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Carolyn Brown: Witness to Creativity

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Just as Labanotation, a method for notating dance, gives every movement direction, shape, and effort, Carolyn Brown’s (’53, dance) memoir, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham, gives every Merce Cunningham choreographic creation, every John Cage musical invention, and every historic occasion in the life of the Cunningham company a richness and depth that makes every moment alive and honest.

Carolyn Brown and Merce Cunningham in rehearsal for Cunningham's Second Hand, c. 1970.

(Photo by James Klosty)

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Through Chance and Circumstance, Brown, 79, brings the reader right into the moment, evoking the success and the pain that goes with dedication to a modern dance company and a groundbreaking choreographer during his formative years. A product of classic modern dance training (and the daughter of a Denishawn dancer), Brown spent her childhood steeped in the philosophies of Ruth St. Denis and she often watched her mother take class from Ted Shawn. With such an upbringing a career in dance seemed clearly in her future, but Brown wanted to be a writer, and wrote plays and novels while earning an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Wheaton College. “At that time,” she recalled, “I had lived such a conventional, small-town life—I simply had nothing to write about.”

It was a chance encounter with the touring Merce Cunningham and John Cage in Denver that completely altered the course of her life. Movement inspires most dancers to take up a career—either the feeling they get from dancing, or the quality of a particular choreographer’s movement style. Brown was deeply moved by Cunningham’s movement quality, which she recalls as “all done with such speed and elegance, suppressed passion and catlike stealth that my imitative dancer’s mind was caught short. I could not repeat it. I could only marvel at what I hadn’t really seen.” But she was really drawn back into dance by a composer. John Cage, described by Brown as “the lively mind, the philosopher, the guru,” was such a presence and often the glue that held the company together. His inquisitive mind led to new philosophies of music and composition, which in turn led to innovative choreographic collaborations with Cunningham and his dancers. “All you had to do was talk to him,” recalls Brown, “and you were inspired by seeing that one could dedicate one’s life to something that makes sense.”

The lure of these creative forces was great, and Brown soon found herself in New York City with her husband, composer Earle Brown, auditioning for Juilliard. Brown says she felt lucky to stumble into an institution “where top modern and ballet choreographers and dancers were teaching.” Enthralled with Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske at Juilliard, she found significant philosophical similarities between their teachings and what Cunningham was creating at his first downtown studio in Greenwich Village. After a long day at Juilliard, she took the subway downtown for a class with Cunningham every evening.

Carolyn danced in what became the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for 20 years. Cunningham often said, “Any movement, no matter how mundane, is potentially a dance movement.” Brown writes about the dances themselves in her memoir with ease, finding them fresh and alive in both her mind and body. Threaded throughout her book is her belief that Cunningham’s choreography is often misunderstood. Through her descriptions of his works, the impetus behind them, and his choreographic process, she provides a unique lens with which to understand his choreography. Brown often partnered with Cunningham, whom she describes as being in performance like “an electric wild animal … There is an energy there that is kind of—you just pick it up, it is a vibe.” The process of creating Variations V was unique; it was the only time Cunningham created a dance for Brown and then left her alone to work on it. She recalls that as the movement seeped into her body, it became layered with her phrasing and emotional sensitivity to the material. “To work alone with Merce and have material choreographed specifically for one’s abilities—more important, to expand one’s abilities—meant a lot to each of us,” she says.

Through the creation of Merce Cunningham’s most important works, the company’s historic first international tour, and the death of John Cage, Brown was there to witness it all. Her career not only highlights a glorious and creative period for the arts in general and modern dance in particular, but it demonstrates how integrated the connection between dance and music really is. As someone who spent her entire dancing career with Cunningham’s company, she has managed to breathe life into his choreography twice: once as a dancer, and the second time as an author.

 

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