In the summer of 1952, a group of artists at Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina put on a performance. The piece brought together music, dance, painting, technology, and literature in an unprecedented and unrepeatable moment of planned chaos. Ostensibly untitled, the work would later be known by a variety of names including Theater Piece No. 1. It was a strange moment, one that would forever change the history of performance art in the United States. Most significantly: it was a queer moment.

Are we living in a queer moment? The fact that I am writing this paper, joining a coterie of other scholars in (re)imagining the queer history of Black Mountain College, certainly suggests so. Perhaps every attempt to lay out an alternative history qualifies as a queer moment. But the queer moment we are currently living in—or through—must extend beyond the call for papers that I am responding to, if it could be said to exist at all.

To understand the queer moment that may or may not exist today, it is useful to look to queer moments in the past. Like our own time, the mid-twentieth century was an age of increasing queer visibility and saw a wide range of struggles between communities and governing bodies. Theater Piece No. 1, orchestrated by the American composer John Cage and his partner, the dancer Merce Cunningham, speaks to the multitude of ways that queer people form communities and maintain relationships in the twentieth century onwards—representing queer moments from the late 1940s to today.

In 1993, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote that “[i]n the short shelf-life American marketplace of images, maybe the queer moment, if it’s here today, will for that very reason be gone tomorrow.”[1] There is, it should be noted, a degree of pessimism in Sedgwick’s assertion, one rooted in a specific geo-political and social setting. Sedgwick is not referring to a queer moment in a global or trans-continental sense but one firmly situated in North America. The question of whether or not we are living in a queer moment is a uniquely American one.

Sedgwick’s writings have inspired countless others within the field of queer theory. Of particular importance for this essay is the work of Stephen M. Barber and David L. Clark, editors of Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory, a book dedicated to unpacking Sedgwick’s influence. Barber and Clark write that “[a]lthough Sedgwick’s musing hints at a possible closure of the queer moment, the conditional embedded within it—‘if it’s here today’—importantly leaves open to question not only what ‘the queer moment’ is, but also whether and when it is.”[2] This open question is what allows the queer moment to extend beyond the boundaries of academia, government, or popular culture. The queer moment is all these things, and simultaneously none of them.

Ultimately, Barber and Clark define Sedgwick’s “queer moment” as “a specifically queer temporality that is at once indefinite and virtual but also forceful, resilient, and undeniable,” a “persistent present” that cannot be ignored.[3] Sedgwick herself describes the queer moment as “an immemorial current” and “a continuing moment.”[4] A queer moment may have ties to the past, but it is much more than the perpetuation of something long-established. What is significant about a queer moment is its insistence on the here and now.

Michael S. Sherry begins his book on the influence of gay artists in the mid-twentieth century by saying “if there was a queer moment in American culture, it occurred then as much as now.”[5] Like Sedgwick, Sherry’s use of the word “if” here exists as a conditional that leaves the very idea of a queer moment in doubt. Yet, as Sherry convincingly outlines, queer people had an immense impact on the artistic culture of the United States. Although both Cage and Cunningham appear in Sherry’s book, no mention is made of Black Mountain College. This is not altogether surprising. Even where Cage and Cunningham are concerned, it is only recently that sexuality has entered the discussion regarding their work, aided by the publication in 2016 of The Selected Letters of John Cage. In “The Gay Divorce of Music and Dance,” David M. Callahan writes that “[t]hroughout their partnership, Cage and Cunningham maintained, most often implicitly, that their private life was of no relevance to their art, and historiographical consensus has upheld their silence.”[6] In refusing to uphold this silence and insisting instead on a connection between Cage and Cunningham’s relationship and their work, Callahan opens new avenues of inquiry.

Following Callahan’s example, this essay “advocates a turn to questions of biographical detail, intentionality, and expression in the works of Cage and Cunningham.”[7] In analyzing Cage and Cunningham’s performance works at Black Mountain, it is also important to consider the socio-political conditions under which the work was made, along with the place that supported the works physically and spiritually—the influences, interludes, and hours spent in development. Cage and Cunningham’s performance work at Black Mountain College must be considered alongside Black Mountain College itself.

The sculptor Richard Lippold wrote that the significance of Black Mountain College lay in “the joy of finding this freedom of living unbounded by the conventions of society.”[8] While such a liberatory environment appealed to all who joined the community at Black Mountain, the notion of living “unbounded by the conventions of society” would have been especially alluring for queer artists. These kinds of spaces were essential for the cultivation of modernism in the United States and played an important role in Cage and Cunningham’s relationship.

