Tag Archives: Merce Cunningham

Scandalous Dancing in the Woods

I’ve been writing lately about the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  The school celebrated 100 years since its founding this past summer.  When I attended the open house, I found an enchanting cabin, restored to reflect history.


Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, the adventurous young women featured in my last post, visited the camp shortly after its founding. They were Smith College graduates, teaching for a year in the area.  They were eager to see the venture started by two other intrepid young women who had also graduated from Smith:  Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield.  Charlotte’s brother Bob was one of Rosamund’s suitors; his father owned the local coal mine, and he was very much an eligible bachelor.  He and Ferry Carpenter competed for the attentions of Rosamond.

Charlotte and Portia had worked in Chicago for two years to earn the money to buy the land for the camp.  Then they worked side by side with a small crew loaned by Charlotte’s father to build rustic tents and renovate the abandoned homesite on the property. They were sophisticated city girls; they had trouble providing meals their working crew would eat.  Afraid the crew would abandon them, they took the advice of Charlotte’s brother:  “…soak the potatoes in grease, over-cook the meat, boil the coffee, and serve them soggy pie.”  The formula worked like a charm.

Portia and Charlotte soon had students and teachers, all enjoying a very high quality of instruction in art and music, which continues to this day.  The atmosphere was one of complete artistic freedom, too.  Over the coming decades, Perry-Mansfield was a haven of the avante-garde, including the great dancer Merce Cunningham and his composing partner, John Cage.


Local ranchers were suspicious of the place; rumors flew of young women dancing in the woods in diaphanous gowns.  The rumors were true. Dorothy and Rosamond watched actual outdoor rehearsals. Local wives and daughters were forbidden to go near the place; milk and butter were delivered to the creek nearby, to be picked up when the ranchers’ women were safely home again.

In her book Nothing Daunted, Dorothy Wickenden tells the story of the overnight visit Dorothy and Rosamond paid to the camp.  They loved the place.  Ferry Carpenter guided them along a two-mile forest path to get there.  When they were ready to leave the next day, his romantic rival, Bob Perry, one-upped Ferry by maneuvering his little Dodge in and out of the remote area so they didn’t have to walk back.  Rosamund described the living room, which doubled as a music room, as “one of the loveliest and most artistic rooms I have ever seen.”  I think the living room is long gone, but I found the restored cabin enchanting.  I’d cheerfully move right in.


Present-day students live in modernized cabins which were not part of the open house.  These cabins are now winterized.  They are a popular lodging option for skiers and other visitors to Steamboat Springs during the long, snowy winters when there are no students. The website is at http://perry-mansfield.org/.

To read more about the colorful history of the Steamboat Springs area, have a look at Dorothy Wickenden’s best-selling book about the adventures of her fearless grandmother and the best friend who accompanied her on the adventure of a lifetime!


Ballet Shoes, Cowboy Boots and The Sound of Music

Last September in Salzburg, Austria, I took a break from the crowded streets of the city famous for being the birthplace of Mozart and for the movie The Sound of Music.  (Today, the inner core of the city during the day seems like a very expensive and very crowded shopping mall). I visited the Museum of Modern Art.  It’s located on top of Monchsberg, the steep mountain that towers over the city.  So the views are panoramic.


I was a little disappointed with the permanent collection in the museum, because the captions were all in German–I know a little of the language, but not enough to decipher modern art.  Also, I might as well admit it’s not my favorite kind of art. But there was a special exhibit that made the elevator ride up the mountain more than worthwhile:  a series of videos about the great dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and his longtime partner, composer John Cage.  The videos were all in English!  I spent quite a lot of time with earphones, glued to TV monitors, watching and listening to archival footage of the work of two men who profoundly influenced modern dance, and modern art in general.

Merce, Public

I had never before had a chance to see Merce Cunningham perform. He was active as a dancer, choreographer and teacher for over 70 years, until his death at age 90 in 2009. I had never understood the principles of his work, either.  Besides his longtime collaboration with John Cage, Merce Cunningham collaborated with other musicians, plus visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg.  The most radical innovation pioneered by Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Cage was that the music and the movements for a ballet should be created independently of each other, then put together in the same time and space–at either the dress rehearsal or the first performance.  The concept sounds counter-intuitive, but it works.  The effect of the many dances I watched in Salzburg was challenging but fascinating, even hypnotic. Instead of trying to figure out the plot of a sentimental story, the viewer is caught up in the infinite possibilities of human movement and human-made sound.

When Mr. Cunningham died in 2009, among the many tributes was an article in The New York Times by Alastair Macaulay.  The article is at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/merce_cunningham/index.html. From the article, there are links to slideshows which give some idea of the energy and range of this towering artist.

Actually, watching these ballets gave me a new appreciation for modern, abstract and avant-garde art in general.  The dances were the movement and musical equivalents of non-representational art.  Clearly I need to expand my horizons.

Imagine my surprise when, at the top of a mountain in Austria, the Perry Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp was mentioned as an important place in the artistic development of Merce Cunningham and John Cage.  The camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado welcomed artists from the avant-garde from its very beginning in 1913.

During an open house celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Perry Mansfield this past summer, I was able to see for myself that the arts are alive and well in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.


Join me next time for more discoveries in the art and history of Europe–and the influences that extend to the farthest corners of our world.