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Merce Cunningham

American Dancer and Choreographer

Born: April 16, 1919 - Centralia, Washington, U.S.
Died: July 26, 2009 - New York, New York
"Dancing is a spiritual exercise in a physical form"
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"If a dancer dances - Which is not the same as having theories about Dancing Or Wishing To Dance Or Trying To Dance Or Remembering In His Body Someone Else's Dance - But If The Dancer Dances, Everything Is There. . . Our Ecstasy In Dance Comes From The Possible Gift Of Freedom, The Exhilarating Moment That This Exposing Of The Bare Energy Can Give Us. What Is Meant Is Not License, But Freedom..."
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"The secret of flight is this -- you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws."
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"I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling. And I ... I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more...never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then."
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"There is a beauty in the world, though it's harsher than we expect it to be."
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Summary of Merce Cunningham

One of the most innovative artists of the 20th century, Merce Cunningham employed a range of tactics to create his sometimes difficult dance productions that confounded and delighted viewers. Often working with his life partner, avant-garde composer John Cage, Cunningham banished dance's traditional reliance on emotive narrative and instead infused it with a sense of the everyday and ordinary. Embracing chance and allowing dancers more autonomy and choice, Cunningham's dances are grounded in the random and unexpected but can also reveal deep meditations on human relationships and how we exist in the world at large.

Working on the edges of Happenings, Fluxus, and Neo-Dada, Cunningham's collaborative practice led him to work with some of the most innovative musicians, including Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, and LaMont Young, as well as artists such as Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Morris. Inhabiting this intermedia landscape for so many decades, Cunningham's influence can be felt in many corners of the art world.


  • Mostly defying categories, Cunningham was a central participant in the group of Neo-Dadaist artists that included John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Taking cues from lt;span class="marked_text chart-tooltip-target-top tooltip_id-duchamp_marcel">Marcel Duchamp, these artists used found objects to critique high and traditional notions of art and often parodied the self-expression of the lt;span class="marked_text chart-tooltip-target-top tooltip_id-abstract_expressionism">Abstract Expressionists. Additionally, Cunningham incorporated the performative aspects of Happenings and Fluxus to push the boundaries of dance.
  • Perhaps inspired by John Cage, Cunningham largely relied on chance to choreograph his dances. Using playing cards, tossing coins, or sometimes consulting the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese text used for divination, Cunningham would order and arrange movements, sometimes employing ordinary actions, into a dance. According to Cunningham, chance freed his imagination and let him work outside of cultural clichés.
  • At heart, Cunningham's practice was collaborative. Often he called on musicians and contemporary artists to create scores, set designs, and costumes for his dances. Drawing on Cunningham's interest in chance, the choreographer, musician, and artist would work separately with only the barest structure known to each, and only at the end would the full scope of the production come into focus.
  • Over the decades, Cunningham employed new technologies and media into his dances, including electronic music, video, motion sensors, and computer programs. In doing so, he explored and expanded the scope of what dance was capable of doing and reimagined the human body in the process.

Biography of Merce Cunningham

Louis Stevenson's photo of Merce Cunningham Dance Company's <i>Springweather and People</i> (1955). Pictured: Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown.

Dancer Valda Setterfield once said: "Merce was like the sun. He had the most astonishing power – and if you got too close, or stayed a little too long, well, you might get burned." But this "rail-thin, zen-like powerhouse" was also a titan of dance who changed choreography forever.

Important Art by Merce Cunningham

Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951)

Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three is an essential piece in Cunningham's career, as it was the first time Cunningham employed the use of chance operations in choreographing the production. The dance explores the nine permanent emotions of Indian aesthetics: anger, humour, sorrow, the heroic, the odious, the wondrous, fear, the erotic, and tranquility. Chance dictated the order of appearance of the emotions as well as the order of discrete moves performed by the dancers. Seven of the nine emotions are represented in solos where the body of the dancer temporarily becomes an expressive medium. The last two emotions, however, the erotic and tranquility, are represented by a duet and a quartet, respectively.

John Cage composed the score Sixteen Dances for piano and a small orchestra to accompany, and as was often the case, the two worked independently. For each pair of dances, the musicians played eight sounds and then changed the sounds for the next pair, with the effect being that the music sounded totally different at the end of the dance from the way it began. The interdisciplinary nature of the production juxtaposes chance, movement, and sound explorations to create a "chance ballet."

Variations V (1965)

Variations V embodies the ultimate intermedia collaborative artwork. The collaboration between Cunningham and various artists mixes dance, lighting installations, video, and sound. In many senses, Variations V moves beyond dance into a multimedia spectacle. The backdrop of the stage featured a collaged film projection by Stan VanDerBeek and overlaid TV distortions by Fluxus artist Nam June Paik. These visual aspects alone had the power to challenge the viewer's sense of perception. To stimulate the senses even further, as dancers neared one of the 12 poles positioned on the stage, the dancer would trigger a sound that would then be manipulated by the musicians John Cage and David Tudor in the 1965 production. Cunningham envisioned a non-narrative dance that establishes a relation between the dancers and their visual and sonic environment. The corporeal movements of the dancers, instead of reflecting and illustrating a pre-established narrative, activate the composition that the spectators hear.

Cunningham subtly inserted Duchampian references into Variations V through what he calls "non-dance" activities. At various points, Cunningham potted a plant, Dancer Carolyn Brown smashed the pot, while another dancer wrapped a towel around her hair. Both the pot and the towel were connected to microphones and captured the sounds made by these everyday activities. Professor and author Mark Franko links Cunningham's interest in these everyday movements to the Duchampian readymade by arguing "that bodies in ordinary motion are dance readymades." While paying homage to Marcel Duchamp, the Dada-ist instagator of so much later Conceptual art, Cunningham also pioneers a path incorporating video and sound to create a multisensory experience.

Story (1963)

In Story, Cunningham collaborated with Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who had studied with John Cage and who was married to Fluxus artist Yoko Ono. Cunningham employed chance to arrange the eighteen sections composed of a series of solos, duos, and trios, but importantly his collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg brought an innovative and unorthodox use of costumes and sets to the production. While Cunningham and Rauschenberg had collaborated in the past, in Story, Cunningham wanted to further break down the connections between art and life. In designing the sets, Rauschenberg used found objects in the local theater where the piece was performed. According to the Rauschenberg Foundation, "When he could not locate sufficient supplies, Rauschenberg improvised 'living sets.' In Venice, for example, he had an Italian stagehand sweep the stage throughout the performance and in four performances at London's Phoenix Theater, Rauschenberg sat onstage and painted a picture, titled Story." Similarly, the costumes consisted of basic leotards for the male and female dancers that would be supplemented with second-hand clothes and found items.

The open-form of the choreography, the changing order of the dances, and the sustained sound composition by Ichiyanagi created an open-ended story that could be retold and interpreted in countless ways. Rauschenberg's interest in assemblage sculpture further underscored Cunningham's interest in chance and the incorporation of everyday life into dance.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Merce Cunningham
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
  • No image available
    Mark Morris
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    Beth Gill
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    Robert Wilson
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Merce Cunningham

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Content compiled and written by Tally de Orellana

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Merce Cunningham Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tally de Orellana
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 25 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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