Cage and Cunningham met in the late 1930s at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington. Cunningham was an eager and precocious student in the newly formed dance program and Cage was a teacher, drawn to the school’s impressive collection of percussion instruments. It was here that Cage would invent his own kind of percussion instrument: the Prepared Piano. Created by inserting various found objects into the instrument, the finished product combined the piano’s original tone with percussive sound, an aural juxtaposition that spoke to the Cornish School’s ethos.

Founded in 1914 as the Cornish School of Music, the Cornish School strongly believed in an interdisciplinary approach to arts education and encouraged its students to explore, innovate, and challenge conventions. In this respect, the Cornish School was very much like Black Mountain College. Cunningham would make a similar connection when he recalled his arrival at the Cornish Institute: “I thought, if there’s a school like this in Seattle, imagine what there must be in New York. But I quickly found there was nothing like it there—in fact, the only other school I have found that offered the same kind of open experience was Black Mountain.”[9] The unique nature of these schools, the freedom they afforded both students and staff, was the perfect petri dish for modern art. The similarities between the two institutions also explains why Cage and Cunningham were drawn to Black Mountain.

By the time that Cage and Cunningham converged at the Cornish School, a visibly gay Seattle was beginning to emerge. This included iconic spaces like the Casino Pool Hall in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. Joseph Bellotti opened the Casino in 1930,—roughly a ten-minute drive from Cornish—an establishment that allowed same-sex dancing. As historians Kevin McKenna and Michael Aguirre note, patrons of the Casino nicknamed the hall “Madame Peabody’s School of Dance” to simultaneously describe and disguise what went on inside.[10] This tension between revealing and concealing, between visibility and secrecy, was a defining characteristic for queer life in the twentieth century and is an important aspect of Cage and Cunningham’s intertwined careers. After prohibition ended in 1933, Bellotti opened the Double Header Bar above the Casino, which would go on to be one of the oldest gay bars in the United States. These spaces contributed to the culture of Seattle and provided a safe place for queer people to gather.

The growing queer presence in the United States was not without opposition. In 1935, the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton positioned himself in opposition to the metropolitan art world, decrying the New York art scene specifically as filled with “precious fairies.”[11] Benton saw homosexuality as a threat to the vigor—or more accurately, the masculinity—of American art. Importantly, Benton saw this threat as specific to urban centers.

In his essay on Benton’s fellow Regionalist Grant Wood, Richard Meyer explores the dichotomy between rural and urban sexualities. Rather than see the rural as antithetical to homosexuality, Meyer instead makes a comparison between Wood, the quiet “farmer painter” working in the country, and Paul Cadmus in New York City. Both men experienced their queerness very differently than later generations. Meyer writes “Cadmus remembered the term ‘homosexual’ as a structuring absence, an identity that could only be named obliquely and through recourse to euphemism in the 1930s.”[12] One such euphemism was the label “artist” itself. According to Cadmus, “[t]he word homosexual was never used; they just said ‘He’s an artist.’ And artists were forgiven a lot. In fact, it’s much more clever to be an artist than to be an ordinary citizen. People forgive you for the eccentricities that they would never tolerate in a businessman.”[13] This relationship between being an artist and being a homosexual was part of the reason why painters like Benton—and later Jackson Pollock—crafted an identity rooted in traditional masculine (read: heterosexual) values. Both men also had identities tied to non-urban centers: Kansas City, Missouri for Benton and Cody, Wyoming for Pollock.

After World War II cities on both coasts saw a sharp increase in population. As Eric Cervini notes in his book, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America, World War II has been described as a “nationwide coming out experience” that saw swathes of gay men from small towns across the country “confined [in] same-sex environments, where they could finally encounter others like themselves in training, in port, and in battle.”[14] After the war, many of these men settled in larger cities seeking a similar fraternity. It was not quite what the photographer Hal Fischer would later call “the great gay migration” to places like San Francisco and New York but it was enough to bolster communities.[15] It was also enough to conjure suspicion. The Cold War brought with it a very different attitude towards collectivism, especially where queerness was concerned.

