From Stein to Cage to: ‘Cunningham not by Chance’ – talk given at College de France, 2003. further to previous posts headlined by artist-philosophers: Taylor, Roloff, Thompson, Schiff, DeMarinas, Lubell, Coltraine, Gevirtz, Brathwaite, and the art-sci-tech-media, ‘traditional’–and–not, orientation to/of ‘relativity’ a la Einstein: but include many others, as a cursory beginning represented by the course david goldberg and i initiated, below, power and poetics, that has never ended. draft

[note: added after this post:

see fred moten’s essay on taylor’s chinampas:

Sound in Florescence: Cecil Taylor’s Floating Garden

[note: i’m only posting this series on ‘Einsteinian’, philosopher-artists now, because, previously (80s-90s), my attempts to get recognition for this work has, to put it diplomatically, been unrecognized, not least in the History of Consciousness program where I was nonetheless, awarded a PhD… thanks to philosopher, David Hoy, who supported my work on Foucault’s ‘aesthetics of existence’.]


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Canfield: 1969


In the “Forward” to Silence we read:

As I look back, I realize that a concern with poetry was early with me. At Pomona College, in response to questions about the Lake poets, I wrote in the manner of Gertrude Stein, irrelevantly and repetitiously. I got an A. The second time I did it I failed.[i]

In between “Part II: Indeterminacy” and “Part III: Communication of Composition as Process,” Cage inserts the following story:

An Indian lady invited me to dinner and said Dr. Suzuki would be there. He was. Before dinner I mentioned Gertrude Stein. Suzuki had never heard of her. I described aspects of her work, which he said sounded very interesting. Stimulated, I mentioned James Joyce, whose name was also new to him.[ii]

In “Part I: Changes of Composition as Process,” Cage tells the story of a lecture Suzuki gave at Columbia that was continually interrupted by planes passing overhead as they headed west from La Guardia. Cage comments that Suzuki, “never paused, and never informed his listeners of what they missed.” Suzuki’s lecture was on the meaning of a difficult and apparently unexplainable Chinese character. Cage ends this story by attributing to Suzuki this comment: “Isn’t it strange that having come all the way from Japan I spend my time explaining to you that which is not to be explained?”[iii]

There is little doubt that Cage felt that Stein had significant impact on him. The story of his encounter with Suzuki at Columbia is a model for interpreting his second Suzuki story; Cage tells us that he “described aspects of her work,” to Suzuki, which the latter found “very interesting.” But we learn nothing about what aspects of Stein’s work Cage described, just as we learned nothing about the Chinese character that was the subject of Suzuki’s lecture. These absences are disappointing, and it’s unclear why Cage’s banal generalities are important to his ‘stories’. As written, they are only a kind of namedropping gossip one all too often finds at dinner parties.

Not only is the title of Cage’s Darmstadt talk, “Composition as Process,” very probably an allusion to Stein’s talk, “Composition as Explanation,” but the aesthetic of immediacy that Cage refers to, often conveyed by the Zen terms of presentness of experience, the lived, material moment, is akin to Stein’s concept of the “continuous present.” In “Part III: Communication,” which consists largely of a flow of unanswered questions, interrupted with quotations from other of Cage’s writings and some self-reflexive glosses on the talk itself, an important section consists of very short sentence-questions prefaced by some lines from another Cage text that reads:



The text continues (I cite discontinuous fragments simply to give the flavor):

Is it high?

Is it low?

Is it in middle?

Is it soft?

Is it loud?

Are there two?

Are there more than two?

Is it a piano?

Why isn’t it?

Was it an airplane?

Is it a noise?

Is it music?


Is sound enough?

What more do I need:

Don’t I get it whether I need it or not?

Is it a sound?

Then, again, is it music?

Is music – the word, I mean – is that a sound?

If it is, is music music?

Is the word “music” music?

Does it communicate anything?

Must it?


