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Chance and Circumstance by Carolyn Brown
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Chance and Circumstance

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Chance and Circumstance by Carolyn Brown
Dec 23, 2009 | ISBN 9780307575609

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  • Dec 23, 2009 | ISBN 9780307575609

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“Brown’s magnificent memoir details the author’s two decades as a performer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company . . . [It’s a] quick read, jam-packed with surprising information and tantalizing ideas that reflect Brown’s lively journey through the worlds of avant-garde art, music, theatre, and dance from the 1950s to the 1970s. . . . With her enthusiastic tone, born of a sparkling intellectual curiosity, Brown leads you to fully understand, appreciate, and want to embrace the work of her brilliant mentors. . . . Probably the most intelligently written memoir I have ever read, Brown’s book is much more than just the story of a dancer; it’s a substantial and remarkably accessible documentation of an especially fertile yet often difficult-to-understand (until now) partnership and period in the development of modern art forms in America.”

Chance and Circumstance is dancer Carolyn Brown’s long-awaited memoir of her life and times working and playing with genius art stars Merce Cunningham and John Cage. It’s a remarkable document–both intimate and factual. It’s exciting, too: From the 1950s to the 1970s, Brown, a stunningly elegant and precise dancer, breathed in the electrified air exuded by these two men, who permanently took the lid off old-fashioned ways of looking at dance and listening to music. Yet a sense of wistful longing pervades these pages: What has become of the strange muses that Cunningham and Cage unleashed? Brown has written a deeply felt, superbly recollected and researched account. It’s well worth shelling out for the hardcover now rather than waiting for the paperback; you’ll want this book on your shelf for years to come.”
Time Out Chicago

“Carolyn Brown’s clear-eyed, unsentimental memoir of twenty years as a principal dancer with Merce Cunningham’s company is something rare–an eyewitness account of an artistic revolution. She joined the company in 1953, the year it was formed, at Black Mountain College. Its survival over the next decade was always in doubt. Financial crises, mostly hostile audiences, withering reviews (or none at all), and Cunningham’s inability to communicate with the dancers on a personal level incited a kind of joyful defiance among those who stayed. They believed in the new aesthetic of movement that was being hammered out by Cunningham and his irrepressible ally the composer John Cage; their reward was the work, which required all they could give to it.”
The New Yorker

“Brown’s soulful new memoir . . . Chance and Circumstance, idiosyncratically and with loving detail, offers as much about John Cage, [Merce] Cunningham, and their collaboration as it does about its writer. Brown’s relationship with these men, the dynamic between the two, and their respective manners of relating to the company members and those around them are the consistent subtexts. Yet in the spirit of other informative zeitgeist books, Chance and Circumstance concentrates on specific artists while providing a larger sense of an effervescent era. Given how categorical and market-driven the art world’s infrastructure has become, the sense of community conveyed in this book, of artists’ vital engagement with one another and with media outside their own, is a powerful tonic. Brown’s understanding and rendering of Cunningham’s choreography and process, as well as those of other dancers and choreographers of the period, feel profoundly intuitive. . . . [She also] deftly handles the experimental music scene of the time, both in the United States and in Western Europe. . . . Through Brown’s chronicling, we see the evolution of the Cage-Cunningham sensibility and its manifestation in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. . . . [Her] voice, full of conviction, is especially insightful when addressing Cunningham’s choreography and his own dancing. . . . Through her radiating way of telling her own story and her tender precision, Brown has given us a distinctive perspective on the work of two of the most exceptional artists of the twentieth century. Although those of us who are loyal fans have always accepted, maybe even held sacred, the tenets put forth by Cage and Cunningham, it is lovely to have a more personal spin, from someone who knows.”
–Melissa Harris, BookForum

