Self and System
We commissioned ten Bay Area artists — Sofía Córdova, Alex Escalante, Maxe Crandall, Dazaun Soleyn, Danishta Rivero, Julie Moon, Christy Funsch, Jenny Odell, Nicole Peisl, and Sophia Wang — to participate in a two-week residency with choreographers and former Cunningham dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, and then to make new works. These will premiere alongside performances of repertory excerpts by Bay Area dancers Emily Hansel, Sarah Bukowski, Traci Finch, and Stacey Yuen at ODC Theater on November 8 and 9, 2019; an artist talk between Rashaun Mitchell, Hope Mohr, and Claudia La Rocco will also be held on November 7.
Twenty years ago, while I was on scholarship at the Cunningham studio in Manhattan, I kept a journal of every correction I received from teachers there. Here are some of them:
It’s not about how you feel. It’s how you move through space.
When you straighten your leg, totally straighten it. When you bend it, totally bend it.
Don’t contract the space around you when you run.
Move from the pelvis.
Take bigger steps.
For me, Cunningham technique was an invitation to realize a potential. To be more fully in the world.
Signals from the West is the first time this choreography has been taught in a multi-disciplinary setting in order to facilitate the authorship of new work. Following the project’s first phase, which included two artist potlucks and a reading period, the commissioned artists and selected dancers gathered with Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell for a two-week residency in August. Riener and Mitchell talked about how they had “no blueprint” and “no model for how to proceed” in this context. The residency was also an experiment for the commissioned artists, who entered a conversation with Cunningham’s work and with each other, tasked with responding to an icon at a time when traditional canons are being rethought. Competing desires occupied the theater: the desire to move versus being still and observing; the desire to collaborate with others versus processing history alone. The transmission of historical dances occurred in the same space and at the same time as exercises designed to generate new material, so that various aspects of Cunningham’s work — its formal vocabularies, its compositional structures, its archive, its sociopolitical context — rubbed up against each other.
I first saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform live at BAM in 1997, and fell hard. The choreography shimmered like an unattainable, Platonic ideal. Its whiteness did not occur to me back then, as a young dancer; I felt no opposition — only longing.
After college, I moved to New York to train at the Cunningham studio. I took class religiously, often twice a day, six days a week. After a while, I was invited to take company class, including Monday mornings with Cunningham himself. Among modern dancers, Cunningham technique is notoriously difficult — it’s an exaggerated version of a signature experience in the performing arts: you train for an elusive experience of personal transformation. More often than not, you miss the mark. But there are moments when everything aligns — your sleep, your food, your warmup, your psyche, the repertory — and it’s like one of those flying dreams that feels like swimming through air, your mind diffused through your muscles. My time at the Cunningham studio made the rest of my dancing career possible. It made my body stronger and — more importantly — it unleashed in me a desire. The experience of wanting made it possible to want other things.
The first week of the Signals residency, the group shared a morning warm up. Having trained dancers in the room modeled an at-homeness in the body that invited everyone, including people without a physical practice, to have an embodied experience. Riener and Mitchell alternated improvisation with traditional Cunningham exercises, and brought in aspects of their own practice, which observes and responds to external stimuli as well as the internal landscape of the body. Day one began with an exploration of walking as a starting point for making choices about direction, speed, facing, rhythm, posture, and style. (“Walk formally. Now walk informally.”) Two subsequent days began with all of us creating spinal pathways while seated, a somatic exercise that eventually moved into the Cunningham spinal lexicon: curve, arch, twist, and tilt. Riener and Mitchell guided the group through increasingly complex movements.
Riener taught the group “The Run,” a walking and running pattern from Dime a Dance (1953) featuring changes of direction and rhythm. True to the practice of the Cunningham company, the Signals artists executed “The Run” in silence, a powerful collective experience in holding a form. It was also a barometer of success: as Riener noted, you “can hear it in the footfalls if the rhythm is skewed.” 1
Following morning movement practice, Riener and Mitchell spent time teaching repertory to Emily Hansel, Sarah Bukowski, Traci Finch, and Stacey Yuen. Their instructions echoed the corrections I had received twenty years ago:
Get there all at once.
Get there and then go further.
Each change in the body is separate.
You’re trying to eat up space.
Beyond the transmission of steps, there are values: clarity about the shape of the body and its location in space, initiation from the center, succinct arrivals and departures, and rhythmic specificity. Certainty is an overarching value. Change in the body happens definitively and abruptly; shapes don’t cross-fade. Riener, again: “It’s like erasing the doubt around your body. It’s calming. It’s also deeply male. There are no questions.” A group discussion in response to the prompt “What is the work?” yielded the following: virtuosity; a drama that arises from contrast and the impossibility of physical task; as well as, from the dancers’ perspectives, effort, tension, and joy. We also discussed classical hierarchy (Riener: “The dancer Merce was most interested in would get the solo that year.”) and the decentralization of space. As Mitchell explained: “In opera or in ballet, you go to the center and you project out to the front, and there’s an important part of space and there’s a less important part. Whereas in Cunningham, it’s all important. You can be facing upstage the whole time or you can be in the corner. There can be several things going on simultaneously. The viewer has to decide what’s the important thing.”
