Merce Cunningham’s Ensemble Space by Arabella Stanger

Arabella Stanger
University of London

Merce Cunningham’s Ensemble Space and the Black Mountain Principle of Community


In an 1989 article, Vernon Shetley characterises the choreographic work of Merce Cunningham as “an attempt to imagine a form of human society that reconciles individuality and community” (Shetley, 1989: 73). Shetley’s observation describes a pronounced spatial property of Cunningham’s performing ensemble, where a group of dancers is presented not as a uniform “body” producing mutual movement but as a coexistence of autonomous soloists who are associated in their sharing of a performance environment yet individuated in their respective navigation of it. Addressing this work’s pursuit of balance between the individual and the group, Shetley’s statement additionally suggests the orientation of Cunningham’s practice towards a particular institutional ancestry. The form of human society invoked here also serves as an appropriate description of the principle of “community” that was cultivated as an (elusive) ideal at Black Mountain College, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s site of foundation. Like Cunningham’s ensemble space, the social space of Black Mountain College was predicated on a pointed commitment to the individual as situated within the participatory fabric of group practice, and this particular exploration in “community” might be helpfully foregrounded as an important context within which to situate Cunningham’s work.[i]
While Cunningham’s company finds an emblematic residence in New York—the city which provided both the site of his debut programme as an independent choreographer in 1944, and his company’s working base ever since—its foundations and a significant part of its heritage lie in North Carolina.[ii] This is firstly for practical reasons as regards the entwining of the biography of the Cunningham group with that of the later years of Black Mountain College, an affiliation that can be viewed more generally as part of the cross-fertilisation of artistic practitioners and ideas that took place between this institution and a New York-based avant-garde throughout the College’s history in the late 1940s and early 1950s in particular. Between the years of 1948 and 1953 the College hosted Cunningham and John Cage over five separate visits. At this point in their respective careers the two artists were in the early stages of a life-long working partnership, having first met in 1938 at the Cornish School in Seattle where Cage was accompanist to Cunningham’s then-teacher, the Martha Graham dancer Bonnie Bird. Cunningham would move to New York the following year in order to join the Martha Graham Dance Company as a soloist, a position he would hold for the next six years before following Cage’s encouragement to commit his energies, from around 1945 onwards, to the making and performing of his own choreography (Vaughan, 1997: 17, 29, 37). The sporadic presence of Cunningham and Cage at Black Mountain College from the late 1940s—following soon after the former’s emergence as an independent dance maker and leading up to the formal establishment of his troupe—provided an important opportunity for both artists to develop their path-breaking experiments in form and process including, notably, their joint and respective explorations in collaborative autonomy and in chance composition. The Cunningham/Cage visits to Black Mountain College ranged over this five-year period from short performance-based sharings, during which their existing work was performed to the College population, to summer-long teaching and artistic residencies which resulted in brand new programmes of dance, music and multi-disciplinary practice.[iii] Black Mountain College also provided the site in which Cunningham would consolidate his creative relationship with a set of key, early collaborators including not only Cage but also Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and a core group of seven dancers with whom he worked—in the dining hall of the Lake Eden campus—over the summer of 1953.[iv] All of these early collaborators would be associated with the first incarnation of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at its inaugural performances of 21 and 22 August 1953 at that year’s Black Mountain College Summer Institute, and many would be central to its later cementing of an international and domestic reputation as a pioneering force in the field of contemporary dance.[v]
However, Black Mountain College should be considered important as a fostering environment for Cunningham’s work in respect not only of these biographical details, but also as the foregoing reading of Shetley’s statement suggests, the consistency which exists between Cunningham’s choreographic treatment of the dancing group and the principle of community which underpinned the Black Mountain College institutional ethos. In an 1996 interview, Cunningham recalled the impression left upon him by the unique communal dynamic cultivated at the College:

Black Mountain College … was … if I could call it that, one of the first interdisciplinary situations. It was a small school, but the disciplines of various kinds, both art and science, were mixed, and I remember one of the pleasures for me was that everyone ate in this large open room, the dining hall. And you sat at tables with people from totally different situations than your own. I was there as a teacher of dance, and I’d give a dance class in the morning, and rehearsing in the dining hall in the afternoon. And at either lunch or dinner you would eat with someone from the Physics Department, or someone from the Visual Arts Department, or someone else … it wasn’t really in any sense to me a conventional educational institution at all. It was something where you gained by experience, by observing, by listening, and by talking. (Cunningham, Kirk and Goodman, 1996)


