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Merce Cunningham - Biography and Legacy

American Dancer and Choreographer

Born: April 16, 1919 - Centralia, Washington, U.S.
Died: July 26, 2009 - New York, New York

Biography of Merce Cunningham


Merce Cunningham, born Mercier Philip Cunningham in Centralia, a small town in the state of Washington, was the son of a lawyer Clifford D. Cunningham and Mayme Joach Cunningham. While Merce was still a baby, C. D. Cunningham prosecuted members of the radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, for their participation in the Centralia Massacre (an incident between two groups - veterans and industrial workers - that turned violent).

Merce described his mother Mayme Joach Cunningham as endowed with "an enormous energy and quite independent spirit," and she would often travel the world, leaving her sons to the care of her husband. Both his older and younger brothers followed their father's steps in the legal profession, one becoming a lawyer and, the other, a judge. Merce, on the other hand, manifested a precocious interest towards dance from a very young age. In spite of being born into a family with no particular awareness of the arts, Merce's family did not stop him from pursuing his creative career. In his own words, "My father said, 'If you want to do it, fine. All you have to do is work at it.'" Growing up in Centralia, he was nurtured by its small community where he first shone at the local level and where his talent was increasingly celebrated.

Early training and work

Cunningham began studying dance at the age of 12, taking tap dance classes from a local teacher, Mrs. Maude Barrett. Energetic and spiritual, Barrett transmitted to young Cunningham a life changing passion for dance. Merce recalled, "I had a marvelous tap-dancing teacher when I was in high school. She had an extraordinary sense of rhythm and a brilliant performing energy." After high school, from 1937 to 1939, he attended the Cornish School of Fine and Applied Arts in Seattle, where he would be exposed to the wide spectrum of the arts: from drama to dance and music.

Cunningham's original intention was to study acting, but he soon found drama overly restraining. Dance, however, provided him with a certain flare of ambiguity, an outlet for endless exploration of space and movement. Cunningham was an enthusiastic and relentless pupil, eager to explore the limits of dance. In the summer of 1939, following one of his teachers, Cunningham frequented Mills College in Oakland, California, where he met the most outstanding modern dancers of the century including Charles Wideman, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and Martha Graham. Later in December of that same year, he met the young composer John Cage, who had been hired at the Cornish School of Fine Art as the accompanist for the dance department and who would eventually become his life-long partner.

In spite of the fact that Cunningham's father was initially hesitant to support his son's dancing career, Merce moved to New York City the following September to work in Martha Graham's dance company on Broadway. He danced as a soloist for six years, and following his stubborn and relentless creative drive, he also started performing his own choreographed pieces. Most importantly, while working with the Martha Graham Company, he presented his first New York solo concert with composer John Cage in April 1944. Not only did the two become lovers, but they collaborated on multiple productions and developed and promoted new forms of Performance art. Cunningham and Cage fostered a collaborative, multidisciplinary, and performative art that denied existing traditions and structures and promoted an alternative creative New York arts scene that would be the foundation for the first forays into what would come to be known as postmodernism.

Mature Period

Initially, Cage's music offered to Cunningham a framework in which to work, but after 1950, they both began exploring the notion of chance, which they increasingly incorporated into their work. Not only would they use various chance methods to determine notes and dance moves, but sometimes they would only combine the final choreography and music on the day of the actual performance, forcing the dancers to improvise their movement. Cunningham explained: "Movement has its own life...it doesn't need something else with it. When John and I first thought of separating the dance and the music, it was very difficult, because people had this idea about the music supporting the dance rhythmically. I can remember so clearly - in one piece I had made some kind of very big movement, and there was no sound at all, but right after it came this incredible sound on the prepared piano, and I understood that these two separate things could make something that could not have happened any other way."


Further developing this intense artistic and emotional partnership, both Cunningham and Cage started teaching at the Black Mountain College, an alternative liberal arts school in North Carolina in 1952. There, they met painter Robert Rauschenberg, then a student at Black Mountain, who would go on to design the costumes, lights, and sets for the productions of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which he formed in 1953.

Both Cage and Cunningham developed an interest in the work of Antonin Artaud, the groundbreaking French poet and dramatist, which encouraged them to push their collaboration towards the ideas of theater. Theater didn't need to be based on the script, as Cage explained, "It needn't determine the other actions, that sounds, that activities, and so forth, could all be free rather than tied together; so that rather than the dance expressing the music or the music expressing the dance, that the two could go together independently, neither one controlling the other."

Cage's and Cunningham's experimental collaborations perplexed most audiences, but soon their reputations began to grow. The poet David Wagoner wrote in 1966, after seing a performance at the Seattle Center Playhouse, "It soon became apparent, in the midst of dizzying light effects and the raucous static of electronic devices, why few people remain neutral in their feeling for this avant-garde group ... They are not only breaking fresh ground, but breaking fresh eardrums."

Robert Rauschenberg's <i>Interscape Mirage (2000)</i> - Stage set designed for Merce Cunningham's <i>Interscape</i>. Cunningham, along with Cage and Rauschenberg, pioneered a queer visual vocabulary in the middle of the 20<sup>th</sup> century.

Cunningham had the ability to transform normal actions into the unexpected. Just as his contemporaries Cage and Rauschenberg were doing, he would use facets of the everyday to transform them into unique pieces. In many of his choreographies, he interspersed pedestrian movements within more traditional ballet techniques. Such techniques paralleled much of Allan Kaprow's "happenings" as well as the more internationally dispersed Fluxus performances. Cunningham's sense of individuality and humanness separated his work from more orthodox approaches to dance and has been recognized by a number of critics as propelling what has been called the Queer Art movement. His collaborative practice as well as his ability "to transform normativity into the unexpected," in critic Zachary Small's words, are tenets of Queer Art practice. In describing the intermedia of performance, John Cage said, "It's not starting from an idea. Not starting even from the expression of the same feeling nor an exposition of the same idea but rather simply being together in the same place at the same time and leaving space around each art so that neither art has to glue itself to a particular." The abolition of hierarchies and the non-imposition of reason or norms are also central to Cunningham's dances and foster a queer aesthetic.

Late period and death

Cunningham was passionate about technological advancements. Throughout his entire career, he explored new technologies which he would directly apply to his choreographies. Having been interested in film and video throughout the 1970s, in 1989 Cunningham began experimenting with a computer choreography software program called Life Forms to choreograph his productions. His interest in new techniques led him to create multimedia settings and decors.

The Legacy of Merce Cunningham

<i>Untitled (Cunningham Dancers)</i> is a 1961 photograph by artist Robert Rauschenberg

It is difficult to frame Cunningham's legacy in specific terms due to the nature of his work and the fact that he developed his art through numerous collaborations. He never left a tangible piece to exhibit within a specific space but rather a new vision of the potential of dance and movement. "You don't have this thing that you can hang on a wall or put on your desk. It's not a solid object. You don't have a script," explained art historian Sally Sommer; "You are passing on this ephemeral and fragile thing that is an idea that lives only at the moment that it is performed and then it's gone. It's like you're passing on air."

Cunningham upset the basic notion of dance as the receptacle of a narrative based on drama and emotion and moved dance towards an abstract practice. This transformation of dance situates him within the company of the 20th century's most influential artists who set the way for postmodernism, from choreographers Mark Morris, Beth Gill, and Twyla Tharp to avant-garde stage directors such as Robert Wilson and performance artists like Laurie Anderson.

Cunningham's collaborative method, developed after several years of sharing programs and shaping dance and music pieces with John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, inspired countless other collaborations, including Available Light (1983), a performance that united composer John Adams, architect Frank Gehry, and choreographer Lucinda Childs.

Productive thinker and restless choreographer, Cunningham worked until his death in 2009 at age 90. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company did not die with the passing of its founder. Its groundbreaking fundamentals, most notably the precept that movement should reflect and comment on the music rather than accompany it, continues to remain a focal point. The company continued touring, unveiling Cunningham's broad repertory and taking it to cities worldwide. Bringing the desire to open up Cunningham's work to the wider public, in 2008, the company asked dancer Nancy Dalva to produce a web series entitled Mondays with Merce, featuring numerous interviews as well as performances and behind-the-scene shots.

Cunningham's works have since then been danced by numerous companies, including the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, and France's Theatre du Silence. Among his many honors are the British awards, Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, Kennedy Center Honors, National Medal of Arts, Italy's Porselli Prize, and New York City's Handel Medallion.

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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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