To understand the performances that Cage and Cunningham staged at Black Mountain, it is necessary to periodize (queer) collectivism. To do so, we must appreciate the connection between anti-communist sentiments and anti-homosexuality sentiments in the mid-twentieth century. In Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins, his biographical history of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt, Rodger McDaniel writes “the tolerance changed with McCarthy era politics. The previous ‘urban culture of queer conviviality’ ended abruptly. When…members of Congress launched their witch-hunts in the late 1940s, community attitudes regarding homosexuals became poisonous.”[16] On the one hand, the mid-twentieth century saw communities forming around the oppression of queer people. Individual and group identities were formed in opposition to, and rallied together against, homosexuality. On the other hand, queer people, especially queer men, were denied the ability to form communities. Any gatherings could conjure suspicion and places where homosexuals might linger were suddenly targets for raids, arrests, and acts of terrorism.

Sherry writes that “mid-century antihomosexuality took work to develop and promote,” adding that “[a]gitation about queers’ place in culture did much of the work.”[17] Post-WWII agitation echoed and amplified Benton’s claims from years earlier. This time, however, detractors “emphasized a systemic gay presence in the arts—queer people as a social type rather than eccentric individuals in a few fields.”[18] This perceived threat, one that conflated sexual identities with political affiliation, explains why the author Michael Rumaker first heard of Black Mountain as “a hotbed of communists and homosexuals.”[19] Such a reputation did little to discourage those like Rumaker, Cage, and Cunningham from flocking to the college.

Cage and Cunningham first visited Black Mountain College in April 1948. They arrived a pair of relative unknowns—Cage an unknown composer, Cunningham an unknown dancer—amidst a spring rain. Although both of their careers were on the rise, neither had yet achieved the fame or notoriety that would sustain a legacy. They were, to use Cage’s words, still “on the fringe of acceptability.”[20] The visit only lasted a few days, during which time Cunningham danced—a performance the college bulletin described as “a very beautiful and powerful expression of spiritual concentration manifested in movement”—and Cage debuted his recently completed Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.[21] The couple also spoke to the community about their working methods, emphasizing a shared interest in time and explaining, as best they could, their collaborative efforts. As the bulletin put it, Cage and Cunningham “work out the dance and music separately after having agreed upon a rhythmic structure. This permits freedom of invention equally within known limits, and prevents the conventional synchronization of gesture and tone.”[22] This unique method of collaboration also prevented the subjugation of dance to music or vice versa. Cage and Cunningham’s collaborative undertakings avoided the traditional hierarchies between mediums, resulting in a more egalitarian performance.

According to musicologist Rob Haskins, Cage and Cunningham’s initial visit to Black Mountain “occurred at a propitious moment for the school: musical activities had diminished as the result of important faculty departures, and the community had also become interested in cultivating contemporary dance.”[23] Given these gaps, or opportunities, in the community, it is no wonder that Cage and Cunningham were invited back for the summer session. Cage could support the music department and Cunningham could steward dancers.

In his book Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, Martin Duberman describes the summer sessions as “peripheral” in the larger history of the college. During these months the “intense emotional climate” that permeated the campus from September to June dissipated, leaving in its wake a more relaxed, jovial atmosphere.[24] Duberman writes that “[t]o some degree the summer institutes have served, historically, to misrepresent Black Mountain—just as they gave the artists who participated in them a somewhat false image of what the quality of life in the community was like.”[25] This is evident in the memoirs of Carolyn Brown, a long-time member of Cunningham’s dance company. Brown wrote that “[Black Mountain] didn’t seem to be a place of competition or aggression, but a true community of easy ebullient sharing.”[26] To write about the summer sessions, then, is to outline an alternative history of Black Mountain College.

Ultimately, Duberman claims that summer sessions at Black Mountain “constituted an experience contrary to community patterns during the year. The summer people weren’t trying to make a life at Black Mountain; they were trying to put together a concert or an art show.”[27] Although Cage and Cunningham were, to use Duberman’s term, “summer people,” there is something in this classification that is prematurely dismissive of their efforts. What occurred during these summer months was of great importance for both the history of Black Mountain and the broader history of art in the United States, providing a model for future experiments in the arts.

Historian Mary Emma Harris described the summer of 1948 as “magical” and notes that “it marked the end of the dominance of the European artists at the college and the emergence of the young Americans, who were to be the creative leaders in the arts in the United States for the next twenty-five years.”[28] Like Cage and Cunningham, these artists and their work existed “on the fringe of acceptability.” This shift from European to American influence would also play out the performances that Cage and Cunningham staged at Black Mountain. While the early performances by Cage and Cunningham drew from European influences, later productions such as Theater Piece No. 1 referred specifically to an American identity.