“‘I had no intention of becoming a dancer,’ Carolyn Brown writes of herself as a young woman. ‘I wanted to write.’ And so–after a great career onstage–she has written, and what a wonderful writer she turns out to be! The superlative dancer whom postmodern choreographer David Gordon christened ‘the prima modernina’ has written a marvelous memoir. Chance and Circumstance is deeply personal, yet places [Brown’s] performing life in the larger cultural context of the time, which was the 1950s through the 1970s. But Brown was about more than the modern. She had the adventurousness and philosophical inclination to be in the avant-garde. She had an encompassing appreciation and love for dance in all its forms, and ballet in particular. . . . Meanwhile, Brown was engaged in the often tumultuous adventures that marked the early years of the Cunningham troupe. . . . Brown created role after role tailored to her exquisite and daring skills and harmonious proportions, frequently performing intense duets with Cunningham. . . . ‘Working with John [Cage] and Merce [Cunningham],’ she writes, ‘was not a career. It was a way of life.’. . . . This was the beginning of the credo of movement for its own sake, and Brown was a supple and adept acolyte, and an accepting one. . . . Her memoir is written from her letters, journals, notes and exceptional memory for movement–what she danced, and what she saw. Dancers will love this book for the passion it expresses for dancing, and for the practical understanding it gives of the dancing life. Teachers, in turn, will love this book because it gives class work an ongoing reverence. The rest of us will love it for the writing and for the rich immersion in a life lived fully and joyously, tempered by a clear, unsentimental eye. . . . [Carolyn Brown] is still radiant, graceful, beautiful, and passionate about movement–the same person you meet in the pages of this book, which is written just as wonderfully as she danced.”
–Nancy Dalva, Dance magazine

“It is the life in dance that Brown [found] through [John Cage and Merce Cunningham] that is the subject of her wonderful new book Chance and Circumstance. Though she modestly never says so, reading her book, one realizes that Carolyn Brown’s body carries within it the whole century of modern American dance. . . . Brown was asked to be part of the group of dancers who went down to Black Mountain College for the crucial 1953 summer formation of Merce Cunningham and Company. Her book gives vivid descriptions of the storied moments of 1950s avant-garde life: the unveiling of [Robert] Rauschenberg’s red paintings, the early Happenings, the Judson Dance Theater. Throughout, Brown achieves the difficult balance of reticence about other people’s private lives and clear-eyed honesty about her own. . . . . One of the great pleasures of Brown’s book is the chance to live, briefly, in imagination, the life of a dancer; in her beautiful descriptions of classes and teaching, we can begin to see how a dancer forms herself in daily practice. . . . There is something terribly engaging in the story of Brown’s fight for mastery–with what sympathy I followed her progress–a young woman, though in the main encouraged and supported by her husband and parents, still very alone in the world. . . . [There] remains throughout [the book] a sense of her continually reaching new heights as a dancer and interpreter. . . . One feels sure that it was the pleasure and sustenance [she took from] this deep and careful artistic work that kept Carolyn Brown in the Cunningham company longer than any other dancer, for twenty years, until her retirement in 1972. With a mind and spirit akin to those of Cunningham and Cage, Brown had been vital to the work. . . . We should be enormously grateful to Carolyn Brown, who kept a thorough diary, wrote and saved and quotes from copious letters to her family and [her ex-husband] Earle Brown, painstakingly combed through the material record, and interviewed other dancers and those associated with the company. Her book is and will remain one of the few and best to read for insight into the workings of this very complex and important artistic creation–Merce Cunningham and Company.”
–Rachel Cohen, The Nation

