Choreographer, pianist to celebrate avant-garde composer John Cage

SUNY Oswego dance instructor Cheryl Wilkins-Mitchell will unveil original choreography and Robert Auler will play a specially prepared piano on Saturday, Oct. 27, in a 100th birthday salute to the late John Cage, a provocative and inventive rebel who transformed modern music.

The performance, titled “John Cage: ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ Choreographed,” will take place at 7:30 p.m. [CORRECTED START TIME] in Tyler Hall’s Waterman Theatre on campus.

Robert Auler and Robert Senko with prepared pianoWilkins-Mitchell, a choreographer and former professional dancer, has been working with nine dancers—five of them from the college—to interpret the 16 sonatas and four interludes Cage produced in 1946 to 1948. Also inspiring her is Cage’s partner and iconoclastic choreographer the late Merce Cunningham.

“I’ve just been absorbing his (Cage’s) music since mid-July and listening over and over again,” Wilkins-Mitchell said. “It’s really made me appreciate his work. It’s not as quirky as it originally sounded. I also looked at his and Merce Cunningham’s 50-year collaboration, and I watched videos and DVDs and documentaries about that collaboration.”

While the two artists’ novel ideas encouraged her to do some risk-taking, Wilkins-Mitchell said her dancers’ work for “Sonatas and Interludes” will take an independent course.

Cage and Cunningham “thought music and dance should be played and choreographed separately,” Wilkins-Mitchell said. “But that was too outside the box for me. I believe in the African thought that music and movement is a marriage, and once I reached that conclusion, I began to go along those lines and do it my way—then the choreographic ideas began to take shape.”

Carpentry and math

Meanwhile, Auler has joined the college’s piano technician, Robert Senko, to make a prepared piano in the Cage style. That entailed trips to a hardware store, as well as following Cage’s mathematically precise instructions for turning a grand piano into a percussive instrument.

With wedges, screws and guitar picks altering the piano’s strings, Auler, a world-traveled concert pianist, will perform in the midst of the dancers on Waterman’s stage, integrating Cage’s music into the fabric of the dance.

“You could almost argue that it’s a collaboration of piano technology and choreography,” Auler said. “This was an equal collaboration when Cage and Merce Cunningham came together.”

Cage (1912-1992) was known for his radical innovations in music theory and composition, including “4’33”,” where a pianist sits at a piano and doesn’t play—the concert is in the ambient sound during those four minutes and 33 seconds. Cunningham (1919-2009) had a deep impact on avant-garde dance, and staged more than 50 works with Cage over half a century.

“John Cage is kind of the philosopher-king of 20th century composers,” Auler said. “He was one of the people who asked really difficult questions: What is music? What is sound? What is art?”

Tickets for “‘Sonatas and Interludes’ Choreographed” are available for $8 ($6 for seniors ages 60 and over, youths ages 17 and under and SUNY Oswego faculty and staff; $5 for SUNY Oswego students) at any SUNY Oswego box office, online at or by calling 312-2141.

PHOTO CAPTION: Prepared piano—Robert Auler, left, SUNY Oswego associate professor of music, and Robert Senko, the college’s piano technician, double-check the placement of muting wedges and tone-changing screws as they prepare a grand piano in the style of the late John Cage, an iconoclastic composer hailed for his influence on modern musical composition. Auler, a concert pianist, will play the percussive-sounding piano at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, on the Waterman Theatre stage in a collaboration with SUNY Oswego dance instructor and choreographer Cheryl Wilkins-Mitchell titled “John Cage: ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ Choreographed.”

(Posted: Oct 15, 2012)

Tags: robert auler, music, dance, cheryl wilkins-mitchell