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Early On

Isobel and Michael Armstrong

Two audience members recall the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s first trip to London in 1964.

M: Isobel was keen on dance, and I was somewhat less keen.

I: I was always keen on dance, and I think probably we saw [the performance] reviewed in one of the papers.

M: They’d played at Sadler’s Wells for a week, and while they were there, all the great dancers in England went to see them—Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev. I was more interested at that time in the music than in the dance. We were both very keen on Rauschenberg and we’d never heard of Cunningham at all. We couldn’t get into Sadler’s Wells—either that or we didn’t have time. Sadler’s Wells was the main dance theater of London, except for Covent Garden, where the Royal Ballet had sole rights to dance. As it happened, the promoter that had brought them over from the States picked up two extra weeks at the Phoenix Theatre, a very small theater off the Charing Cross Road, more or less in the heart of London’s main theater land. We managed to get tickets for two concerts. I don’t think it was popular demand [that brought them to the Phoenix]. It was demand of the aficionados.

I: The cognoscenti.

M: We’d been married three years and we were very committed to looking for avant-garde events. We went the first night, and there were only about fifty people in the audience, as I remember it. There seems to be a lot of misreporting as to how many people attended.

I: I think there were fewer. I think there were more like twenty-five.

M: One of the things that appealed to me greatly was that—and I read this in one of the reviews—John Cage said he insisted on having the doors to the outside world left open throughout the show. So that there could be vague music coming from the sounds of people or activities going on in the street outside. To be honest, you couldn’t hear much of it from outside. But there was a vague sense of street noise.

I: Traffic!

M: Before the show, Cage and David Tudor, who actually did most of the playing, were fidgeting around and attaching bits of strings to the piano. It was quite interesting in that you had a sort of triad of artistic effects, because there was the piano down in the pit, and then there’s the stage. And then in the main piece, which was called Summerscope

I: No, Summerspace.

M: Summerspace—that was the longest piece and the most sensational in many ways. But throughout it, Robert Rauschenberg sat at the back of the stage and he had an enormous bucket.

I: Three, three buckets.

M: And he dipped a cloth in each of the buckets, which were colors. Yellow…

I: Yellow, maroon, and possibly an orange but it may have been another maroon. . .

M: And he pulled them out having dipped them, and strung them up on a sort of washing line at the back of the stage, so the backdrop was created as the show went on.

I: What was wonderful about them was that they dripped. They dripped throughout the performance. He didn’t wring them out. He hung them up, and they just dripped their color onto the stage. I remember that vividly. While the dancers danced there was this dripping going on, as well as this extraordinary music.

But what I also remember is that by the time we saw the ballet, the dancers had been dancing solidly for, well, nearly three weeks, and they were very tired—but they were dancing absolutely at their fullest limit of what they could do. A lot of them had their feet bound because they were so tired, ankles and so on. And that was so moving somehow, because they did these virtuosic things obviously under duress.

There was one ballet that was just about walking, people walking on and off the stage. But I think the thing that was transporting for me and that wasn’t going on at all in British ballet at the time was that there were different groups on the stage dancing to the same music, but absolutely out of sync in terms of their movement. They were dancing, as it were, against each other. And the patterns were subtle because they interweaved but at the same time they were autonomous. That going on concurrently was really so beautiful and so complex.


Merce Cunningham, Summerspace notations, 1965. With permission of the Merce Cunningham Trust.

M: The most extraordinary single dance was by Merce Cunningham himself, in which the stage was black; you could barely make it out. Cunningham was encased in a sack, and the sack just moved across the stage—it took him twenty minutes or a half an hour to do it. And that was the dance. It chased half the audience out. When that was over there were only twelve of us left.

I: The back of the stage was a cyclorama, lit in a sort of bluish light, so you saw the outlines of the sack heaving and moving across the stage, against the lit-up back. It was a silhouette on the back but also you saw this mass of body trying to move across.

M: We were entirely on our own in our row. I remember there were a few people in front of us and a few behind. And some people cackled during the sack. Cage obviously thoroughly enjoyed the cackling, because that was yet another sound that was coming out in addition to the noise of the piano. He obviously absolutely loved that. And the music that was coming out of the piano was extraordinary, this kind of plinky plunk tradition.

I: The principal dancer, Carolyn Brown, she was technically virtuosic in a way that most of the other company members weren’t. And Cunningham used her brilliantly—her body was like plastic. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter that there was one virtuoso dancer; the whole company seemed to assimilate her. It wasn’t like classical ballet where the virtuoso dancer takes the stage. It was much more democratic than that.

M: In looking it up today, you get the impression that it was much more of a seismic event than it seemed at the time.

I: Richard Buckle said Diaghilev would have loved it.

M: They make it sound a triumph. There’s no mention that people walked out. But for me it remains one of the absolute highlights of my art going. Right at the end of the show when you had Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Cage on stage taking a bow with the dancers— it was an astonishing moment of live art going on.

I: It was the standard to which all ballet should aspire, after that—that’s what I saw it as. It was absolutely revolutionary and liberating, and so full of possible experiment. I mean, I don’t think that what he started has been exhausted yet. I feel there is lots to come, still, and people need to keep going back to what he did.

I [on being asked what she and Michael did afterwards]: I think we went home. We lived in a suburb of London, Dulwich, which is south of the river and at that stage was extremely unfashionable and it needed quite a lot of travel to get there. I think we just went home and talked on the journey. I think that’s all we did. We didn’t go out. We’d just got married, and we were still at the stage when kind of what we were to each other sufficed. We did have friends! But somehow we did everything together, if you see what I mean. It was very much a twosome, and we just continued that as we went back home. —Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan’s most recent book is My American Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).


About the author

Isobel Armstrong,a fellow of the British Academy and a senior research fellow of the Institute of English Studies, is the author, most recently, of Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination, 1830 to 1880 (Oxford). Her poetry appears regularly in The Shearsman.

Michael Armstrong was the longtime head teacher at Harwell Primary School in Oxfordshire and is the author, most recently, of What Children Know: Essays on Children’s Literacy and Visual Art(

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