Sunday, March 29, 2020

The VW Years

Carolyn Brown (b. 1927)
From Dance in America: A Reader’s Anthology

The Corps de Ballet at Radio Music City Hall, November 6, 1950. Photograph by Phillip Harrington (1920–2009) on assignment for Look magazine. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York website.
The following introduction is adapted from Dance in America: A Reader’s Anthology, edited by Mindy Aloff.
Carolyn Brown’s mother, Marion Rice, was a Denishawn dancer and a respected dance teacher, so Carolyn, growing up in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, got an early start on her lifework. Even so, she studied philosophy at Wheaton and took some time before making the decision to dance. In 1951 she was in New York, married to the composer Earle Brown, and taking classes with Merce Cunningham and at Juilliard, part of a downtown art world that included Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Two years later she became one of the founding members of Merce’s company in its first season at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, and she danced for him and with him for twenty years—his finest dancer and a star in her own right.

She has choreographed, taught, and written—her superb autobiography, Chance and Circumstance, was published in 2007, after decades of work on it. Why did it take so long? Perhaps because she hesitated to express a certain ambivalence she felt toward Merce (as a person, never as an artist). Her personal hero was Merce’s lifelong partner, the composer John Cage, whose ebullience, warmth, and humanity were in clear contrast with Merce’s more taciturn, even withholding, nature. She does, however, quote in her book what Merce remembered saying to her the night of her final performance: “‘So beautiful,’ I said to her, ‘I never told you enough.’”
Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown in December 1969
rehearsing Cunningham's ballet Second Hand wearing costumes
by artist Jasper Johns. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

In 1957, Cunningham was in Idyllwild, CA, for the summer on a teaching assignment. “With nothing in the offing for Merce’s company until November, I auditioned for Radio City Music Hall’s corps de ballet,” Brown recalled fifty years later. “Margaret Sande was the resident choreographer and Bettina Rose was her assistant.” She was accepted and in July she stepped into a show that had already been staged for several weeks. In the following selection from her memoir, she recalls the exhaustion and stress of her short-lived, high-paying gig at Radio City. The title is a reference to the name her fellow dancers gave to the era: “John and Merce borrowed money to buy a Volkswagen Microbus, the vehicle that defined—willy-nilly—a classic era of the dance company’s history: the VW years. Our first VW-bus jaunt was crazily impractical, but according to a postcard sent to my parents, ‘a very happy trip.’”

Radio City Music Hall disbanded its corps de ballet in the summer of 1974.

Notes: James Waring was a prominent dancer and choreographer in New York during the 1950s and 1960s; he staged performances for his own company as well as for the Manhattan Festival Ballet and other companies. Dancer, director, choreographer, and costume and set designer Remy Charlip was a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He also wrote or illustrated more than forty children’s books between 1956 and 2007.

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For seventy dollars a week (fifty-seven take-home), new members of the corps de ballet danced four shows a day, seven days a week, three weeks out of four. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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