This preface ends with another, much quoted, self-referential text:



(Silence, pp. 49-51)

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Cunningham Not By Chance


We must read Stein in Cage here. In fact, it must be said that Cage is badly ‘channeling’ Stein. As he put it so prominently in the “Foreword:” “As I look back, I realize that a concern with poetry was early with me.” The reference is not to Joyce, but to Stein. But as he also says there, his first imitation of Stein was rewarded with an A, the second with a failure. Cage himself appears to approve of this. He was awarded an A for his recognition of her significance, but an F for not pursuing his own original investigations that stem from the recognition.[iv] Thus we should interpret the “poetry” above, not only as a manifesto about the very ontology of music, in which Suzuki’s “airplane” again features prominently as relentlessly artifactual in its contextualism (bring forth “the sounds themselves, independent even of their musical relationality”), but also as positivist insistence on observable physicality of present time.[v] “We are passing through time and space. And our ears are in excellent condition.” And if you don’t believe that silence is non-existent, the scientific limit of experience of the anechoic chamber provides proof. We may say that this positivist elementalism is expressed forcibly by the phrase:


But we can also understand it as a Steinian “sentence”, not as poetry, but as itself instructions for making music. In other words, this “sentence” is itself a “composition” in musical terms, that marks out a musical work in the “time and space” between sound (Is sound enough?), music (Then, again, is it music?), language (Is music – the word, I mean – is that a sound?) and significance (Does it communicate anything?).

The famous line with which this fragment ends, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”, is not only, as is usually thought, a Zen koan, but also an homage to Stein. It is not a paradox; it is as factual a description of Cage’s concept of composition, as proof of the non-being of silence provided by the anechoic chamber. As an epistemological proposition, it couldn’t have been better said by Adorno himself. “For in this new music nothing takes place but sound…”[vi]

Cunningham’s equivalent epistemological proposition is expressed in this way:

I am no more philosophical than my legs, but from them I sense this fact: that they are infused with energy that can be released in movement… that the shape the movement takes is beyond the fathoming of my mind’s analysis but clear to my eyes and rich to my imagination. In other words, a man is a two-legged creature – more basically and more intimately than he is anything else. And his legs speak more than they “know” – and so does all nature.[vii]

We find further confirmation for Stein’s influence in Cage’s essay, “History of Experimental Music in the United States.” This essay is in large part an effort to define the term, experimental.” Here again, Cage is emulating Stein’s, The Geographical History of America, one of her greatest texts, but misses entirely the depth of her book, riffing superficially only on its title. Had he made acrostics of her text, as he did of Joyce’s, perhaps our reading of modernism would be quite different today given his overrated influence. My references to Cage, therefore, are not meant to further eulogize him, but, only to place him in the context of Cunningham, without whom, we might not remember Cage. [That’s because Cage relied on Cunningham’s Foundation for his economic survival. That’s not a dismissal of him. Only a culturally historically comment.]

so, just to remember Cage’s brilliance in one way:

Cage does deserve to be recognized for his significant influence.  He asks importantly:

What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.[viii]

Later, he makes it clear that by experimental he means much more than “the introduction of novel elements into one’s music.” He goes on:

Actually America has an intellectual climate suitable for radical experimentation. We are, as Gertrude Stein said, the oldest country of the Twentieth century. And I like to add: in our air way of knowing nowness.[ix]

[by ‘air way’ does he mean, radio? TV? probably, but i won’t comment on that here. though i have commented on this below, relative to gevirtz, beckett, deMarinis, anton and braithwaite – re: the history of the voice. ]

What is most significant about this statement is the clarity with which he aligns himself with Stein’s concept of “radical experimentation.” What is it that he adds to her Americaness? The phrase, “knowing nowness,” is a clear reference to Stein’s “continuous present.” Cage augments the epistemology of the present with the very Steinian phrase, “our air way.” Though what is not at all Steinian is the technological determinism Cage refers to with this poetic idiom. Using Fuller’s broad-brushed world history, in which America is the convergence of the Eurocentric, machine driven and anti-nature “progress,” and the “oriental” philosophies formed by human-nature harmony; Cage suggests that the intersections of these binaries in America cause “a movement into the air, not bound to the past, traditions, or whatever.”[x] In the context of a rare comment on the political-economy of music in America, Cage elaborates just a bit. He says:

…by “native” I mean that resource which distinguished it from Europe and Asia – its capacity to easily break with tradition, to move easily into the air, its capacity for the unforeseen, its capacity of experimentation…

It would be wrong to read Cage’s comments as merely another modernist manifesto for media purification and formalism. Cage’s radicalism, especially when paired with Stein, goes some distance in explaining the ill fit of both radicals with the periodizations of modernism or postmodernism.[xi] Yet, as we shall see, Cage is here radically misappropriating Stein for his own far more limited purposes. Cage understood very little about Stein, and she would never have agreed to his interpretation of her work.


