STEPS: A Composition for a Painting - Full Circle Dance Company, February 2, 2019

 

STEPS: A Composition for a paintinG

PERFORMANCES FOR JOHN CAGE'S CENTENIAL YEAR

NANCY SNYDER & THE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY, 2008

For the final festival day workshop at UCDC, we had decided that there should be at least two performances of John Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for a Painting to Be Performed by Individuals or Groups in order to ensure that the variability of potential outcomes could be appreciated by participants and observers. In the end, we were able to get the cooperation of American University cellist Nancy Snyder and two former Cunningham Dance Company dancers. As Kass had explained, the performers were free to approach their engagement as they chose, first creating a field of locally confined images with inked feet and then using brushes of various widths (up to 5 feet) to add washes of chosen density to overlay the smaller markings with broad, continuous pathways that were themselves subject to unpredictable irregularities. Preliminary to the use of the wide-swathed diagonals of the wash brush there would be markings created by bare feel that carried ink acquired by standing briefly in prepared trays at the paper’s edges. Of course, as is the case with the individual trajectories of the waxing and waning brush trails, there is the influence of intentionality: one “goes” from a “here” to various “theres.”

 

The Cunningham dancers performed an improvisory duet titled Steps with Arms that was based on Changing Steps, a piece that Cunningham choreographed in 1973. Stepping out of trays of ink placed on the sides of the large paper, their feet left path-like intermittencies. One noticed that directed trajectories left a very different sort of mark than did pirouettes. Their approach to the culminating application of wide-brush washes led to a strongly colored and all-surface outcome. Lacking the training that might prepare one for the more kinetic approach of the dancers, I had decided that Nancy and I might adopt a more bounded approach in our performance, and we began by laying out angular edge areas at diagonally opposite sides of the paper. We were both somewhat concerned about the possibility of making unintended markings by falling off-balance if we attempted something virtuosic. So we agreed upon a succession of large arcs, rendered (necessarily) while moving backwards within the confines of the corner markings.

PERFORMANCES OF STEPS FOR JOHN CAGE'S CENTENNIAL YEAR, 2012

by Roger Reynolds

Before embarking on the organization of the John Cage Centennial Festival Washington, D.C., with Steve Antosca and my partner Karen Reynolds, I had been only tangentially aware of Cage’s work as a visual artist.1 His graphic scores, most particularly the epic effort that produced the 1957 score Solo for Piano, the central component of a larger construct titled Concert for Piano and Orchestra, had been, Cage indicated, a tribute to the pianist and composer David Tudor, who had been a dedicated (and perhaps even more disciplined) performer of Cage’s music.

 

Cage’s use of graphic provocation in this score was elaborated by prefatory notes inscribed with an exquisite pen and ink calligraphy. So it had already been evident from his score that Cage was observant, disciplined, artful, and meticulous about the ways in which he presented his ideas to the world. At the same time, it was equally clear that he did not and would not ever live a restrictive life. His curiosity and unique “aesthetic sensibility” caused him to be responsive to the world in continuingly evolving ways. One should not look for or expect surface consistencies in his work. Surprisingly, painter and collaborator Ray Kass notes that Cage had said in 1983 (in reference to an exhibition of his etchings and drawings) that “All of these things take as a beginning that I can’t draw”; this comment betrays a surprisingly limited definition of what it is to draw.

 

Kass had previously donated three Cage watercolors made at Mountain Lake to Washington’s Phillips Collection, and I suggested to the collection’s administration that it would be an appropriate and a valuable addition to the Cage centennial (JCDC) celebration that they mount a small show. They exhibited their three Cage watercolors along with works by two Pacific Northwest artists, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, with whom Cage had developed important friendships in Seattle in the late 1930s. It was a wonderful and fitting contribution to the Cage centennial events.

 

American University, one of the ten collaborating institutions for the JCDC festival, also made its large gallery in the Katzen Arts Center available. Its director, Jack Rasmussen, agreed immediately to mount a major exhibition of previous performances of STEPS. In addition, he and I visited the archives of Cage’s publisher, the C. F. Peters Corporation in Queens, New York, and located letters and manuscript sketches for various musical works that were also displayed in the Katzen galleries.