In addition to their roles as teachers, Cage and Cunningham utilized their first summer at Black Mountain to explore the work of French composer Erik Satie. Although the couple was first introduced to Satie by Virgil Thomson several years earlier, it was their appointment at Black Mountain that allowed them to unpack this influence more thoroughly. Haskins suggests that Cage’s promotion of Satie at Black Mountain was done, at least in part, to provoke Erwin Bodky, who had recently rejoined the music department. Bodky’s approach to music was much more in-line with the classical Germanic tradition than Cage’s and, as a result, a certain amount of tension existed between them. Although the ferocity of this clash varies from one account to another, it is proof that summer sessions at Black Mountain were not as conflict-free as one might assume.

Cage’s promotion of Satie at Black Mountain was much more than a thorn in Bodky’s side, however. While it is true that Cage sought to undermine, or provide an alternative to, the Germanic musical tradition that defined American music at Black Mountain and beyond, Haskins’s suggestion ignores the importance of Satie for a specifically queer composer such as Cage. Callahan explains that in the twentieth century Satie’s work, most notably the 1918 Socrate, “served as a rallying point for homosexuals.”[29] Knowing Satie, Callahan writes, “was cultural capital, a badge of club status: you had to be hip, eccentric, queer, and/or music-smart enough to get it.”[30] Knowledge of Satie served as a signifier, an artistic means to tell the world about oneself. Exactly what Satie signified, whether one’s interest in the composer indicated a sexual identity or not, remained ambiguous.

In his book Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom, Michael DeAngelis traces the variety of ways that queer men in the United States sought to create and sustain an identity through key figures in twentieth-century popular culture. “To establish one’s place in the world,” DeAngelis writes, “it becomes necessary to recognize oneself in others.”[31] For many queer men in America during the mid-twentieth century, this process of recognition was facilitated by role models such as James Dean. For Cage and Cunningham, the process was facilitated by Satie. Far from being merely a weapon to be levied against the Germanic musical tradition, Cage and Cunningham used Satie as a means for personal exploration and growth. Callahan argues that Cage and Cunningham’s engagement with Satie signified a crucial shift from the early parts of their respective careers, “mark[ing] the couple’s turn…toward newfound personal and creative fulfillment.”[32] It only makes sense, then, that Cage and Cunningham would share their mutual admiration for Satie with the community at Black Mountain.

Like their attraction to Satie’s work, it is important to understand Cage and Cunningham’s other acts of rebellion against traditional forms of music and dance as a queer practice. “Rebellion begins,” DeAngelis writes, “with the epiphanic realization that, because the rules governing acceptable social behavior disavow the existence of the homosexual, they merit and demand violation.”[33] Rebellion here constitutes an act of protest. The avant-garde practices of Cunningham, Cage, and their cohorts at Black Mountain were not simply an affront to the traditions of art but a critique of society. The tone of this critique depended not on denial of the self but rather a quest for coherence and authenticity. As DeAngelis puts it, “[i[n the logic of rebellion is…an intimate, casual connection between a rejection of artifice and the location of an essence that functions as its opposite.”[34] The rejection of artifice is simultaneously a pursuit of truth. “Truth” here does not refer to honesty but to a sense of authenticity, realism, and simplicity. These three concepts occur throughout Cage and Cunningham’s writings and were put to practice in their work.

Cage and Cunningham’s first summer at Black Mountain culminated in a performance that took place on the evening of August 14, 1948: Satie’s 1913 play Le piège de Méduse. In staging this production, Cage and Cunningham joined a long history of performance at Black Mountain. From its earliest years, theater and performance had been a crucial aspect of Black Mountain’s history for both community building and artistic exploration. In 1936, just three years after the school’s opening, Xanti Schawinsky joined the faculty and began work on a “stage studies” program. As Schawinsky explained, the course “[was] not intended as a training for any particular branch of the contemporary theater,” but was instead designed in a way that students could explore and experiment with theater’s bedrock components: “space, form, colour, light, sound, movement, music, time, etc.”[35] Performances that prioritize theatrical phenomena are a hallmark of avant-garde and modern art—from Futurism in the early 20th century to the Happenings in the 1960s. Such a boiled-down approach to performance was also very much in line with Cage and Cunningham’s shared body of work, relying as it did on movement and time.