The significance of this recollection to an assessment of Cunningham’s work in relation to the Black Mountain College principle of community lies in the resonances that it bears with some of the major tenets held in the pedagogical and political philosophy of John Dewey, a figure important to the intellectual origins of the College and whose thought rested at the heart of its foundational commitment to an education—in the words of John Andrew Rice—both for and in democracy (Rice, 1942: 327). Such resonances lie firstly in Cunningham’s observation that Black Mountain College was an educational institution where “you gained by experience,” a statement consistent with Dewey’s central conviction as both a progressive reformer and a pragmatist thinker that educational growth and social experience were synonymous. In the closing passage of Democracy and Education (1916), for example, Dewey posited as his ideal context for institutionalised learning “an educational scheme where learning is the accompaniment of continuous activities or occupations which have a social aim and utilize the materials of typical social situations,” moving further to assert that “under such conditions, the school becomes itself a form of social life, a miniature community” (Dewey, 1997: 360). In this statement Dewey imagined a theoretical scenario not dissimilar to the one Cunningham perceived as unfolding in practice in the dining hall of Lake Eden, the same space which would house the inceptive performances of the Cunningham company.
Cunningham’s depiction of the Black Mountain College social “happenings” is additionally congruent with Dewey’s thought in the richness of experience that the former found in these manifestations of the College as a “miniature community” is predicated on a relational model which is basic also to Dewey’s democratic ideal. Cunningham’s enjoyment of the College communal dinners—and the practical use he intuited in such situations—resided in their creation of an environment which nourished the free interaction of individuals, each of whom came from “totally different situations” and each of whom brought their diverse and independent capacities to bear on a communal situation. It is the same notion of associated action between autonomous individuals (who are deliberately accentuated as such), which both pervades Cunningham’s own choreographic organisation of an ensemble, and which invests his understanding of the Black Mountain College communal dynamic with a distinctively Deweyan character. This article proceeds by framing the Black Mountain College principle of community—in which group practice is understood as nevertheless accommodating the centrality of the individual—through Dewey’s pedagogical and political writings on democracy as a “form of associated living,” before using this same delineation of the relationship between the individual and the group as a lens through which to view Cunningham’s choreography for the ensemble (Dewey, 1997: 87). If Dewey’s particular formulation of the democratic relational model provided an ideal upon which the Black Mountain College sense of the individual-community balance rested, then it also provides an appropriate rationale through which to contextualise Cunningham’s choreographic pronunciation of the individual in his ensemble space.
Since its founding in 1933 at the incentive of Rice, Black Mountain College was an institution that represented itself not only as a liberal arts college but also as a community. Indeed, within a twenty-three year existence which was characterised by the consistency with which its founding mission provided a licence for dispute, its self-identification as a community was one of the constituting ideals that was sustained as a guiding and self-determining principle throughout the life of the College. We might take as an incipient example Josef Albers’s explication of the design for the Black Mountain College seal, which featured two concentric circles with the College’s name and location printed around the outer circumference, as revealed in an internally-produced leaflet of March 1935. Albers accounted for the design in terms which demonstrate an early self-presentation of the College as a community, stating that: “On the front of this leaflet we present our new seal […] as a symbol of union, we have chosen simply a simple ring. It is an emphasized ring to emphasize coming together, standing together, working together” (Harris, 1987: xix). This constitutional goal of pursuing a communal project in education, or even an educational project in community, was put into practice through the multiple activities conducted alongside and even conjointly with formal studies and which shaped daily life at the College. As reported by the author Louis Adamic in the light of conversations he held with Rice after two visits to Black Mountain College between 1935 and 1937, these activities included: “wood-chopping, road-mending, rolling the tennis courts, serving tea in the afternoon… done by groups composed of students and members of faculty” (Adamic, 1990: 58-9). As with Cunningham’s depiction of the Black Mountain College dining experience, the centrality of these “extra-curricular” activities underlines the College’s aspiration to Dewey’s ideal educational situation, in which the school would become a “miniature community” through its sustained cultivation of socially-orientated activities in an experiential route to learning. Perhaps the apex of this pedagogical philosophy as put into practice within the Black Mountain College context was the communal construction of the Lake Eden site between 1940 and 1941, during which the entire college, staff and students alike, came together to build their own campus from the ground up.[vi] Two years after this massive project was completed a welcome speech delivered to new students by the current rector of the College, Bob Wunsch, described Black Mountain College as “first a community, then a college,” attesting to what was by then a robust self-identification as a distinctively Deweyan educational facility in which the population not only studied, but also lived, together.[vii]