And then, of course, there is also the curious way the sanctity of the legacy becomes the legacy itself.
Cunningham was famously reticent; often, he would simply describe the physical task to be executed, such as “lift your leg to the back.” Feedback after performances was limited to whether the entire run was too fast or too slow, down to the second. This left the dancers to find their own internal experience. Mitchell:
You’re not talking about it, you’re not preparing to do it. You just only do, do, do, do, do, do, do. We almost never talked about anything. Nothing was ever explained. You never got any kind of coaching or corrections. You just did it again, and you did it again, and you did it again.
Cunningham’s work is non-narrative and non-representational. As Mitchell explained it, “I don’t think any kind of definitive meaning making was happening. I think he was very much interested in you having your own experience with whatever was in front of you. Always, when he was asked about meaning, he would say, ‘It means this is what I’m doing.’” The bodies themselves move through crystalline shapes, far from visual ambiguity. In this way, the dances stand in contrast to a common contemporary choreographic ethos that resists the “tyranny of the visible [and] the legible.” 2
Cunningham’s notes on his methods for creating specific dances have only recently become available (albeit on a restricted basis). Access to a wealth of such archival materials allows people, in the words of Dazaun Soleyn, to hear Cunningham’s “voice through the notes and the systems.”
Indeed, several of the commissioned artists noted that access to the archive humanized Cunningham and his dances. Often, as Maxe Crandall put it, “tradition means erasing” and “lineages are cleaned up.” But in this residency, the group talked openly about the fallibility of the work — how it was and remains radical in some ways, but not in others. For example, Riener told us that although “there were tons of queer people around and there was acceptance of that, the assignment of parts and the partnering was very binary in terms of gender.” Cunningham’s work parallels the way in which Judson Church democratized the body, but not the field. I found it odd that in his notes for Fielding Sixes (1980), Cunningham refers to himself in the third person. (For instance: “Merce Cunningham would then roll the dice for position in the space.”) Does this reflect an egotistical belief in his inevitable legacy? Or a disconnection from the self? As Danishta Rivero said, “I have a much better appreciation for his work because I see all those parts that are a bit messy and contradictory.”
For the Merce Cunningham Trust, a vital question is: How to balance fidelity to legacy with the permission to leave aspects of that work behind? When contemporary artists want to shift the work from its original state, how far is too far? As the artists worked in response to the archive, questions arose about whether the identity of the work was in the body, in the compositional system, or somewhere in between. Does Cunningham’s work reside, as The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella asks, “in the dancers and their specific way of moving, or does it lie in the dances themselves, if such a thing can be conceived of in art that has no original texts?” Extracting the body from a choreographic legacy can make the work accessible to artists from different disciplines. But if we extract Cunningham’s work from the body, is it still his work?
Cunningham used chance operations (including rolling dice, casting the I Ching, flipping coins, and pulling playing cards) to make decisions about compositional variables. It was “the application of rigorous governing logics, rather than […] personal decision making.” 3 Riener took pains to point out the difference between chance methodology and indeterminacy, which allowed for dancers to make choice within a limited band of options, such as “to do or not do a phrase of movement, to do a prescribed form but without a fixed duration, to choose a direction or a tempo.”
Cunningham worked with chance alone, and before rehearsal. Riener estimated that he relocated most of his compositional decisions to the dictates of whatever system he was using. For the most part, movement was ready-made and not subject to dancer input. This approach “made the decisions untouchable,” as Mitchell put it. In contrast, in many contemporary choreographic processes, if a choreographer creates a phrase of movement (or has the dancers do so), it is only a starting place: the dance is built through a combination of editing and dancer manipulation of the material.
After learning about various chance procedures, the commissioned artists designed their own compositional systems. As they were sharing the results of an assignment, Riener fastened on one moment as being a “Cunningham moment.” No signature elements of the familiar Cunningham body were present. What made it a Cunningham moment? When pressed, he offered a few possibilities: simultaneity, complexity, and perspective.
Many artists have used rigorous aleatory compositional systems; what makes any of them distinctive is the dynamic conversation between body and system. As the dancers in the Cunningham company became more virtuosic, the system responded. When the system (eventually aided by the Life Forms software program) generated increasing complexity, the dancers mastered its patterns. The body can be both a way out of a system and the way in.
The Cunningham ethos of removing the ego from the creative process is one of modern art’s most enduring tropes. 4 But for many of the Signals artists, learning Cunningham’s compositional systems exposed the subjectivity in the work. Sofía Córdova said that after learning about Cunningham’s methods, she had “moved away from seeing Cunningham’s work as strictly formal”:
The systems are a way of giving the world meaning outside of the body and the ego and then spitting it out in a way that another body can represent it. So it loses its formality. It goes into another, warm-blooded thing.
