Merce Cunningham was an American choreographer known for his avant-garde approach to composition and the music-dance relationship. He let chance dictate many of his choreographic decisions and believed the music should be created separately from the movement.
Mercier Philip Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington. As a preteen, he took dance classes at a local studio. In 1937, he enrolled at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where former Graham dancer Bonnie Bird was his teacher. When she hired a young musician named John Cage as her chief accompanist, Cunningham found his aesthetic soulmate. He and Cage would go on to become artistic partners and, later, romantic ones, as well.
In 1939, at Bennington School of the Dance’s first West Coast session, Martha Graham offered Cunningham a spot in her company. During his six years dancing with her—as only the second man in the troupe’s history—Graham sent him to the School of American Ballet to supplement his training.
When Cage arrived in NYC three years later, he encouraged Cunningham to choreograph. The two began to develop the then-radical idea that dance and music could be created separately but performed together. In 1944, Cunningham presented his first evening of six solos to Cage’s music. The work included elements of both Graham (the use of the back) and ballet (busy legs and feet against a steely torso) in his work.
In 1953, Cunningham gathered four other dancers and formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Chance became an integral part of his work. He frequently used cards, dice and the I Ching (an ancient Chinese text, also known as The Book of Changes) to decide compositional elements like body part, direction and number of dancers. The dancers themselves rarely knew what the costumes, decor and music would be until dress rehearsal or opening night. Audiences and critics considered his work revolutionary, because he offered movement without a narrative or even a discernible cause-and-effect relationship.
As his career progressed, Cunningham continued to experiment, first with film and later with computer software to compose his dances. Despite limited mobility in his later years, he taught class and choreographed until his death—which occurred just three months after the premiere of his final work, Nearly Ninety.
Cunningham and dancer Carolyn Brownin Suite for Five. Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Few knew Cunningham taught himself Russian. When he invited Baryshnikov to perform a duet with him in 1999, he wrote him a letter in perfect Cyrillic script.
Cunningham is known for four primary influences: the separation of music and dance, the use of chance, computer software and film/video. Often, he would combine and scramble older and new sections of his works for “Events”: A solo from 1982 might be paired with a duet from 1997, performed with scenic design from 1953 and in new costumes.
Torse (1976) For this work, named for its frequent use of the torso, Cunningham used the numbers 1 through 64 to create a spatial plan (a square 8 by 8 feet) and phrasework.
CRWDSPCR (1993) Created with DanceForms software, a computer program that allowed him to devise movement. Nonstop, frenetic activity recalls Grand Central Terminal at rush hour.
BIPED (1999) Cunningham transposed 70 phrases to computer-generated images of dancing bodies that appeared alongside the dancers.
Combining a pronounced use of the legs from ballet with modern’s strong emphasis on the torso, Cunningham named five positions of the back: upright, curve, arch, twist, tilt. His codified, repetitive warm-up exercises and quick direction changes help develop coordination, strength and flexibility, particularly in the spine.
The Legacy Lives On
Cunningham’s work exists in the repertory of many companies, including the Paris Opéra Ballet, Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Notable alumni include original company members Paul Taylor and the late Viola Farber, postmodern choreographers Douglas Dunn and Gus Solomons jr, Karole Armitage (known as the “punk ballerina”) and of the most recent company, contemporary collaborators Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Cunningham stipulated that after his death his company would perform an extended world tour and then dissolve. Today, the Merce Cunningham Trust serves as the custodian of his work. Weekday classes take place at New York City Center Studios.
Photos (clockwise from top): courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; by Douglas H. Jeffrey, courtesy of The Merce Cunningham Trust; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; by Jayme Thornton, courtesy of Dance Magazine (2); by Paul Palmaro, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives