Cunningham and Cage

The story of Merce Cunningham and John Cage – how a chance encounter turned into a beautiful artistic partnership.

Kay Larson
4 August 2009

The story of Merce Cunningham and John Cage – how a chance encounter turned into a beautiful artistic partnership.

Merce Cunningham was 90 when he died on July 26. Seventy-one years earlier he was sitting with friends in the lobby of the Cornish School in Seattle when his eye was caught by a red corduroy jacket and the 26-year-old who was wearing it — John Cage, who was walking down the stairs from the music studio. Cunningham asked his companions, “Who’s that?” He found out soon enough. The lives of both men changed course and converged.

Cage was in the midst of asking himself, “Who am I?” It wasn’t consciously a Zen question, but it burned like the traditional red-hot ball stuck in Cage’s throat. He had recently decided that sounds should be themselves — a corollary to the as-yet-unstated idea that he should be himself. This conclusion meant accepting all the sounds, even the ones we label “noise.” Which, in turn, meant accepting all the parts of himself-including his attraction to the dazzling teenage dance student in the class where Cage was serving as accompanist-that he was having trouble with.

Cage found something besides Cunningham in Seattle. Like Hui-neng, he was suddenly illuminated by a few words he overheard in a lecture given by Nancy Wilson Ross at the Cornish School shortly after he arrived. Ross was a Seattle writer with modernist credentials (she and her husband had enrolled in the Bauhaus in 1931-1933). She would later go off to Kyoto to slake her longing for Buddhism in rigorous study with serious Zen masters. First, though, in her Cornish talk, Ross made a link between Dada and Zen, and Cage’s mind disappeared in flames. He decided he was a Buddhist — although, like many of us, he didn’t get around to doing anything about it at first.

Cunningham left for New York in 1939 and Cage followed in 1942. The two men began their arts partnership almost instantly: Cage creating his own music and urging Cunningham to create his own choreography, which they mixed like salt and pepper. Cage was still asking himself his red-hot questions about what the world looks like when it’s not soaked in our aversions. He succeeded in convincing Cunningham that ordinary movement had the same exalted epistemological status as ordinary sounds (noise).

Both men needed each other — each in a different way. Cunningham developed ordinary movement into a choreographic system that transformed dance and dancers through the revolutionary proposition that art didn’t need to hobble itself with a narrative. To be moving in space and time — telling the truth about the body-mind in its floating realm of the senses — was enough.

Cage knew that dancers would appreciate his music and use it with gratitude. He was right, as it turns out. Cage’s music was always difficult for general audiences-much more so than Cunningham’s tough-minded yet elegant dancing. Aversion follows the arts avant-garde like a shadow. But this rationale now sounds like a thin apology for the truth. Cage had fallen in love. And as D. T. Suzuki would tell him a decade later, love stokes the spiritual engine to breakneck speeds.

Cage suddenly got serious about ransacking Asia for spiritual answers. When Suzuki settled in New York in 1950 and walked through the doors at Columbia University in 1951, Cage found the teacher he had been seeking. Cage had wanted to free his work from his likes and dislikes, and Suzuki showed him how. He wasn’t going to sit crosslegged, Cage said, but he sought the rigor of a similarly strict discipline: chance operations. “I’m grateful to them,” Cage said. “I think of them as a utility, like fresh air or clear water.” Cunningham saw their radical utility, too.

Suzuki blazed through Cage’s life in two years, showing him the Buddhist worldview he’d been seeking. The revolution in Cage’s thinking fed Cunningham, and Cunningham’s commitment to this way of working fed their partnering. To watch them talk to each other on the videos sprinkled through You Tube is to see two artists whose sentences complete each other. Their life and work honored everyday life, “which nowadays is coming toward us on all sides,” Cage said in 1981. He described their collaboration as “not starting from an idea, not starting from the same feeling, . . . but rather being together in the same place and the same time, and leaving space around each art,” just as they left space for each other.

“What I try to do is to understand the field of possibilities in which each composition is going to take place,” Cage said. “And then I ask questions which hopefully are radical questions that get at the roots rather than the surfaces of what will eventually happen.” That was the path all through his life, and it was just one path — art, Buddhism, Cunningham-and-Cage, ordinary sounds, ordinary movement, and the infinity that contains them all — that transformed both men and the uncountable thousands of people who loved and honored them.

Kay Larson

Kay Larson

Kay Larson is an art critic and the author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Penguin Press), an NPR Best Book of 2012.