Merce Cunningham was an American modern dancer and teacher, most remembered as an innovative and influential choreographer. While receiving his formal dance and theatre training, he was spotted by the great dancer, Martha Graham, who offered him a chance to work in her company. While working with the Graham’s Company, he also began independent work in collaboration with composer John Cage, at first in solo concerts. Later, he established his own dance company and went on to become an enchanting choreographer. Through his creative and expressive movements, he garnered wide acclaim for his dance style. His personal dance style, reflected in his choreography, was usually athletic in forcefulness. His dance style relied solely upon pure body movement to produce effects and reach his audience. He frequently collaborated with visual artists, architects, designers, and musicians in his company to enhance his performances. His music collaborator and life partner, John Cage, had the greatest influence on his practice. The duo made an extensive use of chance procedures and developed new forms of abstract dance movement. Later in life, he turned towards special animated computer programs to explore new choreographic possibilities. He was a brilliant dancer, an influential teacher, and an organizer of an internationally acclaimed avant-garde dance company but above all, an imaginative and charismatic choreographer.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on April 16, 1919 in Centralia, Washington to Clifford D. Cunningham, a law professional, and his wife, Mayme Cunningham. He was the second of their three sons.
After completing high school, he enrolled at the George Washington University which he left after a year. In 1937, he joined the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle which he attended for two years.
While pursuing his formal dance and theatre training, he also attended the Mills College and learnt from Lester Horton, a famous dancer and choreographer. He was subsequently spotted and invited by Martha Graham—a renowned dancer—to join her company. He accepted the offer and went to New York to work for her.
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In 1939, he began his career as a soloist in the company of Martha Graham. He spent several years with the group and performed as the central character in various productions including ‘El Penitente’ (1939) and ‘Appalachian Spring’ (1944).
Alongside, he also started working as a choreographer and produced some of his early works such as ‘Root of an Unfocus’ (1944) and ‘Mysterious Adventure’ (1945).
In 1945, he left the company and began his solo career as a choreographer in collaboration with other artists including John Cage. The duo collaborated on a number of works such as ‘The Seasons’ (1947) and ‘Inlets’ (1978).
Gradually he developed his own style of choreography known as “choreography by chance,” a technique in which selected isolated movements are assigned in a sequential manner by random methods such as ‘tossing a coin’.
In 1953, while serving as a professor at the Black Mountain College, he established the ‘Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC)’. It included dancers such as Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Paul Taylor, and Remy Charlip along with musicians including John Cage and David Tudor.
The company was a success; its performances dazzled the audience with its creative choreography. In 1964, the company made its first international tour and he received immense appreciation from all around the world for the avant-garde works.
In early 1990s, he started using a computer animation program, DanceForms, to conduct choreography. He continued leading his dance company until shortly before his own death. The company went on a two-year tour after his death as a tribute and was finally closed in 2012.
Throughout his career, he choreographed some astonishing dance performances including ‘Suite for Five’ (1956–1958), ‘Crises’ (1960), ‘Sounddance’ (1975), ‘Fabrications’ (1987), ‘Ocean’ (1994), ‘Split Sides’ (2003), ‘Views on Stage’ (2004) and his last one, ‘Nearly Ninety’ (2009).
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Awards & Achievements
In 1954 and 1959, he received Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York.
In 1966, he was presented a ‘Gold Medal for Choreographic Invention’ at the Fourth International Festival of Dance, Paris.
In 1972, he received the ‘Belgrade International Theatre Festival Award’ in one of the most significant cultural festivals of Serbia.
In 1985, he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors and a MacArthur Fellowship.
In 1993, he was inducted into the ‘National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame’ in Saratoga Springs, NY.
In 1999, he was honored with the Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Lifetime Achievement, San Francisco.
In 2000, he was conferred ‘The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize’ and was named a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress, Washington DC.
In 2004, he was named Officier of the Légion d'honneur in France.
In 2009, he was awarded the prestigious ‘Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award’ and the‘Skowhegan Medal for Performance’.
He also received several honorary degrees from prestigious universities such as the ‘Wesleyan University’, ‘University of Minnesota’, ‘Cornish College of the Arts’ and the ‘Edith Cowan University’.
Personal Life & Legacy
While working at the firm of Martha Graham, he met composer John Cage, who later became his life partner and frequent collaborator.
On July 26, 2009, he died peacefully at the age of 90, in his home in New York City.