Ray Miller and Jessica Wood note that, in bringing together of disparate ideas, art forms, and participants, theater aimed “to do in performance what [Josef] Albers advocated for artistic materials; that is, to squeeze together varied artistic media in order to create interesting tensions and associations and discover new ways of appreciating not only theatrical experiences but life experiences as well.”[36] The connection between theatrical experiences and life experiences would become even more prescient as queer people utilized performance as a form of protest in the coming decades. One such example is the “die-ins” staged by members of ACT UP in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

During a die-in protesters would collapse in public spaces, piling atop one another to bring awareness to those who had died from AIDS. In Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings, Clare Croft writes that “[these] human piles did more than insist upon visibility for queer life and death. The activists’ physical proximity — bodies closely touching, piled atop one another — kept the police from arresting individual protesters.”[37] In this way, die-ins represented a kind of performance that was “at once visible and impenetrable to the state.” [38] This insistence on visibility, along with the difficulty die-ins created for the state and authorities, speaks to the “here and now” of Sedgwick’s queer moment.

Le piège de Méduse was a collaborative undertaking that involved major players in the Black Mountain community, among them M.C. Richards, Buckminster Fuller, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and Richard Lippold. Printed on a vibrant pink paper, the program lists the setting—“Paris, the day before yesterday”—as well as a full list of collaborators including cast, crew, and prop designers.[39] The performance featured Fuller in the lead role of Baron Medusa, Elaine de Kooning as his daughter, Frisette, and William Shrauger as Astolfo, Frisette’s fiancé. The roles of Frisette and Astolfo were essentially mute, which meant that Fuller carried most of the show. Rounding out the cast was Isaac Rosenfeld as the Baron’s servant, Alvin Charles Few as the page, and Cunningham as Jonas, a dancing mechanical monkey.

Miller and Wood describe the production as “[an] absurd surrealist one-act comedy written in 1913 with nine scenes and punctuated by a series of short dances.”[40] Naturally, these dances were choreographed by Cunningham and would become an important part of his repertoire in future years. According to Miller and Wood, director Arthur Penn, “employed the free use of improvisation as a way in which to bring together the varied amateur and professional levels of the participant-performers.”[41] Rather than see Penn’s direction as relying on improvisation, the Black Mountain performance of Le piège de Méduse is better understood through the lens of chance. Cage and Cunningham, for their part, eschewed improvisation as too predictable. As artist and choreographer Remy Charlip recalled, throughout their careers “[Cage and Cunningham] felt that in improvisation you always head toward what you know, but with chance you have the possibility of doing something you never could have thought of.”[42] Chance provided the work with a genuine sense of surprise without relying on Surrealist fantasies of unconscious actions. Though unpredictable, chance nevertheless operated on a conscious level.

Miller and Wood write that “[w]hat initially attracted Cage to [the] work was Satie’s openness to what he called ‘furniture’ music; that is, music that is simply a part of the environment in which the performance occurs.”[43] What is important here is the idea of immediate and uncomplicated acceptance. Crucially, it is an acceptance that relinquishes traditional forms of understanding. In Poetics of Relation, the poet philosopher Édouard Glissant wrote:

If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is [a] requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the real scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgements. I have to reduce.[44]

In highlighting the West’s insatiable need for transparency, Glissant also encourages us to imagine and put into practice forms of understanding that welcome the unknowable. It is an acceptance wherein the receiving subject is allowed their secrets, their opacities.

The same idea of immediate, uncomplicated acceptance appears in a 1952 essay by Cunningham titled “Space, Time and Dance.” Cunningham describes dancing as “a visible action of life” and notes that the realest actions are those performed with simplicity.[45] “What the dancer does,” Cunningham writes, “is the most realistic of all possible things, and to pretend that a man standing on a hill could be doing everything except just standing is simply divorce—divorce from life, from the sun coming up and going down, from clouds in front of the sun, from the rain that comes from the clouds and sends you into the drugstore for a cup of coffee, from each thing that succeeds each thing.”[46] Here the simplest movements of the body are elevated. Movement is accepted for exactly what it is: there are no hidden meanings, and no explanations are necessary. This is the truth in Cunningham’s work: an authenticity, born from simplicity, that gives the performance its critical edge.

Although Le piège de Méduse was made up of individual scenes that had no correlation to one another, the performance was still presented to the audience as a single, cohesive whole. Coherence did not come at the price of absurdity. One could go further and argue that the coherence of Le piège de Méduse depended on absurdity. It is through the absurd that the performance was granted a measure of opacity, adding to its effective power.