“Ms. Brown, an original and celebrated [Merce Cunningham Dance Company] member who stayed for 20 years, was there to witness it all. And now, finally, her memoir has arrived. It was only a decade more in the making than her tenure with Mr. Cunningham. Thankfully the book, Chance and Circumstance, doesn’t feel labored. Not even close. Ms. Brown has relied heavily on diary entries and letters written during her time with the company, and these vivid words anchor the book’s rambling vitality. She rockets from the heady excitement of New York’s burgeoning art scene in the 1950s to the fraught relationships between modern ‘Biggies’ (include Martha Graham, José Limón and Doris Humphrey) at the American Dance Festival to tour descriptions that suggest she would make a fine travel writer . . . If Ms. Brown were interested only in offering detail-rich snapshots of the company’s first two decades, her memoir would certainly be an entertaining read, as well as an invaluable resource for scholars. But she is far too feisty to produce an agenda-free historical document. As she writes in the preface, her memoir is just one telling of this story, and ‘surely there are as many other versions as there were people involved–plus that impossible, truly objective one.’ After this charmingly disingenuous disclaimer, she turns to setting the record straight. Nowhere is she more fervent than in her feeling that Mr. Cunningham’s work is often clumsily understood, aided by his own obfuscations. . . . Her physical knowledge of Mr. Cunningham’s work gives her assertions a distinct authority, and her descriptions of the choreography are fascinating. . . . Most pages contain absolute gems. . . . Ms. Brown’s romantic relationships are documented, but the true love story here is an artistic one. She fell early and hard for Mr. Cunningham’s choreography, for the vigor of Mr. Rauschenberg’s riotously creative contributions and for the holistic art-and-life philosophy embodied most fully by Mr. Cage. Like any true love affair between complex, often difficult people, it produced deeply felt, wildly varying emotions . . . [A] book can offer only glimpses of such relationships. But what a glimpse.”
–Claudia La Rocco, The New York Times

“Carolyn Brown, the elegant and eloquent onstage partner of choreographer and performer Merce Cunningham from 1952 to 1972, penned Chance and Circumstance from an I-was-there perspective. Brown offers a first-hand account of both the beginnings of the Cunningham dance troupe and the degree to which the troupe was shaped by the music and attitudes of the avant-garde composer John Cage. . . . [It] also gives readers a vivid sense of what it was like to live and work during this transformative period of 20th-century American culture. . . . Cunningham, Cage, and Brown all flourished in the heady post-World War II period when the art center shifted from Europe to the United States, with New York as the cultural capital. . . . Chance and Circumstance is centered firmly on the dancing, incorporating some of the most cogent descriptions ever put on paper about Cage’s controversial experiments in music and Cunningham’s revolutionary choreography. Brown also manages to recreate the love of dancing that drove them, not avoiding the conflicts of egos and hurt feelings within the small group. . . . [The] Merce Cunningham Dance Company, still directed by Cunningham, age 87, has influenced the course of contemporary dance around the globe. [Chance and Circumstance is] testament to the all-American character traits of perseverance and belief in dreams, colored by the outsized achievements of Cage, Cunningham, and not incidentally, Brown herself, as performer, biographer, and autobiographer.”
–Iris Fanger, The Christian Science Monitor

“Carolyn Brown, the stunning modern dancer who was Merce Cunningham’s [dance] partner for many years, has written a masterpiece of a book.”
–Francis Mason, The World of Dance with Francis Mason / WQXR

“Carolyn Brown, an extraordinary founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, has written an incredible memoir, culled from extensive journals and letters. Her 20-year career with the company, from which she retired in 1972, intersected with an exciting period in the New York cultural scene, with music, dance and art lived and breathed as one . . . [She] narrates the story of her dancing life with sass and candor, revealing both her adoration for and frustration with her genius mentor, the moody, secretive Cunningham. The section on the company’s 1964 world tour, in particular, is thrilling.”
–Gia Kourias, Time Out New York