My approach to Cunningham is based less on the event of the live dance than on the “residue” of his process, to what I refer to as the MC field, to his choreographical techniques, to his invention of a notation for his techniques, to his training of dancer bodies capable of realizing them as physical, bodily movements, to the ways with which he oriented his choreography to media technologies [from Film, to TV and video, to digital media over more than a 50 year career. He choreographed ‘for cameras’, with Charles Atlas, for example]. The “meaning” of dance runs the risk of falling prey, not to its insistence on foregrounding the performed event, but because it does so, it neglects other aspects of the production that have much to contribute. Obviously, the “live performance” is crucial, is, both everything and “nothing.” Nothing because it is not repeatable; but also because to a large degree it is not “knowable,” or even “experienceable.” The “historical” problem becomes, from the point-of-view of the writer, how to deal with this “ephemeral-before and eternal-after;” a problem as much for the writer who witnessed the “present;” as the dancer who danced it.

John Cage’s Gift to Us | by Tim Page | The New York Review ...

Cunningham Not by Chance: There is no “dance,” only choreography

Cage is famous for using ‘chance operations’ based on his adaptation of the I Ching system of throwing yarrow stalks, or coins, to find the ‘answers’ to a question posed to that amazing book of changes. I won’t here go into the details of that how works, since it’s common knowledge. I only wish to point here that my thesis is that Cage’s use of chance operations is quite different than the way Cunningham adapted it to his choreographical technique.

My thesis here is that chance is far less important to the production of Cunningham’s work than is generally assumed. I contend that Cunningham is far closer to the scientific tradition of positivism, then to the anti-intellectualist stance typical to modernism generally ascribed to him. Through an analysis of four key texts written by Cunningham, of the role that various “technologies” have played in his work, and through an analysis of the “toss logics” (the tossing of coins to determine spatial positions for dancer bodies) which determine his movement-form charts that reveal not only Cunningham’s indeterminate processes, but, the objects of his interest, I have found “governing concepts,” or metaconcepts, which drive the categories he then, and only then, subjects to indeterminate solutions. These metaconcepts reveal the logics to which chance operations are subservient. The analysis that follows will demonstrate that, contrary to most Cunningham scholarship, chance operations play a minor, though important, role in his dance making processes. Chance operations function in Cunningham’s method, only to create “problems” that then must be solved deterministically. This claim demands an explanation of what, then, are the primary operations.suitbychance_8b


Suite By Chance, Cunningham, 1952

This said, indeterminancy is still significant. The live performance of dance is an “impossible object,” not because it didn’t happen, but because not only can it not be preconceived, it cannot be post-conceived. It is in this philosophical sense that Cunningham’s works are products of “chance;” they are produced, in part by chance; and, prediction, or determinancy, plays no role in the immediate reception, only in genesis. In order to address this point, we must distinguish chance as operational method from chance as an ontological category. The problematic here is similar to Barthe’s distinction between work and text, in addition to the problem that the models of “text” available to us are inadequate to choreography. The live performance is at risk of being essentialized in dance theory and criticism in an analogous sense to the privileging of speech over writing. But once Cunningham, understood not as author, but as a “performative field” of inquiry and methods of production, becomes the focus, then “dance” becomes “choreography” as inflected by the “life of objects” that manifest choreography. It may be that there is no “dance,” only “choreography” in this sense: spectators choreograph, dancers choreograph, film choreographs, photography, video, computer software, books, texts, etc. are all part of a choreographic field designated by “Cunningham.” At this point, I want to briefly intervene in the semantic field that has kept the Cunningham discourse constrained.