Since the 1990s, the idea of coherence within queer theory has been a highly contested, even laughable assertion. However, conceptions of queerness and identity in the middle of the twentieth century were very much concerned with the power of the coherent. As DeAngelis writes:

Because the identity politics of the 1990s has posited the notion of a coherent or stable self as a fiction that disavows the necessarily fractured subjectivities that each individual harbors, it is important to stress that the search for ‘coherence’ [in the mid-twentieth century] is posited here as a historically specific phenomenon—one that a subculture, and the individuals who comprise it, attempted to use in resistance to dominant ideological discourses that thwarted the attempts of homosexuals to construct their own identities (be they fractured or stable) and identifications in culture.[47]

Coherence here is not necessarily a state of being but a practice—an essential part of the tool kit that allowed queer people to resist an inhospitable world and forge new paths toward self-fulfillment. Cage and Cunningham’s performance work at Black Mountain serves as a historically specific phenomenon that utilized coherence to resist dominant discourses in the arts and build a community.

Art historian Eva Diaz asserts that in orchestrating Le piège de Méduse, “Cage was alerted to the seemingly paradoxical possibility of staging indeterminate outcomes in performance events, a model of experimentation he continued to hone in his subsequent visits to the college.”[48] In this way Le piège de Méduse serves as an important precursor to Theater Piece No. 1. The 1952 performance piece, however, would prove an even more fertile ground for the staging of indeterminate outcomes.

In Radical Bodies, their cross-coastal study of American dance, Wendy Perron, Ninotchka Bennahum, and Bruce Robertson refer to Theater Piece No. 1 as “a collision of art, sound, poetry, dance, and a barking dog that has often been called the first Happening.”[49] The use of the word “collision” here is especially evocative. One might take a moment to consider how a collision could be construed as an absurd act, despite the vague sense of violence the word implies. A collision may also be a productive act. In her introduction to Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, Betsy Wing explains that Glissant invented a vocabulary “to provoke sudden contact with an unforeseen relation in language, not unlike the collisions that he sees as productive of Relation.”[50] By bringing together a variety of artistic mediums, Theater Piece No. 1 was similarly designed to provoke sudden contact with unforeseen relations.

Just as Glissant’s writing provided a challenge for Wing by using words that resisted simple or convenient translation, so too does performance challenge language. As Diana Taylor notes in her study of performance art, “the word ‘performance’ does not exist in Spanish, Portuguese, or French.”[51] The very act of discussing performance becomes a challenge, one that actively demands the invention of new language. Similarly, in his study of social choreography, Alexander Hewitt writes that “[d]ance…is not simply another object onto which text-based ‘reading’ strategies can be projected; it is a motif, a challenge internal to the operation of textuality.”[52] Dance and performance, the defining aspects of Cunningham and Cage’s intertwined careers, are art forms that refuse to be categorized. This refusal itself is queer, embracing the difficult and expansive rather than the easily assimilated.

Given the difficulties performance art presents, not just to the practice of art history, but language itself, it is no wonder that there are multiple accounts of Theater Piece No. 1 that vary in detail. Frustratingly, and despite some consistencies, each account is slightly different from the last. Miller and Wood, for their part, draw from multiple accounts to expose and appreciate “the fluidity with which this performance was not only performed but remembered over time.”[53] It is not possible to lay out every description of the performance here or to point out the inconsistencies between accounts. Such an undertaking would be tedious and ultimately unhelpful. To write about Theater Piece No. 1, to respect the “fluidity” of the performance, is to acknowledge that aspects of the work will be left out.

Cunningham’s own memory of the performance, committed to paper in the spring of 1982, is short, sweet, and couched in a language that the artist would return to throughout his career:

David Tudor played the piano, M.C. Richards and Charles Olson read poetry, Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings were on the ceiling. Rauschenberg himself played records, and Cage talked. I danced. The piece was forty-five minutes long and, as I remember, each of us had two segments of time within the forty-five to complete our activity. The audience was seated in the middle of the playing area, facing each other, the chairs were arranged on diagonals, and the spectators unable to see directly everything that was happening. There was a dog which chased me around the space as I danced. Nothing was intended to be other than it was, a complexity of events that the spectators could deal with as each chose.[54]

Choice is an important aspect of Cunningham’s writings: the ability of the audience to choose, the ability of the artist to choose, and perhaps most importantly, the ability of the medium itself to choose. In “Space, Time and Dance,” Cunningham wrote that utilizing a shared time-structure with Cage created a performance where “dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music.”[55] Agency abounds—it is freeing. This language closely resembles the description of Cage and Cunningham’s working methods in the Black Mountain College bulletin from 1948. Such a process was made possible by Cage and Cunningham’s love and mutual respect for one another.

