Moments remembered by Iris Tenge
The "International Dance Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers", directed by Merce Cunningham and John Cage, was my first encounter with them, with chance operations, and more - - -
Chance operations: So there were all these possibilities and open doors, open spaces - a kind of freedom I found difficult to relate to at the time - and yet no control, it seemed, over the final outcome ? - "What about", I asked John Cage, searching for a trace familiar to my own background, "what if you want to say something very specific? Don't you sometimes want to communicate a certain statement, and precisely in that way or form?!"
John Cage assured me that whatever one wanted or had to say would come through anyway ( and not only that but more - if you let it be and give it a chance).So simple ! You are you, whatever you do. - Could it be that easy? In relation to my training and conditioning as a classical dancer in a ballet company, where a million details had to be thought of, corrected, realigned, brought under control before anything became "right" or "it" , this idea seemed both suspicious and a puzzling utopia at the time (- which, marvellously and progressively, has continued to reveal its accuracy...).
"But then", a musician wondered, "who is responsible for the outcome?"
"The one who asks the question", John Cage replied.
So ... if it wasn't about giving answers - - Asking your questions became really relevant. Not providing solutions. Not Knowing. But knowing how to ask...
John Cage was up before anyone else, it seemed. On my way to breakfast I would see him return from a walk in the woods, carrying a bucket of mushrooms. They were later cooked in the campus kitchen, and he brought them to our tables and offered us one each.
There were no directorial comments after the nightly showings / concerts of our day's works, no criticism, no praise. Sometimes an inquiry into the working method: - Aha; a nod; interesting.
Some days I remember barely getting through; and some not. Schedules were long and intense. Each day, we found ourselves in different teams, faced with different assignments and situations.... My mind resisted taking in any more, my body went on strike, my 'back went out' - and I skipped a couple of periods and went out for a walk in the Southern English countryside instead.
Throughout the course, its ups and downs and turmoils, it struck me how John Cage and Merce Cunningham were consistently calm, gentle, and never without genuine respect for everyone else. The words they chose in speaking of their own work gave a quality of complete unpretentiousness and natural grace to every matter - "this is a device I found..." - "this is how it came about..."
On the night of the last day, after the last work-in-progress had been shown, John Cage got up in front of us, a glass of red wine in his hand, and with a big smile told us the story of a man who comes to study with a master: Yes, the master consents, you can stay. So the man goes about his daily errands there, dutifully, conscientiously, but with growing impatience and dissatisfaction while all his questions of fundamental importance are met with nothing but silence from the master. Two years have gone by; he decides to leave and go his own way. Two more years pass... The man returns once more to the master - and says: "Thank you!"
* * *
My first entrance in John Cage's "Europeras" - several years later, with the Frankfurt Opera - may have been at 8 minutes 17 seconds; I had 20 seconds to bring a little stool onto B 24 (one of the 64 fields into which the stage was divided) and exit at B 17. (I won't swear to the figures.) We each had a computer print of our respective tasks in time and space, which we carried with us backstage; occasionally one would deposit a second copy on the other side, or scribble the data for a quick transition into the palm of one's hand. Fields and numbers on the stage floor were well visible to performers and audience, and clocks were everywhere. We always knew distinctly where we were in time and space.
I joined the production some time after the première, so I missed out on the earlier rehearsals with John Cage. Those of us who were new on the cast were taught by assistants simply when we had to be where. There was none of the usual "it should be like this" or "he wants it like that" or "it is supposed to have a quality of ---" ... Nor did that change when John Cage arrived for the final rehearsals. Just like at the IDCPCC, I remember him observing and smiling and repeatedly saying: "Isn't it marvellous?!" - - ; his continuous and intense enjoyment now seemed less of a puzzling mystery to me, but an invitation to join in the greatest secret that is open to us all.
Opera as an institution is notorious for big machinery and big drama. To steer and move the whole apparatus, a director may want to be a genius, be declared a genius, declare himself a genius, or be resented for being... either definitely a genius, or, equally definitely, not. One loves it, or hates it and loves to declare how one hates it. There was none of all that, either, as far as I could make out; the absence of such games backstage and of a culminating plot onstage registered during rehearsals sometimes as a vague let-down, sometimes as a faint sense of freedom. John Cage was liked; the atmosphere among the cast was pleasant. And you always knew where you were in time and space.
One of my tasks involved carrying a big long wire fish with a fellow dancer. We had to step inside it, one by the head, the other by the tail, pick it up with the help of shoulder straps and move it slowly across the back. (Meanwhile, other scenes were simultaneously going on downstage.) Coordinating our steps was difficult; we kept trying to make it less awkward. Finally, in a moment of quiet concentration during performance, the fish began to swim, waves came and went - - Coming offstage, we beamed at each other in delight over the natural ease of the action...
It didn't occur to us to wonder whether anyone else had noticed (rather not, I would have thought) this moment of a good time two dancers and a fish were having together. We simply proceeded to our next entrance in time and space.
Between curtain calls,
John Cage came up
to the two of us.
Beaming. And said:
"Thank you !"
"...For the fish !"
"Isn't it marvellous?"