Painting with Dance

Members of NCSU Dance Company survey their execution of "John Cage's STEPS: A Composition For A Painting" for a Master Class in Carmichael Gym on Wednesday, Sept. 19. The Master Class Series, a program through the NC State Dance Program, offers free dance instruction to NC State students, staff, and faculty members at any expereience level.

One after another, performers stepped into pans of ink and moved along the 30 foot long sheet of paper which stretched out on the floor. Fluid, yet haunting, the footprints left behind slowly multiplied before being preserved under a trail of gray paint which unified their tangled paths. In this event held at NC State last Wednesday, Sept. 20, a composition of a painting known as STEPS was performed by the NCSU Dance Company and Justin Tornow, the director of the COMPANY dance company from Durham.

STEPS was originally created in 1989 by John Cage, an American composer and writer, as a collaboration with Ray Kass, the director of The Mountain Lake Workshop in Christiansburg, Virginia. Cage and Kass spoke back and forth over the phone to formulate a concept and plan for the piece. Inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s Automobile Tire Print, which he actually drove the car for, Cage desired to compose a piece depicting the journey of a solitary figure walking through life. Once the idea had been solidified, Kass built the trough and brush necessary to create the tracing path seen along the footsteps. The performance consisted of Cage placing his feet in two pans of black ink and walking backwards over rag paper to create a painting.  A broad brush, which was constructed by Kass, traced Cage’s footprints and left behind a path which they appeared to follow.

““Permission granted, but not to do anything,’ is what John always said, as he was the foundation figure of avant-garde experimental art, because when he comes through the period of happening and fluxes, sometimes people were making a complete joke of him,” Kass said.

Since then, the performance has been recreated all over the world with a wide array of variations with each iteration of the project, such as the number of people involved in the piece, whether or not they wore shoes or the presence of accompanying music while they worked. During the performance hosted by NC State, two pieces were composed, the first by the NCSU Dance Company and the second with Justin Tornow. Although the two performances were distinctly different from Cage’s original, the spirits of his first composition were thoroughly present.

For the first performance, the dancers went one at a time, dipping their feet in the two ink pans on either side of the paper that was laid out, while moving across it. This was all done under the instruction of Kass, who had two dancers pull the original brush over the footprints to create the path once all of the dancers had made their additions. After the dance company’s piece was completed, Tornow performed her own rendition, moving backwards across the paper and creating a piece which had only one path of footprints covered by the ink path.

“John Cage has been a huge influence to me as a dancer, so to be able to perform this is amazing,” Tornow said. “The only instruction they gave me was just to walk backwards.” 

Both performances lasted approximately 30 minutes and ultimately resulted in two new pieces of art which invoked the spirit of Cage's original work. The dance team and Tornow then each signed their respective paintings and titled them.

Throughout its existence, Kass and Cage’s original collaboration yielded an exceptionally profound performance and creation which has been duplicated and reinterpreted for decades since its creation. NC State has been fortunate enough to have our own performance led by one of the men behind the origin of STEPS, and the result was a sublimely breathtaking rendition done in the spirit of the original creation.