The very first performances of Merce Cunningham’s “Split Sides” were at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it returned during the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour, each night occasioning a series of dice tosses to select among the many possible combinations of set, costumes, music, lights, and choreography. Here is a diary of those first four evenings,  and what they revealed.


October 14, 16-18, 2003

Rolling the dice gives a moment of wonder, the imagination conjuring.

A split-second later, the dice at rest, the mind becomes active. 

                                                                                                         Merce Cunningham

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

OF ALL of the multiple innovations in the work of Merce Cunningham, the use of chance is the most confusing. Such a clear thing, this toss of a die, or a handful of pennies, and yet chance is the part of the Cunningham dogma taken on faith, and dimly apprehended. 

The independence of dance as an art form–the notion that dance does not need music, but may simply coexist with it—still may seem heresy to some, but as an idea it is well understood. The separation of dance from story is now old hat, or old enough, though still giving rise to the notion that Cunningham’s dances are “abstract,” when dance, because it is done by people, can never really be abstract.

BUT CHANCE! Chance makes people think of randomness, of disorder, of improvisation, of fate and fortune, of things made up as they are happening, or just before. Nothing, though, could be further from the Merceian truth, which is quite the opposite. His is not the unhinged Miltonic world of Paradise Lost, where “Chaos umpire sits,” and “Chance governs all.” Not in the slightest. In his world, Merce governs all, even when by a kind of non-doing, this latter being neither benign nor malign, but a kind of sovereign absenting of ego. Even when Cunningham does not make choices—as when, for instance, he leaves the decor to the art director, or some similar personage, who chooses the artists; and likewise hands off the music—he has chosen the chooser. The truth is that in his world, Cunningham is God, or, in terms of the Tao, the center of the wheel from which all spokes extend.

Every choice, or non-choice, is made by him.


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