“Chance Dance” and the Randomized Operations of Movement

Movement is the body’s language. Just as Knowles’ House of Dust was set to different permutations and combinations to generate a range of formulations of a “conceptual aesthetic of language” (p. 204) by displacing those very forms of conceptual art, chance dance is a semi-improvisational form of choreography, developed by Merce Cunningham together with John Cage, in which set movements are rearranged for every performance in terms of sequence, location, and dancers involved. Cunningham used the rolling of a die, newspaper cutouts, or other procedures with indeterminate conclusions to make artistic choices. The chance aspect of the creation-process allowed for neither artist to be glued to one idea and avoid the possibility of recycling the same works, and for artists to enjoy the freedom and flexibility of leaving the finished product to chance.

Merce Cunningham explored Chance Theory in his creative process to make new and unpredictable artistic choices

Dancers often find themselves working with the “aesthetic of chance operations” to create an unknown number of arrangements of movements, which can be considered the equivalent of words, phrases, and sentences; the body’s language of expression. There is something attractive about the peculiarity of an “antipoetic” form of art that is generated when art is left to the vagaries of chance. These enumerations may be mechanical in the body—as in the case of our computer-generated combinations of text—where the dancer chooses to separate the movement from emotional connection or expression, and instead randomly creates movement by mechanically arranging and rearranging certain given bodily movements. This sort of movement vocabulary can be considered passive or removed from subjectivity or intention depending on whether the dancer or score-writer wants authorial presence in the performance. Yet, dancers may choose to improvise to a score by delving within themselves to use breathe, thoughts, instincts, and imagination to intervene and give agency to their movements.

This form of movement is outside of the realm of what is traditionally conceived of as art, just as the recreation of The House of Dust insisted on the dismantling of traditional forms of art and literature. Chance created the possibility of a limitless permutations of movement sequence and interpretations of movement to be generated with a given set of ideas, thereby enabling the “undoing of all fixities” (p. 208) and making the subject formation in the creative process more fluid.