In, “Expressivism and Chance Procedure,” Mark Franko comments:

Cunningham accomplished this (separation of music and dance) by applying John Cage’s ideas on chance procedure to his choreographic vocabulary. Chance procedure involves the charting of all possible movement options prior to their arrangement. Thus chance dictates the combinations of known variables, each of whose possible appearances has been foreseen. What is unforeseen, and still left to chance, is the sequence of the combinations. (RES, p. 144)

Franko makes a subtle and compressed distinction here that I will elaborate on. He gives a generally accurate account of Cunningham’s “procedure.” However, since my account will look in some detail at his choreographical methods, I want to be very clear about the terms, elevating them from “generally understood,” to technically and theoretically specific. A confusion could arise here if Franko’s language is not read carefully. He says, “Chance procedure involves … charting….” The danger of obscuring other aspects of Cunningham’s methods enters in through qualifying, as is the historically accepted tradition, “procedure” with “chance.” This statement inscribes in the term “procedure” both determined analysis, and chance. But Franko goes on to point out that chance is applied only to the sequence of pre-determined movement “options.” He asks, just how is chance delimited. In his words, then, chance falls on, and only on, two choreographic elements, combination (of dance elements) and (their) sequence. We must ask, how much of Cunningham’s choreographical practice is encompassed by these two elements? The short answer is, very little.

It is clear that the historically re-iterated term, “chance procedure,” has been used in the service of de-anthropomorphizing, de-authoring, removing intentionality to a distance, in order to generate, again in Franko’s vocabulary, the “unforeseen.” The unforeseen in this case, derives from an extra-human source, to articulate human activity with other-than-human activity. No doubt this is accurate. But its other effect, is to elevate chance over procedure to a degree that the material conditions of existence that give rise to Cunningham’s works are overlooked, resulting in an occultation of other aspects of his performances, and disassociating him from other artistic and scientific practices that would reveal a very different Cunningham. To further complicate this predicament, another terminological difficulty arises in the assumed synonymity between “chance procedure” and “chance operation.” A little investigation demonstrates that “procedure” and “operation” determine quickly divergent interpretive possibilities. Procedure signifies only a single chain in the discourse network generated by an operation’s far greater performative potential. It signifies an established method or way to doing something; in other words, a procedure is a type of protocol, carrying the implication of continued repetition, that by design is meant to proscribe variation. Clearly, the aim of deploying chance is to subvert protocols of established methods of choreography. Thus, the term chance procedure conveys a sense opposite to the intended practice.

On the other hand, “operation” commands a great deal of attention in several fields: we find it deployed with great intensity in political science (power), economics (market performance), medicine (surgery), mathematics (logical foundations), military studies (strategy/tactics), philosophy (operationalism), computer science (algorithm development), administration (organizational agency). It is, therefore, a far more powerful term, one that could illuminate Cunningham’s epistemological practices which, in turn, determine his choreographical practices. It will turn out that these variations are useful in constructing a rich appreciation for Cunningham as an “investigator,” and at the same time in constructing both a periodization and a genealogy of his work. For instance, the medical definition — a procedure carried out on a living body usually with instruments especially for the repair of damage or the restoration of health — could describe Cunningham’s training of the dancer body for TV/video productions, and later in his career, through the application of the software program, Lifeforms, whereby he adapts the dancer’s body to software-produced forms of movement. Or, the mathematical sense of operation — processes of deriving one expression from others according to a rule — could as well describe Cunningham’s method of determining movement combinations and sequences, in every period, though the rules varied from dance to dance, and period to period. For instance, Cunningham’s choreographical techniques developed from sketches on paper, to use of the video camera, to his use of Lifeforms. As we will see in the sequel, these three technological moments correspond to three periods of his work, while also demonstrating his versatility of “operational” strategies.

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Cunningham’s Positivism

In describing the difference between his choreography and ballet, Cunningham speaks with a characteristically scientific attitude of the complexity of permutations at the heart of his work.[xii]

…when I happened to read that sentence of Albert Einstein’s: “That there are no fixed points in space”, I thought, indeed, if there are no fixed points, then every point is equally interesting and equally changing. [xiii]

Lesscheave reinforces this view of Cunningham in her comment: “I understand better now why someone I know well, who is a mathematician, liked Torse so much. He literally saw numbers at work. You must have been quite selective in the choice of the movements themselves.” To which Cunningham replies:

I did leave certain movements out, you’re quite right. I was thinking about the torso, as the title indicates, and I retained mainly the range of body movements corresponding to five positions of the back and the backbone, positions with which I mostly work: upright, curve, arch, twist and tilt. Those five basic positions are very clear and the leg and arm positions in relation to those are clear, too.[xiv]

Torse, 1976

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Several key concepts emerge from these comments.

  1. Cunningham is interested in performative events free from the long standing conventions of ballet and theater, of presenting a composed frontal image specifically for the perspective of the audience beyond the procenium.
  2. In relativizing chroreographic space, Cunningham denies not the privileging of audience perspective,[xv] but the privileging of the singularity of a coherent “theatrical” image, which forces the audience to become active co-creators.
  3. In freeing dance from the “fixity” of traditional staging, he at the same time removes the conventions of narratological plot, creating the possibility for movement-forms and mechanisms of dancer-audience “identities” to emerge, creating a “theatrical” context that has a great deal in common with Artaud’s “theater of cruelty.”
  4. Cunningham’s penchant is for analysis, and only secondarily for synthesis. He is interested not only in arrays or matrices or frames of individual points, but in every uncoordinated and changing individual point. His choreography is the result of the tension between individual and collective movements.
  5. Similarly, during the half century of his work, his choreography shows an increasing proclivity toward metonymizing the body, and to a steady propensity for complexity.
  6. He takes increasing control over the movements of every body part, increasing the technical demands on the dancer to such an extent, that he runs the risk of curtailing even the physical expressivity of the dancer by requiring an almost totalized concentration on the execution of the dance phrase.
  7. Torse, 1976, is a watershed dance in Cunningham’s development. I would go as far as saying that it marks a major moment of transition in his choreographic technique, the impact of which was equally aesthetic, scientific and economic. Torse is perhaps one of his most purely elemental of dances, which indeed requires an impossibly close attention to the shifting of patterns to experience the combinatorial complexity of the dance. It is from this dance that Cunningham codified his technique.
  8. The title, Torse, refers as Cunningham says to the torso, but his truncating of colloquial term is not merely a poetic strategy. The term, torse, is analogous to torque in the register of physics, and is closely allied with the concept of force both semantically and sonorously.
  9. While the mathematician could see the permutations of groups of dancers and dance phrases unfolding in constantly mutating patterns in spacetime, it is doubtful whether he could see the analysis of the dancer-body itself into the permutations of the five positions to which Cunningham has reduced dancer-mobility. Cunningham’s alphabet of dancer-movements can only be seen after considerable training.
  10. Cunningham’s language suggests a very strong allegiance to Cartesian rationalism. He is in search of “clear and distinct” movement-shapes, and all body movements beyond that range are eliminated.
  11. Cunningham’s clear and distinct dancer-body is generated by the exercises he has devised and teaches in his classes where he produces the dancers he needs. These exercises strengthen and conform them to be able to carry out the movement alphabet which makes the very difficult movement sequences possible.

As he himself describes it:

Moving over the floor, you can go down into it, or across the surface, or up above it to get yourself through a space. You hit the floor in a slide, you go across running and walking and you bound over it. The first example shown is on 12 counts…

catch weight…

It is show here on twelve even counts to keep the frame clear. But the rhythm and spatial directions can be varied.

Cunningham’s voiceover from Intermediate Dance Technique, 1987: 37’20”-38’21”

Cunningham’s language is revealing. He reduces the ways of “getting yourself through space” to 3 possibilities, within a specified time frame, based on the principle of weight shifts, to produce “clear” movement shapes while allowing variation in rhythm and direction. His is more the language of a positivist than that of the intuitive artist working strictly according to chance as the stereotype of him demands.

But this is only one aspect of Cunningham’s “technique.” In response to the question of an interviewer about what he looks for in dancers, Cunningham replies:

First of all, they need strength and flexibility on the physical level. But also there has to be, I think, some kind of resilience in the mind to work the way we work. That is, you have to be willing to put up with the kind of ideas that I am involved with, and work from that point of view. For example, when I am working on something, I’m working it out as it goes along. To put it on the simplest level, I’m working on a step and I have some idea about it, which I give to them. But in giving it to them, I can see that it’s different. So I would want it to be the way the particular dancer would do it. Not the way I would do it necessarily, but the way he or she would do that movement. And that’s a working process. In doing that, of course, there are moments…. when they don’t know what it is, when they are left in a kind of lurch about all this. Because I don’t like to make decisions. The people who work with me have to be willing in to put up with that. [xvi]

Cunningham suggests here, contrary to the positivistic account implied above, that the dancers are not reduced merely to instruments of movement production, but are key to a creative process fundamentally relational; the relation between his expert choreography, and the dancers understood as expert movers. The process is to some degree co-creative, at least at the level of individual movements. Cunningham’s choreography is a “dialogical” process, a process that is open in two directions; in the direction of the unknowing, experimenting dancer as producer of movement, and in the direction of the unknowing, experimenting choreographer. It is the bidirectional experimentation of this haptic laboratory that makes it so vital, and so unique. Under the strict conditions of the “Cunningham technique,” his 5 axes, the Simese reciprocity between choreographer/dancer experimentally produces spacetime events that are then modulated by the metaconcepts that determine Cunningham’s research-path for each dance. While the dance in its totality is itself modulated by the artists responsible for the other elements of the dance performance – the set, costumes, music and lighting.

