Jump to content
dirac

Carolyn Brown's new book 'Chance and Circumstance'

Recommended Posts

Carolyn Brown has published a memoir. Looks very interesting. Review by Nancy Dalva in The New York Observer.

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).”

Share this post


Link to post

Oh, Brown was along for the whole ride -- this should be fascinating.

Can't remember where I found this quote from her, but it sits on my computer monitor. In reference to the Cunningham company's early performances in art galleries:

"We thought, 'Let's not say no, let's say yes.'"

Share this post


Link to post

Very interesting review of the book by Joel Lobenthal in today’s New York Sun.

For most of Ms. Brown's two decades with Mr. Cunningham and his troupe, performances were few and far between, salary virtually nonexistent, audiences often skeletal, and critical reaction frequently uncomprehending. Delayed aesthetic justice is not necessarily justice denied, but it's quite clear that by the time recognition began to arrive for Mr. Cunningham, Cage, and their dancers, all had been irrevocably depleted by their years of adversity. (Part of the reason for the falling out among Cage, Mr. Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg, who designed for the company for many years, was Mr. Rauschenberg's amazingly prodigal success as a painter.)

Again and again, the U.S. State Department refused to provide any funding for the Cunningham Company's international tours, which nevertheless became triumphant affirmations of the vitality of American culture. Although today's professional dance companies are hardly lavishly funded, Ms. Brown seems to feel that today's dancers are somewhat spoiled and complacent. She is certainly justified in asserting that the privations she endured would be unimaginable to most dancers in the leading professional companies today.

Share this post


Link to post

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).”

It's refreshing to read this. The fifties are conventionally portrayed as a time of stultifying conformity and Father Knows Best, waiting to be "liberated" by the "let it all hang out" sixties, but the truth was quite different.

Share this post


Link to post
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).”

It's refreshing to read this. The fifties are conventionally portrayed as a time of stultifying conformity and Father Knows Best, waiting to be "liberated" by the "let it all hang out" sixties, but the truth was quite different.

Very true, Farrell Fan, but I do have the impression that there were many good solid reasons why the Fifties gained that unhappy reputation in the first place.

Share this post


Link to post
Very true, Farrell Fan, but I do have the impression that there were many good solid reasons why the Fifties gained that unhappy reputation in the first place.
Very true -- both you you.

The 50s were a time of vibrant high culture in places like NYC. (The rise of NYCB with its broad, internationalist cultural and intellectual affinities is a perfect example.)

But for those living in most of the country, and especially those in the South (even the Upper South), the story was very different indeed. "Cultural conformity," and its obverse, the demonizing of cultural alternatives, were alive and well.

I can testify that the culture wars even in a suburb 60 minutes by train from Manhattan -- a residence of many artists, but also a hotbed of the John Birch Society -- could be quite intense and (depending on which side you were on) quite scarey at times.

Share this post


Link to post

At the risk of veering off topic, I agree -- in part -- with bart. I grew up about 15 minutes further (by train) from NYC than bart, but in a different direction (south, instead of east), and in an area where the big employers were Fort Monmouth (a huge contingent of civilian employees) and Bell Labs. Lots of engineers. Artists? Weirdos to be distrusted! Well, urban folk of any stripe got an extra dose of scrutiny. I think the 50s' stultifying pressures of conformity made the rebellions of the 60s inevitable.

If Ms. Brown begrudges younger dancers their smoother roads, it might be worthwhile to recall that she was a pioneer, and blazing the trail always takes many times the effort of following it. Their roads may be smoother, but do they have the same thrill of discovery that her "family" did?

Share this post


Link to post

The very small, statistically insignificant sample size of engineers and scientists that I've known personally from Bell Labs were all classical musicians, and very interested in the arts. Through an old boyfriend, I knew a number of graduate students at Rockefeller University in the 80's, and I found a high number of classical musicians among them, including a man who is now a well-renowned scientist, professor, and writer who performed Ives' 2nd Piano Sonata as a senior in college.

Share this post


Link to post
At the risk of veering off topic, I agree -- in part -- with bart. I grew up about 15 minutes further (by train) from NYC than bart, but in a different direction (south, instead of east), and in an area where the big employers were Fort Monmouth (a huge contingent of civilian employees) and Bell Labs. Lots of engineers. Artists? Weirdos to be distrusted!

Sounds about right. My late uncle reported a similar experience in the Southern California defense industry.

Share this post


Link to post
Through an old boyfriend, I knew a number of graduate students at Rockefeller University in the 80's, and I found a high number of classical musicians . . .
Worth noting that Rockefeller U. has one of the world's most acoustically perfect auditoriums and hosts a concert series. I haven't attended any myself, but I interviewed for a job there at some point in my travels.

Worth noting that the Rockefellers and their foundation have supported both left-brained and right-brained pursuits.

Share this post


Link to post
The very small, statistically insignificant sample size of engineers and scientists that I've known personally from Bell Labs were all classical musicians, and very interested in the arts.