There is a moment, however brief, where Cunningham acknowledges the fallibility, or fluidity, of his account. The phrase “as I remember” is a way out, an escape route built into the recollection allowing Cunningham a measure of freedom from being an authority on the subject. Cunningham wrote this description some thirty years after Theater Piece No. 1 took place. Perhaps the brevity of his undetailed account is nothing more than an unavoidable side-effect of time passed. Or perhaps the ambiguity in Cunningham’s description is instead a deliberate simplicity—a textual extension and interpretation of the event where “nothing was intended to be other than it was.” That is to say, perhaps Cunningham’s lack of detail is a means to avoid inflating the event in a way that would betray its original spirit.

In Cunningham’s account each of the participants’ contributions are rendered, or remembered, casually. While it does list the key players—Richards, Olson, Rauschenberg, and Cage—very little detail is given about their activities during the event. Just consider Cunningham’s recollection of his own part in the performance, delivered in a devastating two syllables: “I danced.” That Cunningham danced for Theater Piece No. 1 is no surprise—it would have been surprising if Cunningham had not danced. Exactly what this dance looked like, or how the audience responded to it, is lost to history. What is not lost is the presence of the dog. In fact, the dog that “chased [Cunningham] around the space as [he] danced” is mentioned in virtually every account of Theater Piece No. 1. The unpredictable nature of the dog’s involvement is an absurdity that speaks to the event as a whole: a combination of the everyday, the unusual, and the extraordinary that Cunningham refers to as “a complexity.”

Another interesting, and frustrating, aspect of Cunningham’s description of Theater Piece No. 1 is the phrase “Cage talked.” Most sources agree that Cage delivered a lecture by Meister Eckhart. Haskins adds that during the performance Cage “recited the Bill of Rights [and] the Declaration of Independence.”[56] This detail is interesting when we consider Theater Piece No. 1 alongside Le piège de Méduse, viewing the former as both a uniquely queer and uniquely American performance. Consider that the setting for Satie’s play was described as “Paris, the day before yesterday.” Le piège de Méduse, in other words, is a moment passed—an absurd recollection. Theater Piece No. 1, by contrast, is an event firmly set in the present. This notion of a performance inextricably set within the present brings us back to Sedgwick’s conception of a queer moment, while simultaneously referring to American nationhood.

Hewitt, exploring the status of nationhood in American modern dance, quotes the philosopher Novalis in saying “[a]ll of representation is based on making a present…Thus the assumption—Perpetual Peace is already here—God is among us—America is here or nowhere—the Golden Age is upon us—we are magicians—we are moral and so on.”[57] Hewitt notes that the phrase “America is here or nowhere,” itself a quote from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, signifies American nationhood as distinct from other national identities. What we have here is “a perpetually present state, an ideology of perpetual presence.”[58] This language echoes the understanding, proposed by Barber and Clark in the introduction to this essay, of a queer moment as “a persistent present.”

In the movement from Le piège de Méduse to Theater Piece No. 1, we see a shift from “Paris, the day before yesterday” to America, here and now. While Cage and Cunningham leaned on Satie for Le piège de Méduse, Theater Piece No. 1 was an original work. One could see this as a manifestation of the couple’s increased confidence in the 1950s. Although Cage is typically credited with the orchestration of Theater Piece No. 1, the collaborative nature of the piece suggests instead that the performance be considered polyvocal. Put differently, what is important about Theater Piece No. 1 is not the influence of a single “author,” but the relationship between artists. To see a work as polyvoval is to place an emphasis on community.

Its spontaneity, its complicated nature, and its ability to bring together disparate artists in a collaboration based on mutual respect and admiration makes Theater Piece No. 1 a prime example of what Sedgwick referred to as “the irreducible multilayeredness and multiphasedness” of queer life and survival.[59] Against a backdrop of oppression, moments like Theater Piece No. 1 insisted on both the visibility and legitimacy of queerness. Such a powerful and undeniable expression of community, one that refused all forms of categorization, would influence performance art for years to come. Beyond this, Theater Piece No. 1 allows us to consider how our actions today may contribute to a queer moment that is similarly irrepressible and undeniable, even if it is gone tomorrow.

[1] Eve K. Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), xii.

[2] Stephen M. Barber and David L. Clark, eds., Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory (New York: Routledge, 2002), 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sedgwick, Tendencies, xii.

[5] Michael S. Sherry, Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 1.