It is tempting to claim that Cunningham’s dance lab is the locus of another kind of chance operation, one imagined to be the purest types of chance operating in Cunningham’s work, one that is subject to the sole conditions of the body in motion in spacetime. However, this would be to essentialize the “body” as the locus of the natural. The dialogical interaction between expert choreographer and expert mover is subject to the critiques of the nature/culture dichotomy, and that between the theoretical and the applied scientist. Both aim to produce knowledge, but can do so only by the synthesis of their results. There is nothing “natural” about the trained body of a Cunningham dancer. As Robert Swinton, Cunningham’s choreography assistant and dancer, has commented, “The Cunningham dancer is as mechanical as it gets.”[xvii]

The Philosophical Implications of the Essays

My analysis turns here to Cunningham’s comments on his work and methods in order to address their “aesthetic” significance, but with the more oriented aim of interpreting the “philosophical” consequences of his aesthetic positions. I am interested less in the specific content of Cunningham’s statements, than about the second order implications that derive from his assimilation of scientific perspectives. How do we understand Cunningham’s assimilation of scientific concepts to his “aesthetic” production? For instance, Cunningham speaks of his process of liberating the stage from fixity. What are the philosophical implications of the aesthetic effects of denying fixity?

Cunningham has said:

The space could be constantly fluid, instead of being a fixed space in which movements relate. But if you abandon that idea you discover another way of looking. You can see a person not just from the front but from any side with equal interest.[xviii]

This comment demonstrates Cunningham’s characteristic understatement. But if we read it through a philosophical lens, we may ask: how does this application of relativity effect the construction of the two objects he speaks of here: “looking” and the “person” and their relation? Such a question begins to free the second order implication in philosophical terms.

In 1952 and 1955 Cunningham published two essays. They are crystalline distillations of his philosophical responses, written only two years after the famous events at Black Mountain College.[1] The first is entitled, “Space, Time and Dance;” the second, “The Impermanent Art.” In these essays he articulated an aesthetic philosophy from which he has not diverged. On the surface, they articulate the choreographical philosophy that now constitutes a well-worn caricature – his dances are non-narrative, non-representational, non-thematic; they are events based on a purely formal, temporal structure in which space and time are inseparable, produced by chance operations. This superficial characterization is not entirely incorrect. But it is highly inadequate. This surface is much more textured than is generally thought. My purpose in reexamining them is, first to show that they express an aspect of Cunningham’s epistemology that has been suppressed by the discourse of chance operations during the “Cagean era.” Second, to demonstrate that Cunningham’s thought is a species of realism based on his choreographic sense of empiricism. Third, that this empiricism is far more characteristic of his thought than the non-intentionality produced by operations of indeterminacy. And fourth, that his work is not tangential or subservient to the dominant version of a aesthetic modernism generally attributed to Duchamp and Cage. On the contrary, I intend to demonstrate that Cunningham’s work should be interpreted as accomplishing a synthesis and continuation of the cultural, aesthetic, and philosophical critiques initiated by Artaud, Brecht, Beckett and Stein.

Cunningham’s 1952 essay, “Space, Time and Dance,” is of major cultural significance to any scholarship on modernism for two reasons. First, its title lays claim to the historical and ontological equivalence of “dance” with the “scientific” categories of “space” and “time.” Second, it says nothing of chance. Cunningham’s essay therefore gives us a narrow but well placed window through which to inspect the question: What would Cunningham’s thought, and its relation to both modernist and postmodernist production, be, if conceived independently of the motive of chance?

