Changes: Notes on Choreography
(Song Cave/The Merce Cunningham Trust, 2019)
(Primary Information, 2019)
Since the early 1960s, words have been instrumentalized to do all sorts of things for art—they can exist as something simply to be read; can constitute both the structural basis of a performance and the methods of recording it; and can be received just as a mental image for ideas that are otherwise unrealizable—as is the case for many Fluxus scores. The recent reprinting of two long out-of-print publications from the 1960s and ’70s, Changes: Notes on Choreography and Womens Work, contain, in condensed and contradictory ways many of the possibilities that made the written form so productive for artists during that period. The first is a reproduction of Merce Cunningham’s classic manifesto-like text on his philosophies and methods, originally published in 1968 by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press; the second is a facsimile of a 1975–78 artist’s magazine edited by artist Alison Knowles and composer Annea (then Anna) Lockwood, which brings together instructional text-based scores exclusively by women artists, composers, and choreographers. Both volumes demonstrate the centrality of dance and music to postwar experimental art and the open relation between text and performance conceptually, and in the particular case of Womens Work, politically, too.
Republished on the occasion of Cunningham’s centennial by The Song Cave with the Merce Cunningham Trust, Changes telegraphs the sustained themes of the prominent 20th-century choreographer’s non-representational dance practice, emphasizing by way of its fragmented form his maverick interests in collaboration, pedagogy, technology, chance-based methods, and ephemeral experiences that occur in relation to the written form. Cutting together extensive notebook entries overlaid with instructions for individual dances, photographs, theater programs, movement charts, and assorted notations by members of his cohort such as his longtime partner John Cage, the project registers as a working example of his methodology, in which sound, visual elements, and movement could be independently and suggestively developed in close proximity on stage—or in this case, on the page.
Changes, which is linear neither in sequence nor scope, can best be defined as a collage bound between covers. (“Clarity is the lowest form of poetry,” Cunningham once said.) Words are set upside down or diagonally across a page; colorful directional charts and rudimentary drawings of figures in position sit beside sheet music. The reader can start at any point, end at another, and isolate elements at will. Remarks about Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, performed at Black Mountain College in 1952, and has since been dubbed the first Happening, are juxtaposed with a program for a 1948 rendition of Erik Satie’s The Ruse of Medusa, for which Cunningham choreographed the dances. Commentary on Aeon, premiered in 1961, overlaps with a clipped photograph of Robert Rauschenberg, Fujiko Nakaya, and Alex Hay, looking up at the set that Rauschenberg designed for the performance, set across the page from a corner of a questionnaire asking, “Who are the other choreographers and artists to whom you feel close in spirit?” (The answer, jotted in pencil: “Cage, Johns, Rauschenberg, Wolff.”)
If Cunningham’s experiments in Changes, at the time of publishing, signaled both a serious challenge to autonomous artistic disciplines and offered up a new and open space as a document that cut across institutional lines, its radical nature nevertheless was positioned above all as a theory of art. Womens Work, which ran for just two issues, the first in 1975 as a booklet and the second, in 1978, as a single-sided poster, similarly engages with Cagean procedures and the short, elliptical event score form, but its performative exchange, significantly, interfaces with the social realm, reflecting as it does upon domesticity and women’s work during the rise of second wave feminism. Published by Primary Information, the facsimile edition of Womens Work includes both extant issues, anthologizing pieces by Knowles, Lockwood, Simone Forti, Pauline Oliveros, Carolee Schneemann, and Mieko Shiomi, among others, which as opposed to the frenetic mixture of forms featured in Changes, explicitly includes scores which rely on the reader for realization.
Some entries reflect upon the myths constructed around women’s image and self-image, such as Jacki Apple’s Fantasy and Self-Transformation that instructs the reader to: “Choose a fantasy that is out of the context of your daily life. Define yourself, physically and psychologically, within that context.” While others, like Bici Forbes’s Black Thumb Summer Institute of Human Relations, cheekily question modes of feminized performance and domestic work, including a “Women’s Studies (Honors Program)” subsection, in which she leads readers in elocution (“On a cloudy day, scream, until rain falls”) and dinner plans (“Prepare meal; bathe; dress. Welcome guests. Offer drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Serve up dinner and eat. Clearing and washing up. Seat guests comfortably in another part of the room. Offer coffee and liqueur. See departing guests to the door. All in complete silence.”) Although not all entries draw explicitly from feminist politics, the scope of the project is notable, not least for the fact that Fluxus is significant as a postwar movement that was both international and composed of a network of many women who laid its foundations and probed the definition of “women’s work” for artists.
“You have to love dancing to stick with it.” Cunningham writes in Changes. “It gives you nothing back. No manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold. Nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.” Even so, there is also the very book in which he printed those words—a publication, that like many other experimental volumes of its time, embodies the sometimes-paradoxical labor of preserving movement and performance as written inscription. That is to say: in its printed form, maybe dance—whether formulated as performances, objects, instructions, scores, written scraps, or an indeterminate space in between—can give something back.