Do What Thou Wilt: Modern dance, John Cage and the Guggenheim Museum

By Rachel Straus

John Cage died in 1992, but his influence on modern dance lives on. Take the Guggenheim Museum Works & Process February 27 and 28 program: “John Zorn’s Music Interpreted: New Choreography by Donald Byrd and Pam Tanowitz.” During the moderated part of the event on the 28th, Byrd said to composer Charles Wuorinen, “We will not have music dominate us.” Then Byrd thanked John Cage, attributing his statement to the composer philosopher whose long-time collaboration with Merce Cunningham transformed the landscape of modern dance.

Considering the fact that this Works & Process series was devoted to examining the relationship between music and dance and that Cage might have taken issue with the word “dominate” to describe any musical-choreographic relationship, Byrd’s comment was oddly aggressive. However John Zorn—whose music Byrd choreographed to and who was seated to Byrd’s right—looked merely amused by the exchange. Bracketing Byrd’s cagey reference to Cage was two world premieres: Byrd’s (fay çe que vouldras) or “do what thou wilt” and Tanowitz’s Femina, created respectively to Zorn’s unnamed 2005 and 2008 compositions.

Being that Byrd and Tanowitz recognize John Cage and Merce Cunningham as major influences, it might be good to revisit their artistic approach. The composer and choreographer believed that music and dance could occur simultaneously, but need not directly respond to each other. Their works created an alliance of sound and sight. Both were disinterested in narrative, but their mainly abstract landscapes did foster interpretations. What dominated their collaborations were a sense of play, where there appeared to exist a multiplicity of choices, both for the dancers and the musicians.

Byrd isn’t much for playing. His approach in vouldras was about as light as an avalanche. He trafficked in exactingly obscure messages. His dancers (especially the women) were too often featured as splayed-leg pawns of another’s manipulations. As Stephen Drury played Zorn’s alternatively minimalist and thunderous-sounding piano composition, angst reigned. The two male dancers went into seizures on the floor. After performing aerobic ballet steps on pointe, two women whispered to the pained-looking men. All the dancers breathed heavily, as though they were scaling a treacherous mountain.

In Femina, Pam Tanowitz did a better job revealing how Cunningham and Cage influenced her artistic career. As a former student of Viola Farber, a founding member of the Cunningham Company, Tanowitz’s movement vocabulary bore the mark of the Cunningham technique: The dancers moved through space with no facial expressions and applied their bodies to tasks (rather than expressive emoting and gesturing). Their limbs transformed into design elements.

Tanowitz isn’t, however, a strict Cunningham-ian. In this case, she’s interested in gender. By choosing the title, Femina, seven women (and one man) appeared to focus on a female sensibility. In two solos for Banu Ogan and Ashley Tuttle—formerly with the Cunningham Company and American Ballet Theatre, respectively—two portraits of women emerged. In the first, Tuttle appeared in a ballet skirt, leotard, and pointe shoes. She danced steps lifted from a typical ballet class: chainé turns, tendus, port de bras. She faced the back of the stage, as though seeing herself in a rehearsal studio mirror. Toward the end, she took off a pointe shoe off and banged it on the floor. Bad pointe shoe! She seemed to be saying. Was this a Black Swan moment? Who knows, but it might have something to do with Tanowitz’s preference for modern dance.

In the second solo, Ogan didn’t flagellate any objects. She danced facing the audience. The recorded music—a mélange of spoken word, violin, harp, piano, percussion, natural sounds, with metered and unmetered sections—was vastly more digestible than the 2005 work used by Byrd. Ogan’s fluid motions corresponded to the music in one moment and against it in another. The solo possessed playful mystery, perhaps because none of the theatrical elements seemed to dominate.



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