Moody Merce, Chipper Cage: A Memoir of Movement

Memoir, cultural history, biography; choreographic catalogue raisonné, guide to dance technique, performance diary; discourse on chance, aleatory procedures and open

Memoir, cultural history, biography; choreographic catalogue raisonné, guide to dance technique, performance diary; discourse on chance, aleatory procedures and open form; romance, philosophical meditation and more: Carolyn Brown has written not one book, but books and books, all bound together by her clear and graceful voice, which echoes her clear and graceful self.

The complex, looping retrospective begins as it ends, in 1972, on the day of her last performance with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. “For me,” she writes, “it was the end of a twenty-year way of life.” Ms. Brown, often Mr. Cunningham’s onstage partner, was an exquisite dancer, with a fine line, impeccable technique and harmonious proportions—the first among equals on the company’s distaff side. Mr. Cunningham himself, now 87, is the undisputed éminence grise of modern dance, and he’s still making new work that defines modernist choreography.

Chance and Circumstance is a slippery mix of back story and forward motion, of large ideas and small details, in chapters that crisscross the country and then the globe. The New York art world is the center and crucible. As Ms. Brown writes: “Everything changed in the fifties: the painters sensed themselves differently; they’d become powerful and strong because they believed in themselves …. An undercurrent of optimism swept through the community, and it was a community then, a real family, a brotherhood …. This community of artists … attracted a whole new generation of painters, as well as writers, composers, and dancers (Earle and myself among them).”

The composer Earle Brown and Carolyn Rice had been high-school sweethearts and came to the West Village as young marrieds, lured by John Cage. They’d met in Denver, when Cage and Merce Cunningham were on a joint tour of the United States. “I needed a reason—a philosophical raison d’être—for a life in dance to which to devote myself,” she writes. “It was John Cage who provided that, though I didn’t realize it at the time.”

There it is: the guru factor that runs through the book. Cage lived then at 326 Monroe Street on the Lower East Side, almost under the Williamsburg Bridge. Also on the premises, called “the Bozza Mansion” after its landlord, were the composer Morton Feldman and the artists Ray Johnson and Richard Lippold. The fabled Artists Club and the Cedar Tavern were the hangouts, and the area around Eighth Street was hopping. Downtown, Ms. Brown took class and worked with Mr. Cunningham. Uptown, she was a supernumerary at the Metropolitan Opera, studied with Antony Tudor, adored the performances of Margot Fonteyn, saw Martha Graham and José Limón, and met Paul Taylor at the Juilliard School. She attended the New York City Ballet, and wasn’t so keen on Balanchine. But downtown was her home. “Washington Square, suddenly greened over, was a candy box full of lovers.”

In 1953, Carolyn Brown was dancing with Mr. Cunningham and road-tripping with Cage, Earle and M.C. Richards (of Black Mountain College fame). Cage, who died in 1992, was the de facto everything behind the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in those formative years: manager, booking agent, publicist, even driver—not to mention musical director and Merce’s life partner. If Mr. Cunningham was Carolyn’s partner onstage, Cage was, one senses, her partner offstage: In him, she found a friend and a soulmate, wise and merry.

Mr. Cunningham, on the other hand, appears in a less flattering light, as an “eccentric prince”—“naturally inclined toward secrecy, concealment, evasion, even furtiveness; it seems basic to his character.” Meanwhile, Cage “went to the other extreme: he was open, frank, ready to reveal all his most optimistic utopian schemes and dreams, willing to be a friend to anyone who sought him out.” Thus, a kind of good cop/bad cop dynamic emerges: “In the fifties and early sixties, whenever Merce became unaccountably withdrawn or black with pent-up fury … some of the dancers would turn to John …. [H]e’d attempt to soothe the hurt, make us laugh.”

There’s a similar dichotomy between the antic and madcap Robert Rauschenberg, the company’s first designer, and the more serious and sober Jasper Johns, who followed his friend Bob in the artistic-advisor role after a cataclysmic split between Rauschenberg and the company, mended only years later.

The organizing principle here is chronological, but, as one might expect of an author who danced for the choreographer who evolved a 360-degree front, there’s a tendency to move—to leap backwards and forwards and sideways. If writing is an out-of-body experience, dancing is the opposite, and somehow Carolyn Brown the dancer prevails. You travel out of your body and into hers. After a couple of hundred pages, you feel yourself under a spell, remembering her life the way she does: “[S]nuggled under blankets in my deck chair, I daydreamed in slow motion and minute detail back through each of the preceding days. All seventy of them.”

The narrative is informed by Ms. Brown’s diaries, notes, correspondence, research, and an uncanny and encyclopedic recall, both visual and physical—the latter being the muscle memory that enables dancers to remember steps. She also seems fueled by a desire to set the record straight, to put aside received wisdom and to tell things as she knew them to be. For instance, Mr. Cunningham once explained to an interviewer that the titles of his dances “did not necessarily reflect their content.” Ms. Brown responds: “To which I say, poppy-cock!”

Carolyn Brown writes with a Zen-like even-mindedness, and hence a disregard for the relative importance of facts and events. She gives us all and everything. This serenely indiscriminate inclusiveness lends to Chance and Circumstance the feel of life as it occurs: weather, lunch, love, elation, despair, dinner and its digestion; Rauschenberg’s red paintings, Peggy Guggenheim’s maid, a proposition from Willem de Kooning, a prophetic exchange with Yoko Ono; and dancing, dancing, dancing. Life as it’s lived.

And what a life! Near the book’s end, she notes that on the occasion of her last performances, Merce treated her “with exceptional kindness.” After her final bows, she went to his dressing room “to thank him. He said, ‘It’s been a wonderful twenty years. You’re beautiful and I’ve never told you enough.’”

Nancy Dalva is senior writer at 2wice.

Moody Merce, Chipper Cage: A Memoir of Movement