The VW Years: Carolyn Brown, Part II

After processing the odd hippie hipness of the idea of John Cage driving Merce Cunningham and his dance company around the country in a VW Microbus, it was really dancer Carolyn Brown’s excellent memoir that persuaded me to see the bus as central to this incredible, historic period. So I’m going to quote from an extended section of Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage And Cunningham, and then expect everyone to go read it themselves. Because it’s an awesome tale of an exciting career. Brown really shows both self-reflection and an awareness of those around her. And those around her included some of the greatest artists of the last hundred years.

Aeon was the single new work choreographed in 1961 (excepting the Suite de danses). In 1962, Merce did no choreography at all. But 1961, ’62, and ’63 were great touring years, in fact the end of the golden years, which is how many of us described the period between November 1956, when John and Merce Borrowed money to buy their first Volkswagen Microbus, and June 1964, when the company set off on a six-month world tour. For as long as we had the VW bus, it was the bus that defined us as a company. It held only nine people and a small amount of luggage, thus “Merce Cunningham and Dance Company” comprised six dancers, two musicians and one lighting designer/stage manager. We traveled with minimal or no sets, mostly tights and leotards for costumes, and few props. Personal luggage was limited to one small suitcase each. At least one-third of the rear luggage space was devoted to food. John served as company manager, bus driver, philosopher-in-residence, master chef, and chief minister in charge of entertainment; Merce as business manager, accountant, and co-bus driver. Nick and Remy took on food shopping and preparation. I occasionally spelled John or Merce at the wheel, as did Steve Paxton and Bob Rauschenberg when they joined our traveling circus. Everyone pitched in with loading and unloading, cleanup and K.P. duty, and yes, firewood gathering.
Eating was easily our number-one entertainment. “America’s Best-Fed Dance Company!” That, according to Remy, was how we should continue to bill ourselves. We’d have lavish cookouts in local, state, and national parks, at various times of day or night, in many sorts of weather. John would gather wild mushrooms if there were any to be found; even in winter he’d find wild greens for salad. We’d broil steaks and chickens over open fires, steam vegetables wrapped in foil. If cooking out wasn’t feasible, John would search out some out-of-the-ordinary restaurant, often driving miles off-course to find it, in the hope of discovering a regional delicacy like morels, fiddlehead ferns, or crisp-fried fresh-caught catfish. Maybe he’d find a truck stop famous for twenty kinds of pie, or a word-of-mouth local greasy spoon that served fabulous spaghetti.
Every non-performing day included Happy Hour. It was a ritual seriously observed. Punctually at five o’clock john would relinquish the wheel, usually to Merce, and have his first drink of the day. Nick and Remy would bring out raw vegetables, exotic dips, stone-ground wheat crackers. David Tudor pulled out his flask of homemade homeopathic brew, which was probably 100 percent alcohol.

Not everyone enjoyed the touring as much as John and I did. It wasn’t always all fun or galvanizing intellectually. Exasperation could and did set in after long days of driving, especially if one of John’s whimsical detours had led to a frustrating dead end, or when it was just too cold to cook out but we were doing it anyway as we stood around, numb and dumb, while John and Nick did all the work. At those moments we’d have given anything for the shortest distance between two points, Howard Johnson’s being one of them.
But that time together shaped and molded the particular group of nine known as “Merce Cunningham and Dance Company,” circa 1956-1964, even though the personnel changed somewhat from year to year. The sense of community was genuine; sharing work, exchanging ideas, being around at the beginnings of things mad the dancers feel we were participants in the process rather than employees hired to do a job. John’s newest enthusiasm for some artist, writer, philosopher, social thinker, mushroom wild green, or wild idea spilled over into the bus, embroiling us in lively conversation for hours at a time. We were privy to John’s and David’s discussions about the new music coming from Europe. Books were passed around–including Merce’s favorite mystery stories, Johns most recent esoteric discoveries, David’s theosophy tracts, plus the reading interests of the rest of us. We played games the way John went about doing everything–seriously. We played all kinds–guess-who games, word games, cards, chess, Scrabble. We played for fun, yes, but earnestly, accepting through his example, the Cagean spirit of purposeless play pursued with seriousness. (One can learn a lot about the people with whom one plays games.) John was a fanatic about winning at Scrabble. He played mostlyl with Marilyn [], who was very good at ti, and he went into momentary despair when he lost–which was most of the time.
If Merce was in a particularly cheery mood he’d tell outrageously naughty stories about working with Martha Graham, Louis Horst, and Erick Hawkins, or lovely sentimental ones about his tap-dancing teacher, Mrs. Barret, whom he remembered with great fondness. Merce, in the VW-bus milieu, was forced to be a social being, and sometimes he appeared to enjoy it. With the end of the VW-bus touring came the end of any real social intercourse between Merce and his dancers. Big-bus touring relieved him of the close quarters forced on everyone in the VW. In the big buses, Merce could separate himself from the rest of us, drop out rather than join in. Surely those hours in the VW bus created us as a company as much as Merce’s choreography did. They probably even influenced the choreography, because Merce came to know us in ways quite different from the ways he knew us in the studio.
For many years we seemed to be operating in the world, not in a world apart. There was a richness and variety of experience. Vital to this was meeting interesting people from a wide spectrum of disciplines, not only those in the arts. John had friends from cost to coast and was always making new ones. And if there was a really fine museum, or notable architecture, or maybe just a good movie around, John would find time to get us there. Slow scenic routes were chosen instead of mind-numbing thruways. “Have you seen Niagara Falls?” John would ask, and since most of us had not, he’d take us there. Our existence then was governed by process, not product. The means and the end justified each other. Despite the fact that getting there (traveling) seemed to take precedence over being there (performing), and what and where we ate appeared to be far more important than any single performance that we drove two, three, or more days to present, our focus nevertheless was single: art-and-life. No separation. John’s credo–accepting the multiplicity of things–was actively lived in the VW days. Later on, Merce’s credo–weeding out everything not absolutely essential to putting on a performance–became the company doctrine. Perhaps this was inevitable as the company became larger, unionized, weighted down with the psychological and financial freight of full-time administrators, office staff, wardrobe and stage crew, as well as more dancers, more musicians, tons of electronic paraphernalia, more-elaborate sets, specialized lighting equipment, and video and film apparatus.
But the more was not the merrier. Not for me, anyway. Nor, I think, for John. And although Merce talked about the multiplicity of events in everyone’s life, he was never quite able to embrace the idea in his own. Going from the small bus to the big bus was symbolic of the company’s shifting priorities, and to accomplish this shift a quasi-professional, and eventually a fully professional, management took over our lives, bringing about a dramatic change in John’s role in the company. His many active contributions to the dancers’ well-being were curtailed; his influence shunted behind the scenes.

Nor did it help to have the age span between Merce and his dancers widen year by year.

Predictably, as the age difference expanded, communication of the sort that went on in the VW Microbus in the fifties and early sixties dwindled to nothing. In my last years, the company became self-contained, self-nurturing, and insular, moving from place to place as though under a Bucky Fuller dome. Even the air we breathed seemed to have been recycled. [excerpts from pp. 339-42]

And seriously, the clock just hit 12:00.