Dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) and musician John Cage (1912-1992) began working together in the mid 1940s.
In the beginning, when working on a performance, they first came up with the music, then set the dance to it, just like everyone else. Soon they decided that that approach was limiting the choreography. They tried the opposite, setting the music to dance, but it looks like they had a hard time figuring out how: should the relationship be congruent or incongruent or sometimes congruent and sometimes not? At the end (probably at a “sick of it” moment) they decided that dance and music should be divorced and continue with their lives independently in separate rooms of the same house.
And this, separation of music and dance, constituted possibly the most effective revolution in the history of modern dance. During performances the musicians performed their sounds without watching the dance and the dancers danced watching each other and by counting to themselves, without paying any attention to the music.
I had absolutely no knowledge of this practice before I moved to New York City in 1980 and wouldn’t have imagined it in a thousand years. My information about dance was limited to performances I had watched where steps and beats overlapped. I couldn’t figure out the separateness during the first modern dance performance I watched in New York because my brain, just like any other brain, was inevitably connecting the sight with the sound. I was amazed to see that they could synchronize the movement with such a complicated music that had no rhythmical structure!
In those years in dance (and in other artistic activities influenced by John Cage) the typical modern approach was this: you present the elements to the viewer/listener without implying or imposing connections between them, the perceiver’s mind will inevitably relate them to each other and (as a result of chance and the different mental resources of the perceivers) this will give way to new and interesting outcomes which one couldn’t imagine or plan beforehand. This was the basis of the approach that moved the spotlight from the presenter to the perceiver.
The concept and the practice which Cage and Cunningham came up with formed an anti-thesis (to use a term from popular dialectics) because there was a thesis around, a prevailing view of dance which one could object to.
And the thesis resided in North America and Europe. The reasons for this geographical concentration are many. Here are a few that I can think of: transitions from folk dances to court dances, from court dances to ballet, and from ballet to modern dance have taken place in those areas. There has always been a segment of the society that has seen the arts as an area of ideas, innovations and experimentation, rather than being only a matter of emotions. The ontology and the direction of progress of ballet and modern dance have been topics of discussion since the very beginnings. And, compared to other parts of the world, the folk dances of these regions that are in the foundations of ballet and modern dance don’t exhibit much interest in uniformity: the “aesthetics” of several people doing the same move at the same time under the dictation of audible rhythm has not been considered, relatively, to be that valuable.
Cage and Cunningham put in a solid and logical proposal to change a well-known, concrete practice. I have personally witnessed the acceptance of that proposal in modernist circles. Modern dances that synchronized with rhythmical music were seen in line with the populist works of the old school who couldn’t understand the new concepts. We were fully convinced that synchronization between the body and the music was redundant and unnecessary (some of us would get up and leave such performances in disappointment).
What happened afterwards? Did we reach a synthesis? I believe we did (mostly in North America and Europe, where the argument took place). Yet, this synthesis did not appear as a new form, the old one-way road was not replaced by a new one, the old road turned into a multi-lane highway where people could travel freely at different speeds, in different lanes.
The younger generations don’t even know that once the road was a one-way one and that the said arguments took place. This used to bother me quite a bit, especially when I saw the Cunningham company trying to verbally explain to the audience that, in the performance they were about to watch, the movement and sound were going to be independent of each other.
Yet, eventually, I decided that my complaint had become meaningless. Synchronization is no longer an issue for Western dancers to obsess over, it has become a matter of preference. But, when they synchronize now, they don’t do it as the normal thing to do, they do it more consciously, in a more distanced and analytical manner. There is a profound awareness about the relationship between music and dance. Those who know the past can see the effects of the fifty-, sixty-year-old arguments quite clearly: Cage and Cunningham’s proposal has been accepted, adopted and internalized. Nowadays there are newer arguments over newer issues, such as the theatricalization of dance, usage of the mouths and voices of dancers, utilization of new opportunities provided by new technologies, etc.
To repeat it, these developments took place in locations where modern dance was created and was contemplated about. Several people from other parts of the world imported modern dance as well as Cage and Cunningham’s approach to their countries. Yet, it has been rather hard to make them take root in those places because an “anti-thesis” remains meaningless when its reference, the “thesis,” does not exist.