with the company. Her book is and will remain one of the few and best to read for insight into the workings of this very complex and important artistic creation–Merce Cunningham and Company.

Take, for example, Brown’s description of Rune (“if a performer can judge accurately from within, Rune felt like a masterpiece”), which is particularly helpful in imagining the physical process of the rehearsal work:

We worked without music, which was usual, and without mirror, which was not, learning the dance together by breathing as one, sensing one another’s phrasing, accents, and dynamics. One had to have eyes in the back of one’s head, so to speak, and to develop an acute sense of time. In the beginning, it was maddeningly difficult. Four distinctly different dancers, whose natural affinity for particular movement qualities and phrasing could scarcely have been more diverse, had to be melded into one complementary unit.

Ways of expressing in movement the peculiarities of the body’s relationship to time are among the most mysterious and suggestive of Cunningham’s discoveries. “Merce worked with the stopwatch from the belief that rhythm comes out of the nature of the movement itself and the movement nature of the individual dancer,” Brown wrote in a wonderful essay in Klosty’s book. “In his classes in composition he gives problems relating to time awareness. For example: make three phrases and do them in one minute. Do the same three phrases in two minutes. Do the same three phrases in thirty seconds.” The dancers could reliably rehearse a fifteen-minute piece to within an accuracy of ten seconds. “The muscular memory has a built-in time sense,” she explained. “It can go awry, of course. But it can be spectacularly accurate when developed.”

With this principle–as Edwin Denby, the dance critic who mattered most to Merce Cunningham, once put it, of how “a dance phrase holds together by its rhythm in time”–dance is understood on its own terms and not in relationship to music, a key element of the Cunningham and Cage philosophy, and one to which Carolyn Brown strongly subscribes. The idea, though radical, also has its continuities with the classical tradition of dance. It is part of Brown’s intention to underscore that the tenets of Cage and Cunningham have often been misunderstood as a sort of “anything-goes” carelessness and misused by performers and creators as a result. I have come away with the feeling that, for Cunningham, using chance procedures was a way of creating for himself ever more complex rigors, which the dancers’ bodies accommodate and resist in ways that allow beauty to develop on the stage. Cunningham’s extremely mathematical mind–what one guesses is an almost instantaneous ability to seize and calculate visual impressions–means that even using incredibly elaborate chance procedures or, later, computer-generated patterns, it still was true, as he says, that “working on it with the dancers I would see how it could move through the space.” Often Brown did her own research in order to fathom the depths of a Cunningham work, and at least one of her earlier published interpretations has become standard. “Again and again,” Brown writes, “I feel it is necessary to insist that there is meaning in every Cunningham dance, but the meaning cannot be translated into words; it must be experienced kinesthetically through the language of movement.”

One feels sure that it was the pleasure and sustenance of this deep and careful artistic work that kept Carolyn Brown in the Cunningham company longer than any other dancer, for twenty years, until her retirement in 1972. With a mind and spirit akin to those of Cunningham and Cage, Brown had been vital to the work. “It made a profound change,” Cunningham said years later of her departure. “It was then that I made Changing Steps for the Company–she had gone and I’m not in it.” The scene of her last performance in her own book is moving. Brown quotes from the diary entry Cunningham made that night: “‘So beautiful,’ I said to her, ‘I never told you enough.'”

One of the great roles that Cunningham made for Brown was in Walkaround Time (1968), a tribute to Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). Characteristically, she studied Duchamp’s publication about the work, The Green Box, for clues. With Duchamp’s approval, Jasper Johns built the translucent cubes that are carried about the stage during the dance and at the end assembled as in the original artwork. All the dancers move among them with delicacy and austerity, but Brown’s work is at the center of the piece. Merce Cunningham, in a rare extended comment, said in one of his interviews with Jacqueline Lesschaeve:

Walkaround Time was made also with Carolyn Brown very clearly in mind, the images she produced. The solo she danced in such a luminous way was central to the first half of the work. There was one movement she did, which I had not choreographed, but knowing Carolyn, I realized it was there for a reason, not decoration. I watched and understood. She needed it to support herself getting from one complicated balance to the succeeding one. It came out of necessity. It was beautiful and expressive.

One has the sense, watching what can still be seen of her performance on film, that this role is built, in a deep and transformed way, on the struggle of Carolyn Brown to handle a control so perfect it might be mechanical without losing freedom and fluidity. There is a moment when she suddenly raises her left shoulder toward her immobile face and slowly lowers it again, in which seems to hang the very knowledge of what it is to live in the human body in a mechanized world. Her bride’s floating turns, full of innocence and experience; her incredible ability to change the speed of the rhythms of her body, so that in stillness you still feel movement that can then begin to be visible at seemingly any speed; the sense of the lines of her movement extending into space–all this work of a lifetime of dance shows very quietly and extremely powerfully and stays attenuated within her at the end, when Merce Cunningham, with a beautiful matter-of-fact tenderness, bends to lift her and carries her offstage.

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