The final performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will take place tomorrow night (New Year’s Eve) at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, a site that continues to maintain its long-standing reputation as a venue for avant-garde events. This will be the last of three “events” (which is what they were called the first time I saw one of them in a gymnasium at the University of Colorado in Boulder), using a non-proscenium setting to present selections from the repertoire, sometimes with multiple excerpts being performed concurrently. This will also be the conclusion of the final world tour that filled the 2011 calendar for the Company, after which the ensemble will disband. (My own coverage of this tour took place last March when Roaratorio was performed in Zellerbach Hall on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.)
All of this is in accord with the plans that Cunningham himself specified and then approved shortly before his death on July 26, 2009. He had only one additional request when he reviewed those plans, which was that the tickets for the final performances in New York cost ten dollars. As Alma Guillermoprieto reported in “Après Merce,” her NYRblog post yesterday, the three Armory events are sold out (and probably were as soon as tickets became available). (She also recommended that anyone who had never seen Cunningham’s work should still go over to the Armory and see what the scalpers are charging.)
Guillermoprieto’s post triggered a flood of my own memories. On the basis of her accounts, I am almost positive that we were in the same place at the same time for several of the Company’s performances. (For that matter I think we also shared several American Dance Festival performances back when they were in New London, Connecticut; and I think she was part of a group of dancers I drove from New London the New York following one of those concerts.)
Still, there is one of her memories of Cunningham that resonated with me more than any other:
Perhaps I loved most of all the times that I showed up at the studio a little early for class and found him already there in his practice clothes, carefully sweeping the floor.
This is actually a variation on one of the anecdotes that John Cage related for Time to Walk in Space, the Dance Perspectives 34 issue from 1968 that was devoted entirely to Cunningham and which is still one of the most treasured parts of my personal library. Here is the full text of Cage’s story:
One day while he was sweeping the 14th Street studio, Merce heard a knock at the door. After he opened it, one of the two men in the hall explained they were city inspectors and wanted to see the man in charge. Merce said, “I can’t help you.” One of them asked, “Well, who are you?” “Oh,” said Merce, “I’m just the fellow who cleans up around here.”
After committing this story to print, Cage included it among the pool of stories he would select (by chance) to recite during a performance of Cunningham’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run.” I suspect that there will always be a brotherhood among those who will remember Merce fondly as “the fellow who cleans up.”
However, if 2011 has been the year of the final retrospection of Cunningham’s work, 2012 will be the centennial year of the birth of Cage. Allan Kozinn has a piece in today’s New York Times summarizing many of the ways in which Cage will be honored in New York next year. What amuses me (and is perhaps also a bit disturbing) about this account is that it only cites two venues, the Cornelia Street Cafe and the Julliard School. The former has been around since 1977, but I am not sure that Cage was part of their bill-of-fare during his lifetime. The Julliard connection, however, is likely to be even more eyebrow-raising:
The Juilliard School’s annual Focus! festival (juilliard.edu) is devoted almost entirely to Cage this year, the only exceptions being works by Henry Cowell, Cage’s teacher, and Lou Harrison, a composer nearly as iconoclastic as Cage, who also studied with Cowell. The festival, “Sounds Re-Imagined: John Cage at 100,” runs from Jan. 27 to Feb. 3, and is directed by Joel Sachs, who has a long and impressive track record of drawing superb new-music performances from the school’s soloists and ensembles.
Sachs founded the New Julliard Ensemble (which is basically the “house band” for the FOCUS! Festival) in 1993, which is to say the year after Cage died on August 12, 1992, leading me to wonder if any Cage composition was ever performed at Julliard during his lifetime. My guess is that most of the Julliard faculty showed little regard for Cage when he was alive and that this bias then propagated down to the students. For my part, I never heard Cage’s music performed in any conservatory setting until I started going to concerts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music after they moved into the Civic Center in the fall of 2006; and since then I have heard his music in recitals by both students and faculty.
The geography of the first sentence in the quoted paragraph is also a bit misleading, in that it gives the false impression that both Cage and Harrison were “just students” of Cowell. It is true that both of them took Cowell’s “world music” course. However, Cage took it in New York, while Harrison took it in San Francisco. This “geographical distribution” emphasizes the extent to which all three of these pioneers were highly mobile; but it also conceals the extent that they tended to work together as equals when it came to promoting and performing new music. Indeed, there are at least four major “poles” in Cage’s “personal geography.” New York may be the most familiar, but most of his work with Harrison took place in San Francisco. Then there are also Los Angeles (where he was born and where he was first exposed to Edgard Varèse’s “Isonisation”) and Seattle (where he met Cunningham).
Furthermore, it is not just the somewhat insular tone to Kozinn’s piece that rankles. After all the article probably only appeared in print in the New York edition, so it amounts to local coverage. The thing is that New York itself was pretty insular in its attitude towards Cage and his colleagues, treating their work with reactions that ran the gamut from neglect to revulsion. Thus, a New Yorker wanting to read about Cage during the composer’s lifetime needed to turn to The Village Voice, rather than The New York Times. So it was that Cage came to give his 1973 lecture, which, in spite of his usual Zen composure, still delivered the edgy message:
Where were you when I needed you?
As I wrote last month, Cage has now acquired the status of an institution. I can appreciate that both Julliard and The New York Times feel a need to maintain a stake in that institution; but it is hard for those of us with longer memories (and less patience than Cage had) not to view this new attitude with suspicion, if not irritation. The problem is that this new-found attention to Cage now puts him in the same category as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a distraction from the next generation of “provocative talent,” “the ones who are already scratching on the window-panes,” as Henry Miller put it in his essay, “With Edgar [sic] Varèse in the Gobi Desert.” As Abraham Lincoln once said that, because he would not be a slave, neither would he be a master, Cage would not want to be such a source of distraction, any more than he had once been the object of it.