The importance of Dewey’s thought for understanding the very particular societal configuration to which this community subsequently aspired might be observed initially in its institutional ideals as determined by Rice. The College’s principle founder was a staunch admirer and personal acquaintance of Dewey’s, decisively naming him as the only man he had ever known “who was completely fit and fitted to live in a democracy” (Rice, 1942: 331). The philosopher would subsequently accept invitations from Rice to visit Black Mountain College several times in its early years and to become a member of its Advisory Board and while Rice’s personal attempts to instate Black Mountain College as an education “for and in democracy” were by no means consistent nor unproblematic; he located the principles on which this aspiration was based securely in Deweyan thought (Duberman, 1974: 102).[viii] That Rice associated Dewey directly with his conception of the College’s founding credo is clear enough in his recollection of a piece of advice given to him by the latter in response to a concern over the “life span of an idea” as it would function centrally to the College’s existence. According to Rice, Dewey advised that to ensure against the College’s departure from its original ideals, he needed simply “to keep [his] eye on the individual” (Rice, 1942: 324-5). It is this commitment to the individual as a key and inviolable component of the group which came to permeate the Black Mountain College ideal of community and which finds a theoretical basis and elaboration throughout Dewey’s own writings.
In “My Pedagogic Creed” (1897), Dewey stated his basic educational philosophy to reside in a conviction that “the individual who is to be educated is a social individual and that society is an organic union of individuals” (Dewey, 1972: 86). The reciprocal construction of this fundamental tenet was transposed across not only his pedagogical writings more broadly but also those texts which deal principally with questions of political ethics, through which he placed a consideration of the relationship between the individual and society-at-large at the very heart of his delineation of the democratic ideal. Dewey’s diagram for the ideally-functioning democratic society both reserved a central place for the individual and specified a very particular deployment of individuals in relation to one another. While for Dewey the safeguarding of individual autonomy is part of that which ensures a truly democratic societal shape, the relational model on which this configuration is based does not, by extension, equate to what Daniel Savage has termed the “atomized individualism of the libertarian liberal” (Savage, 2002: 35). Indeed, during a passage of ‘The Ethics of Democracy’ (1888), Dewey pledged his allegiance to “the theory that men are not isolated non-social atoms, but are men only when in intrinsic relations to men” (Dewey, 1969: 231). For Dewey, as a modern liberal intellectual, the democratic ideal was one in which individual liberty was cultivated as an inherently social condition whereby individuals exist in and act through a mutual interdependence with one another. It was from this conviction that Dewey drew his definition of both the democratic societal ideal and a model education for democracy, expecting in both of these standards a reconciliation of the individual with the group, where “in conception, at least, democracy approaches most nearly the ideal of all social organization; that in which the individual and society are organic to each other” (Ibid.: 237).
In his subsequent characterisation of Dewey’s democratic model as presenting society as “a community of autonomous participants,” Savage points to the way in which this same principle was taken up in the pedagogical aspirations of Black Mountain College (Savage, 2002: 36). Adamic’s chronicle of his conversations with Rice between 1935 and 1937 demonstrates the latter’s recognition of the broader social project which underpinned the College’s self-formulation as a community which nevertheless “kept an eye” on the individual. Adamic recalled Rice’s contention that “in general, the effort of Black Mountain College is to produce individuals rather than individualists […] the individual, to be complete, must be aware of his relation to others. Here the whole community becomes his teacher” (Adamic, 1990: 58-9). The point here was not that individual interest should become subsumed within the common will of the College population through the constant designation of oneself as identical with the group-at-large. However, nor was it for the people who resided at Black Mountain College to withdraw into pockets of self-imposed isolation, taking no notice of the needs and actions of those with whom they shared the College grounds. Rather, the Black Mountain College credo deferred to a uniquely Deweyan principle for understanding the implications of “community.” This was one in which the population could function as a coexistence of independent yet associated individuals, where each acted autonomously while referring their action to that of others. This would ultimately create an environment comparable to that imagined in Dewey’s pedagogic creed, in which individual agency emerged as an organic property of group-participation and in which, reciprocally, a single community emerged from a diversity of self-directed interests.
It is important to reiterate at this stage that this particular construction of the Black Mountain College community dynamic existed far more robustly as a principled premise than it ever did either in practical consensus or as an institutional realisation over the College’s years of operation. However, the multi-disciplinary performance work produced throughout Black Mountain College’s history did provide a fertile artistic ground for the practical testing of such a principle and, by extension, also provides an important bridge between this model of community as it existed in the societal aspirations of the College and as it is manifested later in Cunningham’s own organisation of bodies in space. Indeed, the participatory ideal in question can be seen at work in the seminal, untitled theatre event created by Cage in collaboration with a group of artists including Cunningham, Rauschenberg, Tudor, Nicolas Cernovitch, Charles Olson, and M.C. Richards, performed in the Lake Eden dining hall within the context of the Black Mountain College Summer Institute of 1952.[ix] Although the scope of this article does not permit a thoroughgoing discussion of Cage’s Theatre Piece #1—nor its antecedents in the history of Black Mountain College-produced theatre practice—it is important to note that by setting up in this event a situation for the coexistence of self-directed performances and objects this work not only enacted the Black Mountain College “ideal community” in a performance context, but also offered a prototype of the collaborative model used by the Cunningham company ever since.[x]
In a creative process developed out of his early work with Cage in the mid-1940s, Cunningham’s performance works are designed so that the constituent elements coexist in a state of mutual non-determination. Choreography, musical composition, and visual design are conceived separately and share only a length of time and perimeters of space in performance, sometimes coming together for the first occasion at the instance of their first public presentation. Cunningham himself describes this working process and the aesthetic it engenders in terms that speak to the Deweyan notion of a “community of autonomous participants,” saying of his company’s collaborative dynamic in an interview of 1980:

What we have done in our work is to bring together three separate elements in time and space, the music, the dance and the decor, allowing each one to remain independent. The three arts don’t come from a single idea which the dance demonstrates, the music supports and the decor illustrates, but rather they are three separate elements each central to itself. (Cunningham and Lesschaeve, 1985: 137)


It is this exact sense of a pointed commitment to the centrality of the individual (be it the individual artistic element or human collaborator) within the context of group activity which reproduces the Black Mountain College principle of community in Cunningham’s dance productions. In the rare occasions in which Cunningham has spoken of his company’s “politics” he has often contextualised this same collaborative model in relation to a Cagean notion of “anarchy,” stating in the same interview of 1980, for example, that: “we represent anarchy so to speak. John Cage does more than anybody else […] what we represent is in a sense no government … a kind of individual behaviour in relation to yourself doing what you do and allowing the other person to do whatever he does” (Ibid.: 162; 164).[xi] However, Cunningham’s identification of his own practice with a Cagean claim to anarchy might be refined in the light of the above discussion of the Black Mountain College aspirations to a democratically-formulated community. This is especially clear in the correspondence which exists between the kind of performance environment produced in Cage’s Black Mountain College theatre event—as transposed in principle to the Cunningham company’s own collaborative model—and the notion of an interdependent individual liberty basic to Dewey’s democratic ideal. The congruity that exists between the Deweyan notion of democracy and Cunningham’s choreographic practice more broadly might be illustrated particularly in the latter’s organisation of the dancing group.
In one respect, Cunningham’s assertion of a freedom afforded the individual participants of his productions is severely complicated in relation to the participation of his dancers. Carolyn Brown, one of the founding members of the Cunningham company, has highlighted the way in which Cunningham’s dancers were certainly not “at liberty” to direct their own contributions to his productions as were his other collaborators, revealing:

The official Cage-Cunningham dogma requires the autonomy and freedom of each theatrical element—movement, light, sound, decor. And so the dancers, the only ones who are neither autonomous nor free, must responsibly do their work, continually at the mercy of those whose flights of fancy with gloom and glare, noise, and obstacle can inhibit their ability to dance well. (Brown, 1975: 28).


The dancers, in other words, are the only participants who are not free to determine the material which they bring to the production, behaving more as vehicles of Cunningham’s choreographic vision than as agents of creation in the same fashion as the composer or designer. However, Cunningham’s tendency to employ dancers as an extension of his singular choreographic authorship (rarely using improvisation or collective movement-devising), does not forestall a Deweyan reading of his choreographic treatment of the dancing group.[xii] While not permitting the absolute self-direction of each of his dancers, Cunningham nevertheless organises their respective movements in space so that each might be viewed as an autonomous individual who retains an important part of their personal agency as a performer. Instead of presenting a singular, cohesive body made up of a mass of identical bodies—a group configuration which is emblematised, for example, in the classical corps de ballet—Cunningham presents an individuated ensemble which is made up of multiple soloists who are associated through the encounters of their respective movement pathways. Cunningham himself has indicated that he is interested in “not the sameness of one person to another, but the difference, not a corps de ballet, but a group of individuals acting together” (Cunningham, 1999: 42). It is in this way that the congruity between Cunningham’s work and the Black Mountain College principle of community manifests itself in an environment that presents an image of community through the kinetic intersections of differentiated and autonomous individuals.
This feature of Cunningham’s work can be observed in two aspects of his choreography for the ensemble: in the way in which he creates a spatial differentiation of his dancers in terms of their relational placement in the performance environment, and in the way in which his unison choreography accommodates the individuality of each dancer’s sense of the phrase. Two works from Cunningham’s oeuvre offer particularly rich examples of these means by which he produced an individuated ensemble. The first, Suite By Chance (1952), which was performed at Black Mountain College in 1953, provides an early instance of Cunningham’s work with chance and with the spatial differentiation of the dancing group. This early work is significant not only because of its proximity to Black Mountain College but also because the choreographer’s reflections upon it articulate a conceptual basis for his work with the ensemble ever since. The type of ensemble space Cunningham began exploring with Suite By Chance lived on through the next sixty years of his practice, with 1999’s BIPED providing a later example of the way in which he used spatial differentiation as well as unison dancing to pronounce the place of the individual within the group.
Suite By Chance premiered in New York in the winter of 1952 and was performed by an ensemble of five dancers (including Cunningham) with Christian Wolff’s Music for Magnetic Tape. It was also Cunningham’s first work in which the movement continuity was determined fully by chance operations.[xiii] A particular audience seating plan was devised during its development and was adopted in earnest during its performance in the Lake Eden dining hall on 22 August 1953, as part of the inaugural performances of the Cunningham company. Taking a spatial configuration not unlike Cage’s 1952 event—which had been performed the previous summer in the very same room—the audience was placed on all four sides of the dance, producing a space which accommodated multiple viewing aspects within the spectator group and which subsequently resisted the designation of one, static orientation for the performing ensemble (Vaughn, 1997: 69, 76). In discussing the origins of this seating plan, Cunningham has underlined the correspondence between his treatment of space, his use of chance and his conception of an integrally individuated ensemble:

