Merce Cunningham Trust

John Cage's idea for Ocean was that the dance be presented in the center in a circular space with the audience surrounding the dancers and the musicians further surrounding the audience on all sides so that the sound would come from multiple directions, the 112 musicians being separated around the space. There is no conductor. John Cage had discussed the project with Andrew Culver, who had put his ideas into the computer; this led Andrew to believe that the piece could be completed, after John Cage's death in 1992.
David Tudor [composed] the electronic component of the score, working with underwater sounds.
The piece is in nineteen sections, with fourteen dancers. "In principle I have realized the process based on the number of hexagrams in the I Ching, using 64 phrases as the source of movement, alhough due to the length of the dance, I decided to double the number so that a maximum of 128 phrases would be available. The dance is one and one half hours long, the same as one of our Events." stated Mr. Cunningham.
Thomas Caley and Jeannie Steele in Ocean, Photo (c) Fabrizio Constantini 1994
"Choreography in the round has opened up a number of possibilities, particularly in terms of directions and facings. It is not flat space, but curved. The result is that, given the frequency of changes possible, it takes longer to choreograph. Often I find, after an hour's work, that I have covered 15 seconds..."
"The form of the work allows for solos, duets, trios, and quartets, and group [dances], meaning any number of dancers from five to fifteen maximum. The Cirque Royal in Brussels has four entrance/exit passageways at one end of the circle. I labeled them #1, #2, #3, #4 and then, using chance operations, indicated to the dancers which of these they would use for each entrance or exit."
"Each time we go over what has been worked on, I see possibilities missed; through chance operations I try to utilize them. It is amazing to be working in the round, in reference to the space, it brings up Einstein's work about curving space --- we tend to think flat. I told the dancers: 'You have to put yourself on a merry-go-round that keeps turning all the time.'"
I use chance operations to determine where they face at each moment in a phrase. Difficult but fascinating.
Photo (c) Bernd Auers 1994
After we have presented Ocean in Brussels, there will be another two weeks of rehearsal in New York, then three days to adapt the piece to the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. There the stage can be extended into the house, and there will be both musicians and audience on the back of the stage to complete the circle.2
The conception of Ocean was credited to both Cunningham and Cage. Cunningham himself was not in the dance, but he sat at a small table next to Tudor and his battery of electronic equipment, making notes and giving cues, so that he remained a presence in the piece. Tudor wrote of the electronic component of the music, Soundings: Ocean Diary,
--- Each performer uses different sound materials, derived from peripheral "ocean" sources: sea mammals, artic ice, fish, telemetry and sonar, ship noises.
The sounds are preconditioned by a group of input modifiers, and then acoustically presented via a group of output modifiers, which substantially alter their characteristics.
The choice of electronic components effecting these alterations can differ with each performance.
The sound system employs a sophisticated electronic panning process, distributing the sounds among three systems: two clusters of four speakers each, which are moveable, hanging from the ceiling at either side of the space; and an encompassing group of four additional channels. Thus three different architectural spaces are defined.
It is envisioned by the composer that from time to time the sound materials will change with invited contributions.3 ---
The music's orchestral component, Culver's Ocean 1-95, was played by the Nederlands Balletorkest, augmented by a number of Belgian student musicians. Culver wrote,
--- Ocean 1-95 consists of 32067 events spread over 2403 pages divided [among] 112 musicians. There is no score, no place where all that will sound simultaneously can be viewed simultaneously. There is no conductor, though two of them - Arturo Tamayo and Georges-Elie Octors - worked brilliantly to introduce the musicians to their individual responsibilities. Played throughout are 5 simultaneous but non-synchronous sequences of compositions, the players jumping from place to place, alyer to layer, as they become available, each of the 5 layers having 19 compositions in sequence, hence the 95 compositions referred to in the title. Each time a player enters a new composition he or she will find it composed according to a different set of rules and parameters (1 of 20), and that it must be performed according to 1 of 7 sets of performance practices...Ocean 1-95 is my homage to John Cage.4 ---
MCDC in Ocean, Photo (c) Mark Ginot 1994
Ocean was the third Cunningham dance, after Change of Address (1992) and Enter (1992), designed by Marsha Skinner, who wrote:
---To go with James Joyce I've turned to Moby DIck for lighting inspiration and to Homer's "wine-dark sea" for the source of the costumes. A literary design for Merce.
The warm waves blush me like wine. The gold plow plumbs the blue. It was a clear steel-blue sky. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure...the pensive air was transparently pure and soft...the contrast (between sea and sky) was only in shades and shadows.
Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun was only known by the spread intensity of his place, where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat. (Herman Melville)5 ---