 

Two culminating visual art experiences on the final day of our JCDC enterprise were workshops/performances of public events hosted at the University of California’s Washington Center (UCDC) near DuPont Circle. Kass had devised a quite astonishing confrontation for our group of participants. I say “confrontation” because the interface involved one (or several!) elements that brought one—in a very personal and immediate way—to the edge of two quite distinct though deeply related “fields of opportunity.” The first, Jiro Okura’s intense “breathing lines” exercise, was both personal and also collaborative. Our actions mattered, but were not determinative. In fact, the inevitable variability of the outcome in relation to the task that was set for us was one of the formative qualities on which the exercise depends. In using the term “exercise” I may be understood to imply something less directed or immediately revealing than what we actually did on the afternoon of 10 September 2012. 

As I experienced the “breathing lines” exercise, the participants were given a task that was, for the uninitiated, both simply described and arduously realized. Choose a brush (an act that will, of course, influence the outcome in ways that an inexperienced individual could not foresee) and using the ink provided and mixed as one wished, paint a line across a broad, textured paper surface in such a way as to cause the line to metaphorically “breathe” by increasing and decreasing the pressure applied by brush to paper as you proceed from the beginning to the end of your intended path. If you were the first to venture out onto the paper’s surface, you were singularly adventurous, but also free of implied layers of interactive assessment. If one or more individuals had preceded you, then what you did was inevitably a combination of the alternating breadth of the line you produced and the influence of what already “there.” A sheet was completed when as many individuals as were needed to completely fill the paper with fluctuating lines had each made a contribution to a collaborative end. It was not a matter of expertise, but of thoughtful diligence.

 

For the final festival day workshop at UCDC, we had decided that there should be at least two performances of John Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for a Painting to Be Performed by Individuals or Groups in order to ensure that the variability of potential outcomes could be appreciated by participants and observers. In the end, we were able to get the cooperation of American University cellist Nancy Snyder and two former Cunningham Dance Company dancers. As Kass had explained, the performers were free to approach their engagement as they chose, first creating a field of locally confined images with inked feet and then using brushes of various widths (up to 5 feet) to add washes of chosen density to overlay the smaller markings with broad, continuous pathways that were themselves subject to unpredictable irregularities. Preliminary to the use of the wide-swathed diagonals of the wash brush there would be markings created by bare feel that carried ink acquired by standing briefly in prepared trays at the paper’s edges. Of course, as is the case with the individual trajectories of the waxing and waning brush trails, there is the influence of intentionality: one “goes” from a “here” to various “theres.”

 

The Cunningham dancers performed an improvisatory duet titled Steps with Arms that was based on Changing Steps, a piece that Cunningham choreographed in 1973. Stepping out of trays of ink placed on the sides of the large paper, their feet left path-like intermittencies. One noticed that directed trajectories left a very different sort of mark than did pirouettes. Their approach to the culminating application of wide-brush washes led to a strongly colored and all-surface outcome.

 

Lacking the training that might prepare one for the more kinetic approach of the dancers, I had decided that Nancy and I might adopt a more bounded approach in our performance, and we began by laying out angular edge areas at diagonally opposite sides of the paper. We were both somewhat concerned about the possibility of making unintended markings by falling off-balance if we attempted something virtuosic. So we agreed upon a succession of large arcs, rendered (necessarily) while moving backwards within the confines of the corner markings. First dragging one’s right foot in a convex arc, stabilizing oneself, and then doing the mirror opposite with the left foot, one achieved a dark, scalloped train, embellishing the opposing corners of the paper. We then found various ways of spattering the open spaces by launching ink with energetic, random gestures.

 

We loaded the wide brush with a light wash and embarked on several straight-line paths, either in parallel with the long edge of the paper or at an angle. I also used a 2-foot-wide brush with a very light wash in imitation of the dark arcs previously made with heavily inked feet. The outcome of our version was strikingly different than the textural “all-over” approach that the dancers had taken. The sensation of “performing” a gestural work of art on a massive scale led to a notably rich interplay of intention with chance, of control with acceptance. STEPS is, of course, best understood and experienced by performing it; but the scale and materials and collaborative process that it involves also make it, as a performance, engrossing to watch: implying, from a speculative perspective, questions of intention, predictability, serendipity, and, of course, the relishing of the ways in which the selected media—ink, brush, paper—provide, and indeed constitute, an inevitable content.

 

The frontier in the realm of aesthetic action and observation opened by STEPS—a realm in which the things used along with their inherent character interact with design and purpose—invites consideration. When one is faced with such an enormous expanse of toned white paper, the realm of aesthetic action and observation opened to performers implicitly engages them in an act of acceptance of the intended and the unexpected. The STEPS procedure has been so designated that its combination of the physical and the imagined produces something deeply meaningful. It is not only one’s hand and arms that are engaged, but one’s whole body and mind.