In applying chance to space I saw the possibility of multidirection. Rather than thinking in one direction i.e. to the audience in a proscenium frame, direction could be four-sided and up and down. […] The dancer is at a given point in the dancing area. That point in space and or that particular moment in time concurrently is the center for him and he stays or moves to the next point to the next center. Each dancer had this possibility. So, from moment to moment and from point to point, the dancers moved separately. (Cunningham 1968: unpaginated [U1] [28-37])


Through the employment of a chance decision-making process for determining the directions that each dancer would follow in their performance environment, Cunningham was led to dispose of the frontally-fixed orientation implied in the architectural prescriptions of the proscenium frame; the latter being the orientation which is enshrined as an aesthetic imperative in the idiom and canon of classical ballet, a major aspect of this choreographer’s technical inheritance.[xiv] By placing the audience instead on all four sides of Suite By Chance, Cunningham deployed his ensemble as a collection of equally-central and equally-shifting points, refuting a perspectival logic which specifies a graded importance of dancers according to their proximity to the “centre” of the stage.
Cunningham’s comments on the seating plan and spatial behaviour of the ensemble in Suite By Chance provide, at first reading, an incisive practical context for what is perhaps his most direct, and oft-cited statement of his own conception of spatiality, drawn from his apprehension of an Einsteinian dimensional relativity, in which “‘there are no fixed points in space’ [enabling] every point [to be] [U2] equally interesting and equally changing” (Cunningham and Lesschaeve, 1985: 17-18). However, once we recall the institutional situation in which this same work was developed and performed, Cunningham’s “no fixed points” conception of space might be read further in the light of an explicitly Deweyan conception of a democratic social order, and especially so when measured again alongside the treatment of the dancing group in classical ballet. If the utter uniformity of the classical corps de ballet—which is facilitated in a spatial sense by the shared structural referent of the proscenium frame—is used as a device to show the distinction between the peripheral ensemble and the centrally-placed soloists in the same hierarchical scheme which structured the world of this dance form’s sovereign patrons in the absolutist courts of seventeenth-century France and nineteenth-century Russia, then Cunningham’s multi-centred ensemble might find a common organising logic in the Black Mountain College principle of community, as expressed in Dewey’s progressive notion of the democratic ideal. During a passage of Democracy and Education, Dewey offers a diagram for this very model which reads as a fairly accurate topography of both the Black Mountain College community ideal and Cunningham’s conception of his own ensemble space: “a society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic” (Dewey, 1997: 99). This statement might be used to characterise Cunningham’s treatment of the dancing group because, like his “no fixed points” statement and his depiction of the Suite by Chance performing space, it specifies a common environment in which participants come together in a non-fixed configuration where value is conferred equally to each. The fundamental departure that Cunningham made in Suite By Chance from the perspectival structures of a proscenium orientation is that which enabled him to conceive of each dancer as occupying a central place among many and of each as subsequently behaving “separately” within the ensemble.
Suite By Chance then, represents the first instance in which Cunningham began to formalise his treatment of the ensemble as a group of differentiated and equally prominent individuals. His recognition, in respect of this work, of each dancer moving “separately” within their group was taken as a premise for his organisation of the dancing ensemble throughout his subsequent oeuvre, where the dancers of his company continued to move as if the audience were placed on all sides of the space even when performing within the single-aspect frame of the proscenium arch. One such work, created within the final decade of this choreographer’s lifetime and nearly fifty years after his final residency at Black Mountain College, is BIPED. By the end of the 1990s Cunningham was working with two digital applications for both the composition and the presentation of his choreography. The first of these, the choreographic software LifeForms, allowed Cunningham from around 1989 onwards to design movement content on a computer simulation before teaching this content to dancers in the rehearsal studio.[xv] The second of these is motion capture technology, as used in Cunningham’s collaborations in the late 1990s with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar of The OpenEnded Group.[xvi] Motion capture introduced to Cunningham’s performance works the possibility of combining material and virtual space, enabling him to convert movement performed by his dancers into digital representations which could then be projected into the broader performance environment. BIPED is a work for the stage which demonstrates Cunningham’s employment of both of these technologies in ways which intensify his work with a differentiated ensemble.
The “material” environment of BIPED consists of an empty stage flanked on three sides by black curtains containing hidden openings, giving the impression of a surrounding void from which the dancers enter and into which they exit. Fourteen dancers populate this environment, moving through a shifting configuration of solos, duets, and small and large ensemble phrases. The movement content of BIPED was devised using LifeForms and the temporal and spatial continuity of the choreography was determined by a chance function built into that program. The “virtual” environment consists of movement sequences executed by computer-animated figures which are projected onto a transparent scrim positioned at the very front of the stage. Employing a motion-capture process, this animation had been generated by Kaiser and Eshkar through the sampling of five minutes of the BIPED choreography performed during the rehearsal period by two of Cunningham’s dancers. The movement was then rendered as graphic figure-transitions to produce twenty-five minutes of virtual dance which was subsequently arranged into a temporal continuity through chance procedures for projection during the performance. Because of the frontal placement of the scrim, the front-projection onto it and its transparency, the effect of this particular adjacency of the material and virtual environments of BIPED is to produce an interpenetration of the two movement scores, displayed within a kinetically complex mutual space as delineated by the proscenium frame.[xvii]