The dance historian part of me raises her hand...

In 1966 a group of Bell Lab engineers worked with choreographers and composers on one of the most influential events in the development of post-modern dance, "9 Evenings: Experiments in Art and Technology" Some of the work was cheerfully chaotic, the engineers contributing what in essence were special effects for what was often minimalist choreography, but some of it was a true collaboration, where the investigations of the physical world came from both scientific and the aesthetic perspectives. As they say, "everyone was there," and they had a fabulous time.

look here

and here

Share this post


Link to post

Thank you, Sandik!! That's a wonderful reference.

Ms Brown's book is going to generate a LOT of this kind of discussion. I can't wait.

Share this post


Link to post

Bell Labs engineers? I grew up in a town that was so full of Bell Labs engineers that AT&T used to sponsor block parties... My parents folkdanced with several retired engineers who claimed that there used to be weekly folkdancing in the Bell Labs cafeteria. The Bell Labs engineers I met were all educated cultured people... however, all the same, I wouldn't say dance was much supported locally in my corner of NJ while I was growing up... Perhaps it was as much because of the proximity to NYC (spend your arts dollars on the world class NYC rather than local start-up) as much as the conservatism. Don't forget, engineers are industry's creative types... and many were drawn here from other countries.

Does the book touch at all on Carolyn Brown's brief stint as Dean of Dance at Purchase?

Share this post


Link to post

Angel of Merce: The extended web version of TONY's Gia Kourlas interview with Ms. Brown:

http://www.timeout.com/newyork/Details.do?...el_of_merce.xml

What do you want young dancers to take away from this book?

Courage. Fortitude. I’m going to sound like a pissant here, but I’m tired of seeing brilliant technique. I just look for something more. You never saw just technique with Merce dancing. There was this amazing person with amazing energy and something that went beyond steps. I never saw Merce do any steps. He was dancing. And what I see so often—even though I don’t go to dance so much anymore—is a lot of incredible technique and it touches me not at all. I’m not moved. I don’t care.

An aside regarding the Bell Labs discussion above: Eons ago as a grad student I had a summer job there on (math theory behind) decoding messages sent from space missions, many years before our first real one. Signals would be weak and full of garble/static. How to read the true sequence of 0's and 1's when the received copy was full of typos. What I took away was a deep appreciation of the great wines of Bourgogne and Bordeaux. But no forthcoming job offer.

Share this post


Link to post

Thanks, drb. Also thanks to dirac, who has the intereview in today's Links thread.

From a ballet-centered perspective, I was impressed by the following tribute to Margot Fonteyn:

One of your great passions in dance was Margot Fonteyn. Why did she strike such a chord?

She was the most important female dancer in my life. She gave me a new idea about what dancing could be. I adored her!

How did she give you a new idea about what dancing could be?

People find this hard to believe. I really and truly never intended or wanted to be a dancer. I did not enjoy teaching; when I was a very young teenager, I used to assist my mom in her classes, and when I was an older teen I used to teach in her studio as well. I never wanted that life, but there was something about Fonteyn that went beyond being a performer or a dancer—there was just something about her spirit, her modesty, what she could give people that was so moving. I feel sorry for you for being too young.

"I feel sorry for you for being too young." A number of us on this Board -- when we return to our visual, visceral memories of live performances from decades past -- can identify with that. For me, that includes memories of Cunningham when he and his early dancers occupied space and moved like no one else I had ever seen. Not to mention the chance to compare Summespace in its original and NYCB-adapted versions. I wish I'd been paying a little bit more attention. It didn't occur to me then that these performances were historic :)

Share this post


Link to post

I'm interested in what Brown has to say about Balanchine on pages 50-1. For a modern dancer to have taken sides against ballet choreography in general would not have surprised me, as from what I understand the two camps often disapproved of each other. So I'm not so surprised that she's angered by Balanchine claiming that ballet is Woman while more often, as she sees it, portraying women in his dances as "girls, nymphettes, high-prancing fillies."

More surprising is that while she admires Ashton and Tudor as "the most musical of choreographers," moving "through, over around and against, as well as with their music," she finds Balanchine "to be dealing mostly in musical surfaces, occasionally coming uncomfortably close to the Mickey Mouse-Fantasia aesthetic." I know others have faulted him for glibly dilineating musical structure, but as far as I know that's a rarely held opinion today.

Brown also takes aim at some of Balanchine's neo-classic inversions such as "flexed wrists and splayed fingers, flexed foot and thrust pelvis, pirouettes on bent knees and daisy chain contortionist acrobatics, or Tin-Pan Alley, girlie-show kitsch from Old Broadway to signify 'This is Modern!'" She also says that his use of space was mostly conventional.

The last complaint might be expected from someone steeped in the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic. I suppose that this aesthetic, where gender roles are rare, where dance and music complement each other only arbitrarily, and where any and every movement is seemingly equal in fascination to any other, goes a long way in explaining all her complaints.

