At 8:30 tonight John Cage mounted a stepladder and until 10:30 he talked about the relation of music to Zen Buddhism while a movie was shown, dogs ran across the stage barking,12 persons danced without any previous rehearsal, a prepared piano was played, whistles blew, babies screamed, Edith Piaf records were played double speed on a turn of the century machine.

– Francine du Plessix Gray (diary entry from August, 1952)

Just as the visual arts were central to the educational culture of Black Mountain College, performance permeated the campus and created fertile conditions for interdisciplinary experiments by students and faculty alike. Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn and her husband Pete transitioned from students to faculty and taught an extraordinary class called the Light Sound Movement Workshop, dedicated to collaborative, interdisciplinary, multimedia performance. M.C. Richards’ crucial work translating texts from French to English made the 1948 performance of Erik Satie’s The Ruse of the Medusa possible. Similarly, her translation of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre and Its Double opened up conversations that led to new ideas in performance, most famously 1952’s Theater Piece No. 1, a non-narrative “Happening” conceived by John Cage and David Tudor and including M.C. Richards, Robert Rauschenberg, and others.

Among the many gifted dancers at the college were Elizabeth Jennerjahn, Katherine Litz, and founding members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Carolyn Brown, Marianne Preger-Simon, Joanne Melsher, and Viola Farber. Expanding upon the teaching and learning practices of Black Mountain College and the pervasive atmosphere of experimentation, we see how women contributed to and shaped the path of the young college, fostering a culture of constant innovation which carried forward into their lives in the arts and beyond.

Notable artworks and ephemera

Exhibited in the Spring 2020 exhibition Question Everything! The Women of Black Mountain College.

Andy Oates (b.1926-d.2012), Katherine Litz wearing her costume for “Fire in the Snow,” ca. 1951. Vintage gelatin print. Collection of Black Mountain  College Museum + Arts Center. Gift of Andy Oates.

Ati Gropius Forberg Johansen (Student 1943-1946) (b.1926-d.2014), Untitled (Guitar), 1945. Oil on cardboard. Collection of Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.

Sue Spayth Riley (Student 1938-1940), Dance class at the Blue Ridge Assembly, ca. 1933. Gelatin silver prints. Western  Regional Archives, Black Mountain College Project Collection.

W.P. “Pete” Jennerjahn, Elizabeth Jennerjahn dancing at Black Mountain College, n.d. Archival pigment print from a digital scan. Collection of Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.