While the performance environment of BIPED is framed within the proscenium arch, the deployment of the ensemble within this frame continues to plot the kind of multi-directional space Cunningham developed initially within the multi-aspect seating plan of Suite By Chance. During an extended allegro section performed by five female dancers towards the end of the work, the individuation of the ensemble is mapped onto the stage floor through the spatially independent trajectories followed by each dancer. During this section the dancers perform the same movement phrase: a travelling jump consisting of three strides moving either forwards, backwards or sideways, followed by a straight vertical elevation in which the working leg flicks out and in on a hinged knee against the ankle of the elevating leg. However, through the continuous repetition of this phrase each dancer navigates the space according to an independent pathway, plotting their changes of direction, shifting orientations as well as moments of exit from and entrance back into the performance space in a sequence entirely different to that of their co-dancers. In effect, this particular deployment of the group presents us with five different permutations of the same sequence, where each is performed by a different dancer simultaneously in the same space. Not only do Cunningham’s dancers refute the perspectival logic of the proscenium stage here by shifting their orientation in a 360° outlook (acknowledging all “sides” of the space as if their audience were seated all around) but also they perform together an amalgamation of five solos. Each performs their own permutation of the sequence as if the others were not present, providing an illustration of the phrase “multiple solitudes” with which critic Alastair Macauley has characterised Cunningham’s group work (Macauley, 2008). By inscribing a shared environment within the proscenium frame according to the principles of multi-direction and individual separateness the BIPED ensemble continues to dismantle the group homogeneity characteristic of the classical corps de ballet and to exist instead, in Cunningham’s own words, as “group of individuals acting together.”
The expression of the ensemble in BIPED as a coexistence of multiple soloists is only heightened by the inclusion of the virtual environment in this work. This is especially the case during sections of the choreography in which a “human” soloist is joined by the projection of virtual “dancers” onto the scrim at the front of the stage. This occurs, for example, during a solo section performed by a female dancer in the first half of the work. She begins by occupying the stage space on her own, performing a combination of travelling sequences and quick-paced adagio transitions performed to the spot. Mid-way through the section a projection sequence begins in which two anthropomorphised virtual figures are projected onto the scrim, dwarfing the female dancer and performing a series of triple runs and turns adjacent to her own movements, ultimately creating the effect of a shared volume of space consisting of not only varying centres and directions, but also varying scales of occupant. The first dancer becomes, at this instant, a member of an ensemble, but significantly one which has itself been composed through a superimposition of multiple, separate solos as they are performed simultaneously in a material and in a virtual environment. The important aspect of this particular use of digital projection in a proscenium setting is that each “layer” of the material/virtual ensemble behaves autonomously. If either layer were to be removed, it would leave the remaining soloist integrally unaffected, this employment of virtual dance ultimately composing a common environment from an adjacency of separate spaces and amplifying the separation of the individuals within it. As with Cunningham’s depiction of the performance space for Suite By Chance and its elaboration in the BIPED human group work, where each dancer has the possibility to “move separately” within the group, the superimposition of the virtual onto the material environment of BIPED presents an ensemble conceived, again in Deweyan terms, as a “community of autonomous participants.”
A final aspect of Cunningham’s choreography for the BIPED ensemble which might be fruitfully measured alongside the Black Mountain College principle of community and in the light of Dewey’s democratic ideal is his unique employment of unison phrases. Unison dancing represents the ultimate choreographic statement of communal activity in that it consists of a group of dancers performing the same movement together in a common time and space. However, Cunningham’s creation of unison phrases for his ensemble nevertheless demonstrates a sustained commitment to the individual dancer. Unison work in performances given by the Cunningham company often exhibits discrepancies in the dancers’ respective plotting of time and space, representing a sharp contrast, again, to the uniform movement execution which remains the ultimate aesthetic imperative of the classical corps de ballet. This is particularly clear, for example, in the section of BIPED which follows directly on from the “virtual ensemble” phrase described above. A second female dancer enters the space to replace the first; having performed alone in the centre of the stage, she exits at the upstage perimeter of the performance area before returning almost immediately, now flanked on both sides by the first dancer plus three more, creating in sum a horizontal line of five. This small ensemble proceeds downstage, travelling “square on” towards the audience by performing together a sequence of deep lunges on varying orientations, accompanied by pronounced arches and curves of the spine with the arms lifted to state a range of symmetrical and asymmetrical lines across the body. Although these five share the same movement vocabulary and the same basic spatial and temporal determinants (the orientation and rhythm of the phrase remain common to all) each person “looks” entirely different as they perform it, marking the group again as an association of five distinct soloists. The mutual difference between the dancers derives, in a technical sense, from their respective accentuation both of an individual mode of coordination (where each orchestrates the spatio-temporal relationship of their legs and arms in a different way) and an individual dynamic (where each deploys kinetic energy in different patterns depending on their exploratory sense of the phrase).