[6] Daniel M. Callahan, “The Gay Divorce of Music and Dance: Choreomusicality and the Early Works of Cage-Cunningham,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 71, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 441.

[7] Ibid., 444.

[8] Richard Lippold quoted by Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 156.

[9] Merce Cunningham quoted by David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, ed. Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997), 15.

[10] Kevin McKenna and Michael Aguirre, “A Brief History of LGBTQ Activism in Seattle – Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,” University of Washington, last modified 2016,

[11] Thomas Hart Benton, quoted in Henry McBride, “Mr. Benton Will Leave Us Flat – Is Sick of New York and Explains Why,” New York Sun, April 12, 1935.

[12] Richard Meyer, “Grant Wood Goes Gay” in Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Edited by Barbara Haskell (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018), 83.

[13] Richard Goldstein, “Culturati: Through the Peephole,” Village Voice, May 11, 1999, 19,

[14]Eric Cervini, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), 12.

[15] Hal Fischer, “At the Center of the Gay Universe” in Hal Fischer: The Gay Seventies, ed. Griff Williams and Troy Peters (Montreal: Gallery 16 Editions, 2019), 107.

[16] Rodger E. McDaniel, Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: the suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt (Cody, WY: WordsWorth, 2013), 155.

[17] Sherry, Gay Artists in Modern American Culture, 29.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Michael Rumaker, Black Mountain Days (Asheville, NC: Black Mountain Press, 2003), Kindle edition, 3.

[20] John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Love, Icebox: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham, ed. Laura Kuhn (Red Hook, NY: The John Cage Trust, 2019), 50.

[21] Black Mountain College Bulletin, Vol. VI, No. 4 by Jimmie Tite, May 1948, 61.12.6 (Sub Series), BMCRP, Series VI, Box 75, Folder 29, Black Mountain College Research Project, North Carolina Museum of Art, Western Regional Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Rob Haskins, John Cage (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2012), 52.

[24] Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1973), 291.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 16.

[27] Duberman, Black Mountain, 292.

[28] Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College, 146.

[29] Callahan, Gay Divorce, 488.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Michael DeAngelis, Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 39.

[32] Callahan, Gay Divorce, 488.

[33] DeAngelis, Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom, 38.

[34] Ibid.

[35] RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1988), 121.

[36] Ray Miller and Jessica Wood, “Merce Cunningham and Black Mountain: No Fixed Points,” Appalachian Journal 44/45, no. 3-4 (2017): 508,

[37] Ibid.

[38] Clare Croft, ed., Queer Dance: Meanings & Makings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 14.

[39] Program for “The Ruse of Medusa: a lyric comedy in one act” by Erik Satie at Black Mountain College, 14 August, 1948, 506.2, box 28, publications, college: Programs, Drama, Black Mountain Collection Records, Western Regional Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.

[40] Miller and Wood, Merce Cunningham and Black Mountain, 504.

[41] Ibid.

[42] “A Symposium with Earle Brown, Remy Charlip, Marianne Preger Simon, David Vaughan: The Forming of an Esthetic: Merce Cunningham and John Cage (1985),” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Chicago: a cappella books, 1992), 53.

[43] Miller and Wood, Merce Cunningham and Black Mountain, 505.

[44] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-90.

[45] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance (1952),” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Chicago: a cappella books, 1992), 39.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Michael DeAngelis, Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom, 40.

[48] Eva Diaz, “Summer Session 1948,” in Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957, ed. Helen Molesworth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 221.

[49] Wendy Perron, Ninotchka Bennahum, and Bruce Robertson, “Radical Bodies: An Overview,” in Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955-1972(Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017), 34.

[50] Glissant, Poetics of Relation, xiii.

[51] Diana Taylor, Performance, trans. Abigail Levine (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 7.

[52] Andrew Hewitt, Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 10.

[53] Miller and Wood, Merce Cunningham and Black Mountain, 507.

[54] Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process between Music and Dance,” Triquarterly 54 (Spring 1982): 176-77.

[55] Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance (1952),” 39.

[56] Haskins, John Cage, 67

[57] Hewitt, Social Choreography, 117.

[58] Ibid., 122.

[59] Sedgwick, Tendencies, 3.

Born in southwest Wyoming, Chase Pendleton is a writer with a degree in art history from the University of California, Berkeley. Her specialties include queer history, transgender studies, feminism, and photography. Chase now lives in Philadelphia where she continues to write about history, art, and culture.

Cite this article

Pendleton, Chase J. “A Queer Moment at Black Mountain College.” Journal of Black Mountain College Studies 14 (2023).