Changes: Notes on Choreography, a book written by legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham in 1968 and recently reissued by The Song Cave on the occasion of what would be his centennial, offers a compelling peek into the inner workings of an artist’s mind. More of an art- or archival collection than a typical book, Changes gathers sketches, notes, photographs, programs, and all other manner of ephemera in a creative package that often takes some maneuvering to read in the traditional sense. Printed text is frequently overlaid on top of handwritten notes or images; sometimes one must turn the book upside down to read a full sentence.
This format may sound like a recipe for a daunting reading experience, especially for those who aren’t familiar with the choreographer’s long career in modern dance, which included frequent experiments with chance and avant-garde clashes between sound and motion. While Changes can feel abstruse, it is ultimately a fascinating look at the creative process behind the most fleeting of art forms. For every dance move that might appear fluid and unselfconscious in one of the book’s many photographs or onscreen (Cunningham’s choreography is the subject of an upcoming 3D documentary), there’s a note, scrawled in messy handwriting and crudely illustrated with a stick figure. It’s hard to tell what each individual note means, but taken as a whole they constitute a layered physical artifact of the often-unseen labor that goes into choreography.
Changes is peppered with sly observations: “The audience was puzzled,” Cunningham writes of one dance. “There’s something interesting in it. I don’t know yet,” he writes of another. There’s a stream-of-consciousness quality to this collage-like book, and Cunningham’s observations help anchor us in pages otherwise filled with abstract material. Changes will likely leave the reader wanting to see Cunningham’s work performed onstage. Its scattered pages are indicative of a mind that overflowed with ideas, expressed in intricately complex systems. It may not be an easy read, but as Cunningham writes, “Clarity is the lowest form of poetry.”