This feature of Cunningham’s unison work is typical of his choreography for the group and might be situated within his practice more broadly through a comment made in 2009 by dancer Daniel Madoff. Madoff explained of learning and performing Cunningham’s choreography that “this work allows you to be exactly who you are, [you’re just being told] what the step is, how much time it takes […] and everything else is up to you” (Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, 2009). In accentuating the scope that each dancer has to bring their individual sense of the phrase to their embodiment of the basic structural determinants of Cunningham’s choreography, Madoff’s statement indicates Cunningham’s departure not only from the uniform imperative of the classical corps, but also from the expressionist imperative of this choreographer’s one-time teacher, Graham. Unlike Graham, who devised choreographic content explicitly to express “the landscape of the soul,” training her dancers to move as and through the pre-set psychological states which formed the motivating core of her works, Cunningham expected his dancers to move simply “as themselves” (Graham, 1992: 6). Speaking to his well-known aphorism, “they are rather than being someone, doing something,” Cunningham’s avoidance of psychological motivation in the devising and teaching of his work enabled the individuality of each of his dancers to be featured as a robust aspect of their performance, in that each could display personal autonomy in their performance simply of spatial and temporal transitions and not as a vehicle for a remotely-determined expressional content (Brockway, 1974). In this respect, Madoff’s characterisation of Cunningham’s work with his dancers not only accounts for the technical difference which is found within unison phrases such as that of BIPED described above, but also underscores the artistic license that is afforded each dancer in their performance of this choreographer’s material.
Even then within ensemble work where the dancers move according to an identical choreographic design, Cunningham’s commitment to the difference of each is exposed. In this type of unison dancing, each person may behave as a distinct individual and not as a duplicate of their co-dancers (as is the case, for example, with the classical corps) nor as a conduit for an externally-imposed “subject” (as is the case, for example, in Graham’s work). The ultimate effect of this particular organisation of the dancing group is to materialise a reconciliation of communality and individuality in that the dancers receive and execute a shared movement vocabulary, but do so in a way which asserts their difference and agency as autonomous artists. Within the terms of the present argument, Cunningham’s accommodation of difference within the unison ensemble finds congruity once more with the Deweyan notion of individual liberty as situated within a democratic social space, in that it both “counts individual variations as precious” and holds every person to be “an absolute end in [them]self” (Dewey, 1997: 305; 1969: 245). However, like Dewey’s organic union of individuals and much like Rice’s emphasis on ‘individuals rather than individualists’ in the Black Mountain College context, Cunningham’s ensemble is not presented as an atomisation of the whole, where the pronunciation of the individual is achieved at the expense of communality. His work, for example, does not consist simply of solos, nor does his use of ensemble work consist strictly of kinetic counterpoint, where each dancer would perform something always structurally different from the rest. Rather Cunningham’s regularly employed unison phrases, more than any other, show individual autonomy to be absolute but nevertheless define it as such through action which is fundamentally common to the group. It is this practical manifestation of Cunningham’s “group of individuals acting together,” which exhibits the participatory model fundamental to Dewey’s democratic ideal and emblematic of the Black Mountain College principle of community.
It is important to emphasise in conclusion, that the point of the foregoing analysis is not to read a deliberate political agenda in Cunningham’s treatment of the dancing group. Indeed, as this artist was always keen to state himself: “when I dance, it means: this is what I’m doing. A thing is just that thing” (Cunningham, 1997b: 86). Furthermore, given its lack of generative, consistent and functional proximity to an institutionalised societal programme, Cunningham’s work should not be thought of as the instrument of a political world-view. However, the transient proximity that Cunningham’s work did have—at a crucial juncture in his career—to an institution which became as much a testing ground for a societal ideal as it did an educational facility, suggests a pretext for contextualising his work in relation to a particular strand of political thought. Four years after the founding of his company and his final residency at Black Mountain College, Cunningham himself described his work as speaking to a “democratic” social order, stating after a 1957 public demonstration of his Untitled Solo, a work which was itself created and premiered at Black Mountain College in 1953: “My own feeling about dance continuity came from the view that life is constantly changing and shifting, that we live in a democratic society, and that people and things in nature are mutually independent of, and related to each other” (Cunningham, 1997a: 101). The point of particular importance here is that Cunningham’s own depiction of a “democratic” social order dovetails with the one provided by Dewey in that both emphasise the fundamental independence of the individual in conjunction with their integral relationship to others.
As with Dewey’s elaboration of the democratic ideal, Cunningham’s vision of a choreographic practice germane to its own democratic social space rests upon an endowment of independence to each individual. However, again like Dewey’s “ethics” of democracy (in which “men” are understood as such “only when in intrinsic relations to men”) Cunningham’s dancing group is democratically formulated not because it is atomised, but because each individual exists as an autonomous participant of common work. It is for this reason that the Black Mountain College principle of community might be identified as offering an essential institutional ancestry for Cunningham’s practice. Black Mountain College provided not only a material site for the nascent formalisation of the Cunningham company but also a societal diagram which, like this choreographer’s own organisation of bodies in space, expresses a distinctively Deweyan conception of democracy. Cunningham’s explicit address of his work to a “democratic society” in the years following his company’s inauguration at the College can be situated concretely and specifically in this light. In depicting the dancing ensemble as a coexistence of individuated and equally-important centres of action who are nevertheless cooperative in their remit of “acting together,” Cunningham did indeed, as Shetley suggests, attempt to imagine a form of human society that reconciles individuality and community. However, in this same respect Cunningham’s practice exhibits a principle of communal action that was cultivated in one of its earliest fostering environments, as embedded in John Andrew Rice’s very Deweyan aspirations to an education “for and in democracy.”


