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Merce Cunningham

After the Arbitrary

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

One of the most influential choreographers of the twentieth century, Merce Cunningham is known for introducing chance to dance. Far too often, however, accounts of Cunningham’s work have neglected its full scope, focusing on his collaborations with the visionary composer John Cage or insisting that randomness was the singular goal of his choreography. In this book, the first dedicated to the complete arc of Cunningham’s career, Carrie Noland brings new insight to this transformative artist’s philosophy and work, providing a fresh perspective on his artistic process while exploring aspects of his choreographic practice never studied before.
Examining a rich and previously unseen archive that includes photographs, film footage, and unpublished writing by Cunningham, Noland counters prior understandings of Cunningham’s influential embrace of the unintended, demonstrating that Cunningham in fact set limits on the role chance played in his dances. Drawing on Cunningham’s written and performed work, Noland reveals that Cunningham introduced variables before the chance procedure was applied and later shaped and modified the chance results. Chapters explore his relation not only to Cage, but also Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, James Joyce, and Bill T. Jones. Ultimately, Noland shows that Cunningham approached movement as more than “movement in itself,” and that his work enacted archetypal human dramas. This remarkable book will forever change our appreciation of the choreographer’s work and legacy.

304 pages | 17 color plates, 54 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2020

Art: American Art, Art--General Studies

Music: General Music


"Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary, by professor Carrie Noland, aims to disentangle the choreographer from his partner. In this insightful and comprehensive new work, Noland makes the case that we should decouple the dancer’s aesthetic methods from Cage’s chance-driven operations. . . . Noland’s goal is twofold: to disentangle Cunningham from Cage, and to recontextualize his process as deliberate rather than chance-driven. Through readings of six of Cunningham’s pieces, she seeks to distinguish his use of indeterminacy as a highly structured method 'of selecting, framing, and highlighting what he found most interesting visually and kinetically.' To Noland, chance was merely a pathway to the organic—a conduit for Cunningham’s preferred movements to interact with one another in unexpected ways."


"[Noland's] writing establishes a fluid conversation between the theoretical foundations of Cunningham's methods and the kinesthetic lived complexity of the dancing itself. Noland is attentive to the importance of Cunningham's relationships with collaborators such as John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Robert Rauschenberg and illustrates ways the choreographer put such influences to use toward his own theatrical dramatic ends. . . . Noland's research was rigorous, and she used videos, reviews, photographs, and choreographic notes in building her illuminating arguments. She also interviewed former Cunningham company dancers and attended reconstruction sessions, adding to the depth of her written analyses. Numerous well-selected photographs enhance the text. . . .Summing Up: Essential"


"Noland’s Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary is an intelligent critical study, arguing that Cunningham’s work abounds in human dramas."

Times Literary Supplement

"In Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary, Noland explores how Cunningham’s dances do, after all, engage human emotion. His various practices, worked out with Cage—composing music and choreography separately, determining the order of sequences by chance, eliminating clear narratives—might seem to be aimed at suppressing meaning, an explicit goal of Cage’s aesthetics. According to Noland, however, Cunningham sought'“not to deny relationality but to extend it; he does so by interrupting the momentum of our habitual trajectory so that other, less prescribed encounters might occur.' The reason Cunningham resisted Graham’s 'emotional explanations' for dances was not because he wanted to dispense with emotion, but because he felt that her directives tended to 'stiffen' movement, as the dancers sought to reproduce her feelings rather than honoring their own."

New York Review of Books

"Drawing from previously unseen materials in the Cunningham archive, Noland puts forward that an overemphasis on his use of chance downplays the choreographer's compositional skill and sense of theater—and that the two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive."

Dance Magazine

"What a terrific addition to the library! Noland is  . . . taking the received understanding of Cunningham, and working against its fetish terms of chance, indeterminacy, nonnarrative, and so forth, to probe instead for Cunningham’s interest in human connections and particularities. The effect of moving through Noland's text is of an unfolding of multiple issues and optics, many of them fundamentally biographical, all in turn shaping the kinesthetics of Cunningham’s expertise as dancer and as choreographer. Rather than presenting the evanescent medium of dance as a linear compositional project, Noland shows it as constellational–recursive, dialogic, felt, meant, and, most importantly, thought."

Judith Rodenbeck, author of Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings

"Merce Cunningham:After the Arbitrary is a rigorously argued, extremely persuasive, and highly topical book. While Cunningham’s work is famous for being almost tortuously difficult, Noland successfully reads it through the arbitrary and the human, the abstract and the motivated, the structural and the personal. She has done so, moreover, with a fluid voice that moves easily between the register of observation and the metacritical. It is at once historical, theoretical, and formalist, making it a model of scholarship in any humanist field. Noland moves deliberately, examining not only a sequence of Cunningham’s dances but their interlocking relationships with other choreographies, both contemporaneous and otherwise."

Rachel Haidu, author of The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers 1964-1976

“In this groundbreaking study of the work of Cunningham, Noland redefines the very terms with which it came to prominence in the 1960s and has continued to be discussed. Her revisionist gesture is not only timely: it heightens the significance of his work for us today.”

Mark Franko, author of Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work

"This beautifully illustrated book comprises seven chapters that shift between historical, theoretical, and formal analysis; throughout, Noland destabilises the reception of key works through archival study."

Dance Research

Table of Contents


One  Recycling the Readymade: Marcel Duchamp and the Rendez-Vous in Walkaround Time
Two  Summerspace: The Body in Writing
Three  Nine Permanent Emotions and Sixteen Dances: Drama in Cunningham
Four  “Passion in Slow Motion”: Suite for Five and the Photographic Impulse                   
Five  Bound and Unbound: The Reconstruction of Crises
Six  The Ethnics of Vaudeville, the Rhythms of Roaratorio
Seven  Buddhism in the Theatre


Association for Theatre in Higher Education: ATHE Outstanding Book Award

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