Merce Cunningham: Moved by the Music of Our Time

Chance Operations

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the second area, the second big discovery, chance operations, indeterminacy.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes, uh, yes. I think there were many reasons for that with me. One of the things I think that impressed certainly John Cage and other people at that time, it was the early ’50s, there was a publication of the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes where you cast your fortune, but whatever you got was for that moment and for that space and the next second there could be a completely different one. In other words, it was that morning which you had cast for. So the next moment—it wasn’t like it led from one thing to the other, so we began to think about using chance because of the possibility of making continuity. The effort to do it in the beginning was just astonishing because using chance operations, say one had taken a series of separate movements and then used chance operations to make the order, what came up was something that was totally different from one’s physical memory. And first of all simply to learn one step and then remember what the next one was and learn that and then go back and see if you’re memory knows that, because the memory had been trained in another way. Sometimes in a linear way and this isn’t linear at all. The best story I have about that is at Black Mountain College the summer that we were there. It was the beginning of the company and John Cage was there and David Tudor was there too—he was rehearsing for a program of contemporary music that he would play later in the summer, but he was also the player for us and I didn’t want to ask him to come to rehearsal because of his own work, but I was getting so desperate for this dance that finally I asked him if he would come one day. I had not made the dance to the music but I had in a sense made it with the music because of the timing. It was a piano piece by Christian Wolff. And so David came and we started and he would start to play and I would start and in about 20 seconds, I sat down in despair and David stopped, the way he would, and I would get up and we would try it again. I couldn’t remember physically, the whole memory system was discombobulated! [laughs] So we kept on and each time we would get a little further and after about the fourth time, we sat down in despair and David Tudor came around the piano, looked at me and said, “Well, this is clearly impossible but we’re going right ahead and doing it anyway!” We just kept on going.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now you were saying for you the 19th-century forms are just not interesting and this whole notion of indeterminacy and chance in a way is about breaking out of this whole notion of linearity and climax because life doesn’t really work that way. Life is something here, something there, something there.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: I think more so than ever now because we’re not just living in a single place and operating only with those things in a sense in a linear fashion but we operate with a multiplicity of things and not just in a single space. When you can see on the television something that’s going on in China, something telling you about the stock market at the bottom, something along the top view telling me about the weather , describing the weather in Minnesota. There are three different things going on and nobody has any trouble with that. Now, if you do that in the theater they’re just harassed. But they see it on the television everyday! [laughs] Now they have four of these lines or something coming in with all of this!

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s very strange but I would definitely say, I would say that it’s influenced by work of you and Cage and Christian Wolff…

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, that’s very possible but I mostly think that we were just a part of it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Although initially many of the transitions from movement to movement determined by chance operations might have been unnatural, are there any of these sequences of movements that have become transitions that you think of as natural?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Oh, absolutely. I was in Russia once for a week and we showed our videos in Moscow. There were some dancers there and there was a translator and one of the questions was from a man who was a ballet dancer from the Bolshoi, and he said in Russian, “The movement doesn’t look natural.” And the woman who translated, a wondrous lady, translated to me and I said back to her, “If you do something often enough, it becomes natural.” She said, “That’s great!” and then went back into Russian. [laughs] Because it’s true. We all thought that about the typewriter. What are you going to do with an automobile when you’re riding with a horse on it? And the computer is the most conventional instrument, but look at the complications of doing that and it itself has changed too. I think that many of the movements that were devised that we had trouble with in the beginning the dancers now handle in an amazing way. I’ve added complexities in arms, which when we began took a very long time, understandably so, for the dancer to understand that he or she was in what’s called first position in a relevé. One arm was like this and one arm was like this and the torso was turned and your head was turned this way. And all that had to be done, piecemeal, so that one thing linked to the other. Then you go to another movement where once again each thing had to be turned the other way. Now with some, they get it so fast, it’s amazing, sort of because I know the history. It wouldn’t seem that way to someone who was watching. But for me I can see the quickness with which their eyes pick up these ideas.