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[i] The reference to Martin Duberman’s comprehensive chronicle, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (1972) is intentional. The subtitle of this text indicates the framework through which Duberman viewed the history of the College, which is taken up here in specific relation to Cunningham’s place in this history.

[ii] Cunningham and John Cage gave their debut joint-programme of dances and music at the Humphrey-Weidman studio, New York City, on 5 April 1944. While not on tour Cunningham worked in rented studios in and around New York before moving his company in January 1971 to its permanent home on the top floor of the Westbeth Artists Housing building in Manhattan’s West Village (Vaughan, 1997: 182).

[iii] The Cunningham/Cage visits to Black Mountain took place in the spring and the summer of 1948; in the spring and the summer of 1952 and in the summer of 1953. For details of these residences see Duberman (1974: 277-92; 346-62) and Vaughan (1997: 63-8; 72-80).

[iv] The core group of dancers with whom Cunningham worked at Black Mountain over the summer of 1953 were: Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, Anita Denks, Viola Farber, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger and Paul Taylor (Vaughan, 1997: 73).

[v] For an account of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s history from its inception at Black Mountain in 1953 until its important world tour of 1964, see Lloyd, (1975).

[vi] For an account of the construction of the Lake Eden site, see Duberman (1974: 155-160) and Harris (1987: 56-65).

[vii] Bob Wunsch (1943) ‘Greetings, Opportunities and Responsibilities’, The State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C.; cited in Duberman (1974: 169).

[viii] For a representative instance of such inconsistency, see Duberman (1974: 122-40) on the ‘schism’ that divided the College in 1936–7 over the question of Rice’s perceived abuse of power as self-appointed leader of the community.

[ix] For accounts of this event, which remain fragmentary and conflicting, see: Cage, et al. (1995: 52-3); Duberman (1974: 350-8); and Fetterman (1996: 96-104).

[x] For details of earlier experiments in mixed-media performance conducted at Black Mountain, including Xanti Schawinsky’s Bauhaus-derived Spectodrama projects of 1936-7and Betty and Pete Jennerjahn’s Light Sound Movement Workshop of 1949-51, see: Schawinsky (1971a; 1971b; 1973) and Harris (1987: 208-10).

[xi] Cunningham has further characterised his company’s working process as following an anarchistic model in relation to his work Aeon (1961). Reflecting on this work, he stated: “Allowing each element in the spectacle to be separate, we could, under touring circumstances, rehearse more freely, without need of a final ‘dress’ rehearsal all together. […] It is a kind of anarchy where people may work freely together” (Cunningham 1968: unpaginated, [p.81]).

[xii] In the early 1960s Cunningham did begin to experiment with a certain degree of indeterminacy in the choreographic score, which permitted his dancers to make their own decisions during performance regarding “tempo, direction, and whether to do certain movements or not” (Cunningham and Lesschaeve, 1985: 150). This was the case in 1963, for example, with both Field Dances and Story. However, for the vast majority of his works decisions regarding movement content and the choreographic variables were pre-determined, usually via chance procedures, by Cunningham himself.

[xiii] The first work which Cunningham had partially created through the use of chance operations was his Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951). For an overview of Cunningham’s early use of chance in the choreographic process, see Charlip (1998).

[xiv] While performing with the Graham company in New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Cunningham decided to supplement his on-going training in Graham technique by taking classical class at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, as arranged for by Lincoln Kirstein and Graham herself (Cunningham and Lesschaeve, 1985: 38). Cunningham’s own technique subsequently drew, in large part, from the pool of vocabulary and prescriptions for movement execution which belong to classical ballet.

[xv] For a background to the development of the LifeForms programme by a team of academics and artists at Simon Fraser University in the late 1980s and to Cunningham’s use of this program, see Copeland (2004: 183-191) and Schiphorst, (1997).

[xvi] For a background to Cunningham’s work with motion capture, and especially his work with Kaiser and Eshkar, see Copeland (2004: 191-196) and Kaiser (n.d. a and b).

[xvii] The foregoing description of the basic structural components of BIPED is drawn in part from Copeland (2004: 193-196), Dils (2002: 94-5) and Kaiser (n.d. a). The following analysis of select choreographic sections of BIPED is made in relation to live performances of this work as viewed by the author in London’s Barbican Theatre in October 2008 and October 2011 as well as recordings of the work shown in Episode 004 of the online series Mondays With Merce. This short film was made in 2009, is titled ‘To Get From Here to There’ and can be viewed online at: [last accessed 30 December 2011].