Access to the archive also revealed Cunningham’s process as one of front-loading artistic choices, rather than eliminating them altogether. In the words of Jenny Odell, employing Cunningham’s methods means that “you have to make decisions about what you’re making decisions about.”
How much space does a compositional system leave for the psyche? The painter Cornelia Parker writes:
For me the conscious part of making a drawing is deciding on a process. What the process then releases is something else. Your unconscious mind always knows more than your conscious […] What you need is a catalyst to unleash that knowledge. A concept can be that catalyst or a decoy. 5
A compositional system exposes the voice of the reacting self. Some of the Signals artists chose to reject outcomes that seemed silly, impossible, or against their aesthetics. Christy Funsch said that using chance procedures “illuminated the sloppy places” in her work, noting that it was interesting what she was willing to give up and what she wasn’t. Rivero said she either needed to surrender all artistic decisions to chance or none at all — a mixture of the two felt intolerable.
Employing Cunningham’s methods forced the commissioned artists to operate, as Córdova put it, in a “tight mental space.” But how tight was it? A big question that arose was the extent to which the artists allowed themselves to override the roll of the dice. By opting out of the system, weren’t they depriving themselves of the benefit of the constraint? In order to counteract this, Riener and Mitchell encouraged them to refine their systems. But beyond this prompt, they declined to cross the line from transmission to mentorship. 6
Why even try to remove subjectivity in art making? I think of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, reflecting on Shakespeare: his mind was “free and unimpeded” because he was a man and therefore had no “desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance.” Who wouldn’t want the luxury of a “free and unimpeded” mind? But as a female in a sexist culture, what would I lose if I removed my voice from the creative process, when locating and trusting that voice has been such a valuable struggle? My body, in contact with the world, is a source of wisdom. As Sara Ahmed writes: “It is the practical experience of coming up against a world that allows us to come up with new ideas, ideas that are not dependent on a mind that has withdrawn (because a world has enabled that withdrawal), but a body that has to wiggle about just to create room.” 7
Where the body is the medium (and when is it not?), withdrawing the world from the art, or the art from the world, is a fiction. As a young dancer, I was drawn to Cunningham’s work because, as a physical practice, it offered me the possibility of burnishing my body. But there was never any chance of me escaping myself. It — and the world — always found a way in.
Compositional systems filter the world through a combination of solipsism and openness. Cunningham’s methods could have been an attempt to conceal or control the self — or an attempt to let the world in. Some artists are freer than others to set the terms of that balance.
The commissioned artists entered this project with varying degrees of opposition to the specter of the white male genius. Many had a sense that Cunningham’s work was “inaccessible,” as Sophia Wang argued, or something they had always “experienced from afar,” as Soleyn observed. Funsch recounted that when she took class at Cunningham studio, she “never felt like she belonged”; the whole idea of lineage, she said in an email before the workshop, makes her “panic a little, as if I have to measure up to all who have lived and made before.”
The friendly environment of the residency, made possible through the artists’ generosity and responsiveness, diffused some understandable tensions. Politics did not loudly enter the room. On the one hand, this encouraged exploration — there is something to be said for creating a sanctuary for artists to set aside political struggles. On the other hand, does any creative process stand outside the messiness of the world? Aruna D’Souza has asserted that there can be “no fiction of the autonomous realm” in art: “Institutions either have to actively work to dismantle racism, or they are reinforcing it.” The body and its techniques are “never abstract, but rather ineluctably located within a historical moment and a cultural/political system.” 8
The residency is long over and the Signals from the West artists are finishing up a two-and-a-half-month period of creating work in conversation with the experience. I am curious how they will respond to the dusty archetype of the artist as the lone hero making his mark. I am curious what counter-narratives will arise — perhaps that of the artist simultaneously marking the world and being marked by it. Perhaps the archetype of a group of artists in conversation with each other and the world.
- Riener said that generally, in executing the work, there were “multiple expressions of correctness.” But Mitchell was quick to add that acceptable variation existed only “within a miniscule range.”
- Jenn Joy quoting Georges Didi-Huberman in The Choreographic (MIT Press, 2014).
- Mel Bochner, “Serial Art, Systems, and Solipsism,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, by Gregory Battcock (University of California, Berkeley, 1968); see also Donna De Salvo quoting Sol LeWitt, “Where we begin,” in Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970 (Tate Publishing, 2005).
- This ethos is also associated with Cunningham’s longtime partner, John Cage.
- Mick Maslen and Jack Southern interviewing Cornelia Parker in The Drawing Projects: An Exploration of the Language of Drawing (Black Dog Publishing, 2011).
- Mitchell in an email, before the project began: "As far as the individual artists' process is concerned, I don't think that is necessarily our purview. We haven't commissioned them after all. I think our focus and role is to facilitate practice and dialogue around Merce's ideas. What the artists decide to do with that is up to them."
- Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press, 2017).
- Katherine Profeta, Dramaturgy in Motion: At Work on Dance and Movement Performance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015).