In March 2019, in one of the dance studios at the Zagreb Dance Center, as part of the programme Choreographic Fantasy no. 3: Performances & Talks, we documented a series of performances, that are now collected here under the title Six Dances for Prepared Piano. The process-oriented structure, John Cage’s sonatas and interludes, and explorations of the symbolical space of a dance studio are some of the essential themes explored by this choreographic work.
Performed by five dancers: Filipa Bavčević, Marin Lemić, Silvia Marchig, Sara Piljek and Nastasja Štefanić, and under the working title of Open Processes, the work of Choreographic Fantasy no. 3 (which premiered in May 2018), in a dialogue with John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, encounters elements of the internal and external architecture in a dance studio set-up. Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano is a cycle of twenty short pieces for piano, composed between 1946 and 1948. The cycle comprises sixteen sonatas and four interludes that are asymmetrically arranged, and in each sonata a short sequence of natural numbers and fractions defines the structure, informing it as localized as individual melodic lines.
Six Dances for Prepared Piano documents six consecutive performances of Choreographic Fantasy no. 3; the first two performances are rehearsals, and the next four performances were public. However, as demonstrated here, each performance is entirely public in terms of its intensity, manifesting the dance gesture as a daily practice that is anchored in the venture of dance, in the immediate reality of its coordinates. Or put it differently, the dance is not relying on the audience’s gaze but has its own autonomy and stability. The audience therefore enters the already stabilized space. Simultaneously, the very practice of an observed performance enhances cohesion and elaboration of performance matter; dance as an event sharpens and deepens a choreographic thesis, building its dramaturgy from the very manifestation of a performative encounter with an outer gaze.
The last recording documents a choreographic talk after the performance, with students of the State Conservatory for Contemporary Dance Ana Maletić in Zagreb.
In 1972 John Cage wrote:
“In the late ‘thirties I was employed as accompanist for the classes in modern dance at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington. These classes were taught by Bonnie Bird, and among her pupils was an extraordinary dancer, Syvilla Fort, later an associate in New York City of Katherine Dunham. Three or four days before she was to perform her Bacchanale, Syvilla asked me to write music for it. I agreed.
The Cornish Theatre in which Syvilla Fort was to perform had no space in the wings. There was also no pit. There was, however, a piano at one side in front of the stage. I couldn’t use percussion instruments for Syvilla’s dance, though, suggesting Africa, they would have been suitable; they would have left too little room for her to perform. I was obliged to write a piano piece. I spent a day or so conscientiously trying to find an African twelve-tone row. I had no luck. I decided that what was wrong was not me but the piano. I decided to change it.
Having decided to change the sound of the piano in order to make a music suitable for Syvilla Fort’s Bacchanale, I went to the kitchen, got a pie plate, brought it back into the living room, and placed it on the piano strings. I played a few keys. The piano sounds had been changed, but the pie plate bounced around due to the vibrations, and, after a while, some of the sounds that had been changed no longer were. I tried something smaller, nails between the strings. They slipped down between and lengthwise along the strings. It dawned on me that screw or bolts would stay in position. They did. And I was delighted to notice that by means of a single preparation two different sounds could be produced. One was resonant, the other was quiet and muted. The quiet one was heard whenever the soft pedal was used. I wrote the Bacchanale quickly and with the excitement continual discovery provided.
When I first placed objects between piano strings, it was with the desire to possess sounds (to be able to repeat then). But, as the music left my home and went from piano to piano and from pianist to pianist, it became clear that not only are two pianists essentially different from one another, but two pianos are not the same either. Instead of the possibility of repetition, we are faced in life with the unique qualities and characteristics of each occasion.”
This description from a foreword, under the title How the Piano Came to be Prepared (Richard Bunger: The Well-Prepared Piano, The Colorado College Music Press, Colorado Springs, 1973; reprinted by Litoral Arts Press, 1981) acquaints us with several motifs simultaneously: the first is definitely a connection between Cage’s creative work and a wide range of dance artists, the second motif is exploring how limitations are giving rise to new discoveries, and the third is confronting us with an idea of the inherent negotiation between appearances and intentions. All three, subsequently, and this subsequence in fact seems causal, complete the research journey of this choreographic work which, due to its own circumstances, stretched to almost a year.
Where does then a premiere, a work, a performance, begin and where does it end? In this piece, it begins at every moment and ends always only temporarily. This temporariness is in many aspects a silent syncope of an undetermined duration. Executing such performance demands from a dancer a specific quality of focus, negotiating a path between performance as it appears, the conceptual premise, and the dramaturgy of the very choreography. These six recordings testify to the collective effort of these five outstanding dance artists’ performative intellect, bringing together the trajectory of the performance’s materiality and how it finally vibrates and resonates.
Every circumstance of this choreographic process is not only inscribed in the grid of this piece but also each of these circumstances presented a unique opportunity to learn together. A dance gesture is therefore not only the production of knowledge; it is this unique knowledge. But not as (only) the knowledge of dance, dance knowledge, but knowledge in a broader perspective. Dance as practice produces knowledge in an unmarked sense; knowledge that is generated but cannot yet be encompassed in a thematic sequence. It is therefore hard to accumulate, and even harder to situate in a broader context, without instrumentalizing the very value of this unmarkedness.
Furthermore, this choreographic and performative work visibly culminated into a pure form. Pure in the sense that the form is projected to resonate as a form, also as a form in space, which is also a form, a shape. It is here that Cage’s description of preparing a piano can serve as a starting point. Cage (motivated by Circumstance) used a piano, as the supreme singular form, in its instrumental and ideological sense, and has transformed its sound by colliding it with everyday objects, functions. What this gesture makes possible, poetically, is an examination of a singular screw or bolt as a possible classicist, though industrial, form. These industrial, seemingly undifferentiated objects were thus infused with uniqueness, no matter how minimal. This act has a starting point in the complexity of an instrument such as a piano, where the very historical accumulation of the piano’s complexity opens a consequential, broad space of deconstruction and reinscription of elements of form. Form as a shape and, subsequently, form as sound.
Now, all these reflections come a posteriori, as research that echoes after the experience of a choreographic performance as such. In the beginning, while the piece is still being constructed, and while its parameters are still being worked out, we recognize ourselves in an exact situation that Cage describes as going to the kitchen to get a plate. This choreographic work, as well as all the previous ones, certainly required a continuous going for those metaphorical plates, screws, bolts, spoons, in the dense collision of the existing and still unformed knowledge. In that aspect, John Cage and his works are to us not iconic or monumental phenomena, but rather and primarily, the resonant and familiar processes of a fellow artist, whom we still, half a century later, recognize through resonating with their initial intentions and curiosities.
Finally, Cage writes:
“The prepared piano, impressions I had from the work of artist friends, study of Zen Buddhism, ramblings in fields and forests of mushrooms, all led me to the enjoyment of things as they come, as they happen, rather than as they are possessed or kept or forced to be.”
In this sense, we dedicate these six dances to this and such, prepared, piano.