It would be fair to say that, for its time, ‘Variations V’ was the most ambitious mixed-media creation involving live performance and real-time control of electronic equipment. That “time” was the summer of 1965, since the work was first performed on July 23, 1965 as part of the French-American Festival at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. It took place in Philharmonic Hall, which would later (in 1969) be renamed Avery Fisher Hall and, at the time, was one of only two completed buildings on the Lincoln Center campus. (The other was the New York State Theater.)
In simplest terms one could say that “Variations V” consisted of a score that John Cage had conceived for choreography by Merce Cunningham; but that would be an oversimplification. It would be more accurate to say that it was a pioneering experiment in the creation of a work that would involve a relationship between the activity of the dancers and the sounds that would accompany the dance. That relationship was realized through two (analog, this was 1965) technologies, twelve proximity-sensing antennas (built by Robert Moog along the principles behind the antennas that control a theremin) and an array of photocells designed by Billy Klüver, each of which would serve as an independent on-off switch, depending in whether or not it detected the presence of light. With this equipment the antennas would emit control signals based on how close dancers were to them, while the photocells would detect when a dancer was blocking the beam of light that it sensed.
The results of all of those possibilities for interaction could best be interpreted as control signals. What further distinguished “Variations V” was the prodigious variety of what those signals would control. Taking the theremin as a point of departure, there were voltage-controlled oscillators (which would later become fundamental components when Moog started to build his synthesizers). However, there was also voltage-controlled amplification of a large array of tape recorders and radios, all combined through a 50-channel mixer. If that was not enough, the dancers performed in front of screens on which a film collage by Stan VanDerBeek was projected; and VanDerBeek’s source reels included television images processed (and distorted) by circuitry designed by Nam June Paik.
As might be guessed, the set-up time for a performance of “Variations V” was enormous; and taking it on tour involved carting around a massive volume of equipment. Nevertheless, the work was taken on tour in both the United States and Europe following its (single) performance at Lincoln Center, with the last performance taking place on May 24, 1968 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Fortunately, when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) visited Hamburg in 1966, NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) filmed it for broadcast on television.
The creation of that film was as impressive as the creation of the piece itself. Much of the physical management of all that electronic equipment was determined by a score created by Cage, which required most decisions being made on the basis of chance operations. This was a perfect example of Cage’s philosophy, which was not intended to create chaos but rather to impose a strong discipline of deciding, in advance, what decisions would have to be made, after which the actual decision making would be left to an aleatoric operation. The NDR production team respected this discipline in their own work, meaning that both video capture (how many cameras and where were they pointing) and subsequent mixing were subjected to Cage’s approach to the use of chance.
I never had an opportunity to see “Variations V” in performance. However, through the good graces of the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, I was able to see a film of the NDR production during my graduate student days, most likely some time in 1970. I was therefore enthusiastically delighted to learn that last month mode records released a DVD of that video production as the 48th volume in their The Complete John Cage Edition series.
Indeed, through that video I was finally able to experience the NDR broadcast with thorough understanding. The film I had seen as a student included an introduction by its producer in German without subtitles. Thus, my appreciation of that introduction was, at best, fragmentary. The DVD now provides the subtitles I had previously missed so much.
Nevertheless, what really matters is the performance itself. In this filmed version there is almost no sense of chaos, although one is not always sure just what control functions all those sensed signals are performing. The core of the experience still resides in the choreography. Those familiar with Cunningham know that, even when he followed Cage’s disciplined use of chance operations, the result would be dance steps that did not require “on-the-fly” decision making. Thus, as one gets to know Cunningham’s work, one comes to recognize that there were particular tropes through which he would realize the movements of his dancers (just as George Balanchine had his repertoire of tropes for classical ballet). Those tropes could be either very gradual, during which one could appreciate how the movement would unfold in space, or they could involve a joyously energetic unfolding of the movement is a brief duration of time.
As a result, much of the choreography could actually be extracted from the wash of media in which it was embedded (and Cunningham himself would do this for performances arranged for non-theatrical spaces, such as galleries, which he would call “events”). Nevertheless, the superposition of that choreography in a “dissonant landscape” of flickering movie images and sounds from innumerable sources clearly expands the experience of the performance. As NDR chose to render than experience for a telecast, it was abundantly rich without necessarily being overwhelming. Indeed, for those fortunate enough to be able to look back on the full scope of Cunningham’s repertoire, “Variations V’ may be viewed as a first step towards his other resource-rich collaboration with Cage, “Roaratorio.”
In all fairness, however, it may be worth noting that the experience of the observer of “Variations V” would probably not align well with that of the dancers. The mode DVD includes two interviews conducted by MCDC archivist David Vaughan with those who performed “Variations V.” The first is with Carolyn Brown, who does little to conceal her frustration with the work without (hardly) ever trying to be disagreeable about it. The second is with Sandra Neels and Gus Solomons, Jr. Now, to be fair, I should observe that Solomons graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about a year or two before I entered there as a freshman; so I was not particularly surprised that he would be the most sympathetic of the three in his appreciation of all of the ancillary technology required. Nevertheless, listening to these three dancers is a bit like listening to the monologs in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, so differing are their points of view.
It may be a bit too trivializing to say to the NDR video “it is what it is.” However, this is the sort of performance that is best taken on its own terms but is flexible enough to leave it to the observer to decide what those terms are. Watching the dance is an absolute delight, particularly now that MCDC has disbanded. Does the technology matter? Perhaps the most important thing about the NDR production is that the technology does not dominate. That leaves the observer free to decide how much (s)he wants it to matter.