In 1952, chance was still a very new idea to Cunningham; he was far more concerned with what he considered the “…best discovery the modern dance ha(d) made…”[2] What modern dance had discovered, for aesthetic purposes it must be noted, was the falling body governed by gravity. This seemingly banal proclamation will turn out to have quite radical implications, and once again, indicates his understatement, and his positivism. With Cunningham, “dance” diverged from the 19th century, and became a product of the 20th, principally because of its profanity, because of its rejection of platonic flight from physicality, and its embrace of the anti-idealist and materialist concept of the body. “Space, Time and Dance,” defined for Cunningham the essential characteristic of what made modern dance modern: “the gravity of the body in weight;” in contradistinction to ballet’s idealist fetishisation of the “ascent into the air.” Modernism is at least partly a product of secularism based on physics, on science, on the biological conditions of the body. Cunningham’s work not only assumes this cultural orientation, but must be seen as a major contribution to it.

In his 1952 essay, Cunningham carefully qualified what he meant by “gravity” in dance. For Cunningham, gravity is not heaviness as in a bag of cement, “but the heaviness of a living body falling with full intent of eventual rise.” This definition is particularly striking, and radical in its implications. The heaviness is that of a living body; it “is not a fetish” used, as in ballet, merely “as an accent against a predominantly light quality, but a thing in itself.” Cunningham’s use of the word, “thing,” must not be taken as the nominative for static objects; he meant a “kind of moving,” or a state-of-being, which, “would make the space seem a series of unconnected spots…” Static objects are the products of aesthetic modernism and its attendant mechanical scientific paradigm of discreet objectivity; while the phrase, “series of unconnected spots,” is the very definition of a “postmodern” paradigm based on cybernetics and a post-object environment conceived only as a system of interrelated forces, conditions, and existences. Cunningham goes on to further qualify what space, in dance, is; “dance” is moving, is an event in which falling and rising are coeval, (not to say simultaneous), a paradoxical motion that produces, or generates spacetime itself, makes it what it is — a folding and unfolding of spatio-temporal dimentionality, or in Cunningham’s terminology a, “lack of clear-connecting movements in the modern dance.”

Cunningham’s phrase, “a thing in itself,” should not be confused with the Kantian or Hegelian signification of noumenality, but in a more Aristotelian sense of the typology of substances. “Movement,” in the precise way he defined it, is not a descriptive “accent.” It is not a secondary quality of some other thing, but is itself a primary thing. As we shall see, he has many ways of saying this. The most significant discovery of modern dance, then, is to conceive of gravity, not in the mono-directional, mechanistic terms of attraction, but in terms of a “living body” that moves, in some unit, or units, of time, structured by two movements acting oppositely, but independently of each other. In the language of science, Cunningham’s conception of “physics” is more Galilean than Newtonian. His articulation of “moving” is modified by a concept of the “living body,” whose specific motion is the double one of falling only as it intends to rise. This way of stating the problem is analogous to Galileo’s discovery that forward velocity acts independently of the downward movement due to gravity.[3] “Intending to rise” carries a body forward even while falling. The difference is that the “cause” of the forward motion is the “thing itself” not another secondary body such as a car or train that adds its velocity to its passengers. Nor can this biologizing of motion be reduced to Newton’s First Law. A dancer’s body may be attracted to the earth and so “fall,” but the motion of rising cannot be made the equivalent of inertia. In the absoluteness of the Newtonian universe, the dualism of rest and uniform motion preclude not only the intention to rise, but that a falling dancer falls only with that intention. Further, he is non-Newtonian in his conception of the space of the dance as produced by this Galilean law, together with “the lack of clear-connecting movements.” In other words, his bodies in motion obey a dual force (“falling with full intent of eventual rise”) in a non-causal space of unrelated events. Despite the fact that only the simplest case of the two-body problem could be mathematically solved, in Newtonian space, there are no “unrelated” events. This space is not absolute, but a space produced by the body movements as a “series of unconnected spots.”

A translation of the foregoing analysis into a philosophical register yields the two following summaries:

  1. While Cunningham speaks repeatedly about “space,” he is in fact far more concerned with “motion” and motion-shapes. Motion, not “space,” is his most fundamental category. His “medium,” or his “field of study,” is bodies-in-motion producing motion-patterns in time, from which space becomes a secondary product. Moving makes space what it is. This is the Einsteinian aspect of his work. Cunningham’s movement-space is a profoundly unique type of spacetime because the “body,” a living body, produces it. Cunningham’s concept of space is what it is because he introduces unique living bodies with emotions and physical eccentricities into the scientific frameworks typically devoid of them. His work, in a very profound way, poses a model of inquiry, while at the same time producing the model’s referent effects, in which biology and physics combine to stretch the brittle parameters of both, requiring us to reinterpret how we understand the spacetime of physics and biology.
  2. Cunningham produces Cartesian dancers who enact Einsteinian spacetime according to a concept of the pre-Newtonian physics of Galileo, through a Tayloristic reduction of movements designed for maximum efficiency and aesthetic effect. This is of course, both fascinating, and deeply problematic.

Conclusion: Cunningham destroyed his own body. he couldn’t walk after around the age of 60. even though he lived into his 90s. how far does ‘modernism’ go? how to manufacture the Cunningham dancer’s body, with the same precision as taylor.

My research has lead me to the

  1. comparison of Cunningham to Artaud’s “hieroglyphic” concept of the stage elements,
  2. specifically to the idea of an actor-audience relation based not on text and psychological identifications,
  3. and to a performative articulation of the phenomenal elements of body/sound/light/props/voice etc,
  4. and the technologies that produce them.
  5. Another similarity concerns the concept of cruelty itself. Cruelty may be understood in terms of alienation, and as having five philosophical representatives: Artaud, Brecht, Beckett, Stein and Cunningham.
  6. And Cunningham may be understood in part as a synthesis of these forms of alienation, and the one who was able to fulfill Artaud’s prophesy that his cruelty would require the invention of new technologies.
  7. It is for all these reasons that Cunningham is an important model for new media. What is significant is the specific ways in which he has engaged technology.
  8. Or, allowed technologies to be engaged relative to his choreographical methods. “Cunningham” the field of operations, rather than the narrow view of Cunningham the choreographer/dancer, is what has enable the deployment of technologies along lines that help to strip them of their purely industrial-militaristic complex.


foreshadowing, post-shadowing


[1] See, “The Forming of an Esthetic: Merce Cunningham and John Cage: A Symposium with Earle Brown, Remy Charlip, Marianne Preger Simon, David Vaughan, in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed Richard Kostelanetz (New York: De Capo Press, 1998 (1992)), pp. 48-65.

[2] even though he had already produced his first dance by chance operations in tandem with Cage’s creation of his first score by the same methods, a year earlier. Give the name of the dance and a bit of how it was done.

[3] Give examples of balloon in car, passenger on train.

[i] Silence, “Foreword,” p. X

[ii] Silence, p. 40

[iii] Silence, p. 32

[iv] For his comments on originality, see p. 75: “History is the story of original actions…”

[v] For Cage’s positivism and technological determinism see Silence, p. 70: “Counting is no longer necessary for magnetic tape music (where so many inches or centimeters equal so many seconds): magnetic tape music makes it clear that we are in time itself, not in measures of two, three, or four or any other number. And so instead of counting we use watches if we want to know where in time we are, or rather where in time a sound is to be. All this can be summed up by saying each aspect of sound (frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration) is to be seen as a continuum, not as a series of discrete steps favored by conventions…”

[vi] Silence, p. 7

[vii] “The Impermanent art,” Seven Arts (Indian Hills CO, 1955)

[viii] Silence, p. 69.

[ix] Ibid., p. 73

[x] Ibid., p. 73)

[xi] See “Commentary,” p. 61, particularly it’s question: What has been composed?

[xii] Lesscheave, p. 17

[xiii] Lesscheave, 18

[xiv] Lesscheave, 22

[xv] which he redefines, rather than eliminates, along the lines of Barthe’s writerly reader, though this semiotic reader is inadequate in this context, as the semiotic model is inadequate to an analysis of performative works. This will be taken up below.

[xvi] [Seigel interview, Raritan (Winter 1989) 8, 3]

[xvii] from an unpublished interview with author, December 30, 2002.

[xviii] (Lesschaeve, 20)



From Stein to Cage to: ‘Cunningham not by Chance’ – talk given at College de France, 2003. further to previous posts headlined by artist-philosophers: Taylor, Roloff, Thompson, Schiff, DeMarinas, Lubell, Coltraine, Gevirtz, Brathwaite, and the art-sci-tech-media, ‘traditional’–and–not, orientation to/of ‘relativity’ a la Einstein: but include many others, as a cursory beginning represented by the course david goldberg and i initiated, below, power and poetics, that has never ended. draft

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