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ONGOING PERFORMANCES OF JOHN CAGE’S STEPS: A COMPOSITION FOR A PAINTING

by Ray Kass

When I wrote the notation for John Cage’s original performance of STEPS for the John Cage Trust in 2006, Howard Risatti suggested that I discuss the possibility of ongoing performances of the piece with the trust’s director, Laura Kuhn. She suggested that I write two variations of the notation—the first, John Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for a Painting, describing exactly what Cage did when he performed the piece in my studio and the materials he used; and the second, John Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for a Painting to Be Performed by Individuals or Groups, that would allow for a wide range of interpretation and require that the performer(s) give the resultant painting a new name. We referred to the latter as “the second notation.”1

 

The first two performances of STEPS by an individual were done by Stephen Addiss in 2006 at the Capital One West Creek Campus in Richmond as part of their art program. He worked with the same materials and on paper of the same size as Cage had used; Addiss named his two versions Sumi-e I and Sumi-e II.

 

I began discussing the piece and the possibility of a performance with Merce Cunningham, who at that time was wheelchair-bound but still actively choreographing for his dance company. I acquired a wheelchair from the local Goodwill store in Salem, Virginia, and applied ink to the wheels and performed STEPS on a piece of fabric for an exhibition in Taiwan.2 I named the piece John Cage’s STEPS – for Merce, to encourage Merce to perform this second notation along with his dancers. On October 23, 2008, Merce choreographed three performances of the piece at the Cunningham Dance Studio on Bethune Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Dancers I and Dancers II were choreographed by Merce for four dancers.3 However, for Dancers III, Merce agreed to perform it under his own power; Risatti and I, with the help of workshop assistants, inked the wheels of his wheelchair every 20–30 seconds as he performed, creating graceful arcs across fabric taped to the studio floor. Afterwards, Merce choreographed the dancers as they applied washes with the big brushes. I believe that it was very likely his last live performance and I am grateful that we had the opportunity to make a video documentary of his performance.

 

In 2009, I created two more performances of STEPS, Current I and Current II, one of which was exhibited in May 2009, along with the Merce Cunningham pieces, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, as décor for the dance company’s dance performance. I

 

n subsequent years, individuals and groups in Vienna, Salzburg, Washington, D.C., New York, Seattle, and Roanoke have performed the “second notation” in a variety of ways. The portfolio that follows documents aspects of these performances.

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DOROTHEA ROCKBURNE: ANGULAR MOVEMENT, 2012

"The STEPS procedure has been so designated that its combination of the physical and the imagined produces something deeply meaningful. It is not only one’s hand and arms that are engaged, but one’s whole body and mind."  - Dorothea Rockburne

JOHN CAGE'S STEPS: HALBERSTADT

Video Series by Dylan Goodwin

Saadet Che Demir & Fadi Al Jesser
Halberstadt, Germany

Ursel Huelsdell & Hans-Herman Richter
Halberstadt, Germany

Christof Hallegger & Rainer O. Neugebauer
Halberstadt, Germany

Ray Kass & Dylan Goodwin
Halberstadt, Germany

Laura Kuhn & Nicholas Riddle
Halberstadt, Germany

Dieter Schnebel & Heidi Steger

Halberstadt, Germany

Sabine Groschup

Halberstadt, Germany

Arnold Dreyblatt
Halberstadt, Germany

Roberto Paci Dalò
Halberstadt, Germany

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ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

Children's Workshop
Museum de Moderne Salzburg, Austria, 2012

Dorothea Rockburne

National Academy of Art, NYC, 2013

Franz Graf

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Georg Weckwerth

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Harald Hasler

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Howard Risatti

Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA, 2013

Julius Deutschbauer

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Ray Kass + Ian Cobb-Ozzane

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Ray Kass

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Ruth Schnell + Nita Tandon

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Sabine Groschup

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Sabine Groschup

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Sam Ashley

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Scott Williamson

Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA, 2012

Nikola Tasic + André Wagner

Museum de Moderne Salzburg, Austria, 2012

Susan Quinn + SEAD

Museum de Moderne Salzburg, Austria, 2012

Tina, Martina, Luke, Ryan

Museum de Moderne Salzburg, Austria, 2012

Toni Stooss and Wulf Herzogenrath

Museum de Moderne Salzburg, Austria, 2012

Tyler Adams

MQ Vienna, Austria, 2012

Emma Des Jardins and Jamie Scott

University of California Washington DC Center, United States, 2012

Roger Reynolds and Nancy Snider

University of California Washington DC Center, United States, 2012

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