Share this post


Link to post

Well, kfw, it's a little more complicated than that. She's a ballet dancer working in a modern aesthetic, and her allegiances are IN BALLET more to the Cecchetti's geometry than to Balanchine's -- so flexing the wrists is almost a mortal sin.

And Cunningham's sense of space COULD be said to derive from taking Cecchetti's "box" and treating it as a Rubik's cube, by comparision to which Balanchine's kaleidoscopic use of the stage IS still tied to the idea of the audience as "the tired businessman."

I guess all I'm asking for is to treat her "complaints" as being worth considering. (NB she worships Margot Fonteyn.) She's VERY VERY smart.

Share this post


Link to post

Paul, thank you for your comments. It's still not clear to me why an appreciation of the Cecchetti style should preclude appreciation of Balanchine as well. It's not like someone was mixing them. In any case, "complaints" wasn't the best choice of words, but I was hardly denigrating her disagreements. Yes, she's smart, real smart. That's one reason I posted.

Share this post


Link to post
Well, kfw, it's a little more complicated than that. She's a ballet dancer working in a modern aesthetic, and her allegiances are IN BALLET more to the Cecchetti's geometry than to Balanchine's -- so flexing the wrists is almost a mortal sin.

And Cunningham's sense of space COULD be said to derive from taking Cecchetti's "box" and treating it as a Rubik's cube, by comparision to which Balanchine's kaleidoscopic use of the stage IS still tied to the idea of the audience as "the tired businessman."

I guess all I'm asking for is to treat her "complaints" as being worth considering. (NB she worships Margot Fonteyn.) She's VERY VERY smart.

Hmmmm......she is complaining, Paul, or let us say she is making criticisms, yes? Perfectly all right to do, either way, and I don’t think kfw was suggesting that it isn't okay. :clapping: (I haven't read the book yet, but some of these remarks do seem to teeter dangerously on the edge of cliche.)

kfw writes:

So I'm not so surprised that she's angered by Balanchine claiming that ballet is Woman while more often, as she sees it, portraying women in his dances as "girls, nymphettes, high-prancing fillies."

An echo of Melissa Hayden’s remark to Robert Tracy that when you dance Balanchine ‘your body changes, you become a filly. You’re flying.’ She meant it in a positive way, of course. And I have the impression that Hayden herself was very much a woman onstage.

Share this post


Link to post

Dear kfw,

Sorry, i was tactless.

All I meant was that brown can't be on the sidelines about some issues: as one of the world's outstanding PRACTITIONERS of Cecchetti technique taken in the Cunningham direction, she's as entitled to be testy about flexed wrists -- it's not just wrists, it's breaking the perfect arc of the arms from the center of the back, with the energy extending out through the fingertips -- as say a Vaganovist might be re the proper placement of the foot in sur le coup de pied.

Share this post


Link to post

That's quite alright, Paul, and thanks for the information. I always learn from your posts. I should have made clear as well that Brown feels these distortions are inadequate, superficial responses to the contemporary music to which they were set. She writes: "I wonder what his considerations were when he choreographed to the music of Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, Xenakis, beyond the obvious idiosyncracies of the sounds and the irregular rhythms?"

Share this post


Link to post

you know, Kfw, I'm so hungry to read the book, but I haven't got started on it yet, so I'm kinda jumping the gun anyway. And I apologize. It's great to have you picking up things she says and dealing with them.

Share this post


Link to post
I should have made clear as well that Brown feels these distortions are inadequate, superficial responses to the contemporary music to which they were set. She writes: "I wonder what his considerations were when he choreographed to the music of Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, Xenakis, beyond the obvious idiosyncracies of the sounds and the irregular rhythms?"
That's not complaining -- calling Balanchine's response to the music "superficial" ("obvious idiosynchracies...") is a direct attack to the core critical assessment that Balanchine's choreography is the physical embodiment of the music and its structure, an assessment shared by Stravinsky about two of his thorniest pieces: Movements for Orchestra and Agon.
as one of the world's outstanding PRACTITIONERS of Cecchetti technique taken in the Cunningham direction, she's as entitled to be testy about flexed wrists -- it's not just wrists, it's breaking the perfect arc of the arms from the center of the back, with the energy extending out through the fingertips -- as say a Vaganovist might be re the proper placement of the foot in sur le coup de pied.
I'm not sure what the point is of being testy about a choreographer who doesn't share the idea of the primacy of Cecchetti technique.

Share this post


Link to post

I realize that Cunningham's work without movement is ... not really his work. But I've been checking photos on the web. Many of the images seem to be remarkably "balletic." For example, the following from the 1987 Points in Space:

Points in Space

Is this the "Cechetti" influence you are talking about?

Share this post


Link to post

How balletic do they look? Well, I have the album jacket for a recording of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" with a picture of Merce and Carolyn on the cover -- will send a jpeg of it to a moderator to see if one can post it for BA viewers.

Share this post


Link to post
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...