“This is the real thing. . . . Carolyn Brown’s rich account of 20 years of dancing with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Chance and Circumstance, provides an insider’s portrait of two pioneering modernists who ventured into uncharted territory in the realm of dance and music. Brown vividly evokes the thrills and struggles inherent to true liberation, and describes the courage requisite to artistic inventiveness. She is a rare memoirist who focuses on her mentors’ physical and spiritual leaps rather than on herself; her guileless revelations illuminate what went right and wrong in Cunningham and Cage’s personal dealings, as well as in their fight for survival. . . . Only another dancer could capture Cunningham’s extraordinary physical prowess, dexterity and deliberate emotional abandon. And only someone with Brown’s intrinsic modesty and generous spirit could be so trenchant about the man who has enchanted but plagued her from then until now. The book follows Cunningham’s company from its formative years in squalid conditions to glamorous world tours. Unwilling to settle for clichés. . . . Brown writes with the courage and conviction of a true devotee. . . . [She] provides rare perspective . . . . good-heartedness and [a] plethora of interesting information. And if you want to learn about the era before name-brand recognition ruled the art world, when creativity was burgeoning and money was incidental, Chance and Circumstance is a splendid guide. Existence was precarious, conflicts inevitable, but the pleasure and achievements were sumptuous.”
–Nicholas Fox Weber, The New York Times Book Review

“Memoir, cultural history, biography; choreographic catalogue raisonné, guide to dance technique, performance diary; discourse on chance, aleatory procedures and open form; romance, philosophical meditation and more: Carolyn Brown has written not one book, but books and books, all bound together by her clear and graceful voice, which echoes her clear and graceful self . . . . Chance and Circumstance is a mix of back story and forward motion, of large ideas and small details, in chapters that crisscross the country and then the globe. The New York art world is the center and crucible . . . . If writing is an out-of-body experience, dancing is the opposite, and somehow Carolyn Brown the dancer prevails. You travel out of your body and into hers . . . [and] you feel yourself under a spell, remembering her life the way she does . . . She also seems fueled by a desire to set the record straight, to put aside received wisdom and to tell things as she knew them to be . . . Carolyn Brown writes with a Zen-like even-mindedness . . . This inclusiveness lends to Chance and Circumstance the feel of life as it occurs . . . And what a life!”
–Nancy Dalva, New York Observer

“The dancing daughter of a dancer, Brown dreamed of becoming a writer. Instead she became a principal dancer in daring and provocative choreographer Merce Cunningham’s pioneering dance company. For 20 mad, glorious, and exhausting yeas, Brown traveled the world, performing before hostile, baffled, and ecstatic audiences. Happily, Brown never lost her literary inclination. Writing with precision and poise, and drawing on her invaluable letters and journals, Brown presents a scintillating chronicle of the John Cage—Merce Cunningham dynamic. Deeply inspired by Cage’s warmth, humor, and spirit and by the austere elegance of sphinxlike Cunningham’s demanding choreography, Brown gained unique insights into their use of chance as a creative force and their superlative collaboration with artist Robert Rauschenberg. Candid, compelling, and possessed of a keen critical eye and ear, Brown tells fascinating tales of New York’s madly innovative mid-twentieth-century art world, details the endless struggle to keep the cash-poor company together, discloses her own sacrifices and triumphs, and assesses the profound influence of the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic. Cage and Cunningham’s mission was to ‘change the way people look and listen,’ and that they did with courage, conviction, and grace.”
–Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review

“A diary of the author’s two decades with Merce Cunningham’s company . . . Notables in the world of dance, art, music and letters walk casually through the pages of this story, although the author never grows sentimental or self-absorbed.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Brown, a founding member of Merce Cunningham’s dance company, began working on her memoir shortly after leaving the troupe in 1972, but it’s proved worth the 30-year wait. Of course, the behind-the-scenes perspective on Cunningham’s groundbreaking choreography is invaluable, but Brown’s keen critical insights are enhanced by her account of Cunningham’s temperamental difficulties in relating to and managing his fellow artists. She also discusses the role avant-garde composer John Cage played in the company’s development, although it’s the emotional roller-coaster of their friendship that proves most memorable. For many, the centerpiece of Brown’s story might be found in several chapters devoted to a 1964 world tour, but there are wonderful moments sprinkled throughout, including the debut performance of Cage’s landmark silent piece, 4’33”, along with humorous vignettes featuring Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning and Rudolf Nureyev. Brown writes with great candor about the emotional costs of her artistic commitment . . . Her story will become an indispensable document for anyone curious about the mid-century revolution in American art.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

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