Sites of Formation: 1942
I am no expert on the topic of collaboration. I’ve always balanced a personal practice with large group rehearsals for choreographic scores, but have spent the past ten months just working alone. I’ve been surprised to learn that working alone, like working with others, provides ample opportunity to consider what it means to cooperate. How do we agree upon a common language to translate subjective experience? How do we decide when to speak and when to listen?
Merce Cunningham and John Cage were expert collaborators, redefining its terms and outcomes so significantly we—or at least I—are still reeling from their output. The strategy of working within their craft independently, and then bringing together choreography (Cunningham) and sound (Cage) to create the complete performance, was one they employed from the outset. They first worked together in 1942, creating Credo in Us in August and Totem Ancestor in October. The sound and choreography from both works were so experimental it’s as though even we, who have studied these artists the most, still don't have a deep enough understanding of their impact, even as we continue to mimic and cite them to this day. And, while they have both made significant individual contributions to their respective fields, their approach to collaboration should be considered one of the major artistic developments in American modern dance. Choreographing dance that was not illustrative of music—resisting a cohesive relationship between what is heard and what is seen and denying one form from supporting, illustrating, or justifying another—allowed Cunningham and Cage to work within a kindred set of agreed upon criteria and to bring both disciplines together in time, acting as its own chance operation. This way of working separately but together offered a decentering of the choreographer within collaborative partnerships for dance and, for me, brings into question the very nature and function for defining collaboration’s terms.
Experiencing something new through the symbiosis of sound and movement is rare—but when it works, it works. I can still see Greg Zuccolo and Non Griffiths melancholically posing in Sarah Micheslon’s Shadowmann whenever I hear Uriah Heep’s Wonderworld. When I put on Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High for an emotional boost, I always see Yvonne Rainer sitting in a chair, a white pillow draped across her lap, in her appropriately named work Chair-Pillow. I’ll never hear Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right again without also hearing Mariana Valencia singing along to Joan Baez’s cover in her performance Album - gorgeous on gorgeous. While some choreographers were doing this successfully, I was not, and I stopped using pre-recorded music in 2014. Sound had become a way to emotionally manipulate the viewer into an experience I couldn't bring them to with movement alone. My solution was to remove composed sound altogether, which contributed to a shift in my choreographic thinking. The material I was working with didn’t need music in addition to the environmental sound created by the performer and viewers, the traffic outside, the spaces we performed in. I was channeling Cage and his 4’33”, curious more about what was already audible in the room than what I might bring to it.
But, after working in silence for four years, I found myself creating a new work in a wild environment full of problems and questions, all of which were creatively generative, except that it just sounded bad. The insistent 7 Train passing overhead wasn't interesting, and the cacophony of construction noise (that seemingly threatened to send a crane crashing through the roof at any minute) was distracting at best. These were noises I heard all the time, and I found myself in a new place of wanting a reprieve from this exhaustingly familiar urban soundscape.
Curated as part of MoMA PS1’s 2018 VW Sunday Sessions series, I presented Problems after a three-month residency in their dome. Nate Wooley offered his work The Almond as a possible answer to my sound problem—a single-track album released in 2011, composed of hundreds of recordings of Wooley playing trumpets in various places to create layers upon layers of pitches and tones. It was a revelation to learn of the work’s making, its structure of proliferation so similar to mine, its eerie quality evoking a feeling I sensed in my own movement scores. Played through a custom-built, site-specific speaker system in the dome, the sound, like the movement, was different for each viewer, depending on where one was positioned around the circumference of the room. Obstructed sight lines for one viewer opposed a clear view to another across the dome; one tone perceptible to a standing viewer was not heard by someone sitting. These subtle differences in the audience’s experience mimicked the tonal differences of the many trumpets, the qualitative differences between how 18 performers rise from inertia to standing. Instead of one form leading the witness for another towards an artistic objective, both sound and movement seemed to coexist in an equitable environment.
But was this a collaboration? I wouldn't have said so a year ago when I was searching the internet for more of Nate’s work, looking for something that fit with my own. I imagined that working with a composer entailed a long process of sharing ideas, coalescing around a common goal, working independently but always ready to edit at the whim of one’s collaborative partner. I’m unsure where this romantic idea came from, but it seems to be true for some and is upheld in the contemporary experimental dance community, for example, by the 30-plus year collaborative relationship between choreographer Tere O’Connor and composer James Baker. O’Connor works directly with Baker once he is deeply immersed in the choreographic process, which he conducts with dancers in silence. Finding a common language with which to translate choreographic thinking into musical thinking, O’Connor and Baker work weeks of late nights, in a room together, fine tuning the music for O’Connor’s vision. The resulting work resists a coherent or didactic relationship between sound and movement—like everyone else, they are descendants of Cage and Cunningham’s legacy. Yet within their process (O’Connor describes dance as “the protagonist,”) where their collaborative strategies affirm that the sound and movement need one another, their value is inextricable from the presence of the other, and the identity of one is wrapped within that of the other.
On the spectrum of collaboration’s potential definitions, I am interested in the differences in intention between these two choreographers. Both Cunningham and O’Connor are desirous of sound that conceptually relates to their choreography without illustrating the movement, where the ultimate performance equitably values both movement and sound. Yet in their process of arriving at the completed work, initiating the terms of the cooperative relationship diverges, offering a multiplicity of possible conditions within which to collaborate. It may not be useful for most people to wonder about this—if the audience’s experience of the sound/movement relationship is the same, maybe the journey to get there is irrelevant—but, as I consider a potential future collaboration with Nate, and we talk about what we’re working on independently, I wonder what sound I want for a movement score that doesn't yet exist. I question what kind of collaborator I want to be. I am curious about the space that Cunningham and Cage widened, negotiating these power dynamics, moving my position off-center. At the heart of it, I wonder about Cage and Cunningham’s conversations: how they each wielded their voice, and yielded to the other’s; when they listened instead of spoke, and if respecting and upholding the process superseded one’s self-serving goals. I wonder if this collaborative nature might resist a goal-oriented product, what other languages it speaks, where else it might be found, what else it can offer.