Merce Cunningham in 1961
|Born||Mercier Philip Cunningham
April 16, 1919
|Died||July 26, 2009
New York City
Mercier "Merce" Philip Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009) was an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of the American avant-garde for more than 50 years. Throughout much of his life, Cunningham was considered one of the greatest creative forces in American dance. He is also notable for his frequent collaborations with artists of other disciplines, including musicians John Cage and David Tudor, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Nauman, designer Romeo Gigli, and architect Benedetta Tagliabue. Works that he produced with these artists had a profound impact on avant-garde art beyond the world of dance.
As a choreographer, teacher and leader of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Cunningham had a profound influence on modern dance. Many dancers who trained with Cunningham formed their own companies, and they include Paul Taylor, Remy Charlip, Viola Farber, Charles Moulton, Karole Armitage, Robert Kovich, Foofwa d’Imobilité, Kimberly Bartosik, Floanne Ankah and Jonah Bokaer.
In 2009, the Cunningham Dance Foundation announced the Legacy Plan, a precedent-setting plan for the continuation of Cunningham’s work and the celebration and preservation of his artistic legacy.
Cunningham earned some of the highest honors bestowed in the arts, including the National Medal of Arts and the MacArthur Fellowship. He also received Japan's Praemium Imperiale, a British Laurence Olivier Award, and was named Officier of the Légion d'honneur in France.
Cunningham’s life and artistic vision have been the subject of numerous books, films, and exhibitions, and his works have been presented by groups including the Paris Opéra Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, White Oak Dance Project, and London's Rambert Dance Company.
Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, the second of three sons. Both his brothers followed their father into the legal profession. Cunningham initially received his first formal dance and theater training at the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts) in Seattle, which he attended from 1937 to 1939 at age 20. During this time, Martha Graham saw Cunningham dance and invited him to join her company.
In the fall of 1939, Cunningham moved to New York and began a six-year stint as a soloist in the company of Martha Graham. He presented his first solo concert in New York in April 1944 with composer John Cage, who became his life partner and frequent collaborator until Cage's death in 1992.
In the summer of 1953, as a teacher in residence at Black Mountain College, Cunningham formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a forum to explore his new ideas on dance and the performing arts.
Over the course of his career, Cunningham choreographed more than 200 dances and over 800 “Events,” which are site-specific choreographic works. In 1963 he joined with Cage to create the Walker Art Center's first performance, instigating what would be a 25-year collaborative relationship with the Walker. In his performances, he often used the I Ching in order to determine the sequence of his dances and, often, dancers were not told until the night of the performance. In addition to his role as choreographer, Cunningham performed as a dancer in his company into the early 1990s.
Cunningham lived in New York City, and was Artistic Director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He died peacefully in his home.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Cunningham formed Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at Black Mountain College in 1953. Guided by its leader's radical approach to space, time and technology, the Company has forged a distinctive style, reflecting Cunningham’s technique and illuminating the near limitless possibility for human movement.
In its early years, MCDC toured in a Volkswagen bus driven by John Cage with just enough room for six dancers, the two musicians, and a stage manager, who was often Robert Rauschenberg. MCDC’s first international tour in 1964—which included performances in Western and Eastern Europe, India, Thailand, and Japan—solidified a constant stream of national and international bookings. In the years since, MCDC has continued to tour the world to critical and popular acclaim, serving as an ambassador for contemporary American culture.
Recent performances and projects include a two-year residency at Dia:Beacon, where MCDC performed Events, Cunningham’s site-specific choreographic collages, in the galleries of Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt among others. In 2007, MCDC premiered XOVER, Cunningham’s final collaboration with Rauschenberg, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. In 2009, MCDC premiered Cunningham’s newest work, Nearly Ninety, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Company concluded its farewell tour on December 31, 2011.
Since its founding, Merce Cunningham Dance Company has frequently collaborated with visual artists, architects, designers, and musicians.
From the company's beginnings, Cunningham collaborated with John Cage, its Musical Advisor and Cunningham's life partner from the 1940s until Cage’s death in 1992. Cage had the greatest influence on his practice. Together, Cunningham and Cage proposed a number of radical innovations. The most famous and controversial of these concerned the relationship between dance and music, which they concluded may occur in the same time and space, but should be created independently of one another. They also made extensive use of chance procedures, abandoning not only musical forms, but narrative and other conventional elements of dance composition—such as cause and effect, and climax and anticlimax. For Cunningham the subject of his dances was always dance itself.
After his death, John Cage was succeeded in the role of music director by David Tudor. Since 1995, MCDC has been under the music direction of Takehisa Kosugi. MCDC has commissioned more work from contemporary composers than any other dance company. Its repertory includes works by musicians ranging from John Cage and Gordon Mumma to Gavin Bryars and even contemporary bands like Radiohead, Sigur Rós and Sonic Youth.
The Company has also collaborated with an array of visual artists and designers. Robert Rauschenberg, whose famous “Combines” reflect the approach he used to create décor for a number of MCDC’s early works, served as the Company’s resident designer from 1954 through 1964. Jasper Johns followed as Artistic Advisor from 1967 until 1980, and Mark Lancaster from 1980 through 1984. The last Advisors to be appointed were William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw in 1984. Other artists who have collaborated with MCDC include Daniel Arsham, Tacita Dean, Liz Phillips, Rei Kawakubo, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Ernesto Neto, Frank Stella, Benedetta Tagliabue, and Andy Warhol.
John Cage and I became interested in the use of chance in the 50's. I think one of the very primary things that happened then was the publication of the "I Ching," the Chinese book of changes, from which you can cast your fortune: the hexagrams.
Cage took it to work in his way of making compositions then; and he used the idea of 64—the number of the hexagrams —to say that you had 64, for example, sounds; then you could cast, by chance, to find which sound first appeared, cast again, to say which sound came second, cast again, so that it's done by, in that sense, chance operations. Instead of finding out what you think should follow—say a particular sound—what did the I Ching suggest? Well, I took this also for dance.
I was working on a title called, “Untitled Solo,” and I had made—using the chance operations—a series of movements written on scraps of paper for the legs and the arms, the head, all different. And it was done not to the music but with the music of Christian Wolff. —Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance, 2000
Although the use of chance operations was considered an abrogation of artistic responsibility, Cunningham was thrilled by a process that arrives at works that could never have been created through traditional collaboration. This does not mean, however, that Cunningham holds every piece created in this fashion is a masterpiece. Those dances that do not "work" are quickly dropped from repertory, while those that do are celebrated as serendipitous discoveries.
Another of Cunningham's innovations was the development of what might be called "non-representative" dance which simply emphasizes movement: in Cunningham's choreography, dancers do not necessarily represent any historical figure, emotional situation, or idea.
Use of technology
Cunningham’s lifelong passion for exploration and innovation has made him a leader in applying new technologies to the arts. He began investigating dance on film in the 1970s, and since 1991 has choreographed using the computer program DanceForms. Cunningham explored motion capture technology with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to create Hand-drawn Spaces, a three-screen animation that was commissioned by and premiered at SIGGRAPH in 1998. This led to a live dance for the stage, BIPED, for which Kaiser and Eshkar provided the projected decor. In 2008, Cunningham released his Loops choreography for the hands as motion-capture data under a Creative Commons license; this was the basis for the open source collaboration of the same name with The OpenEnded Group.
In 2009, Cunningham’s interest in new media led to the creation of Mondays with Merce. This webcast series provides a never-before-seen look at the Company and Cunningham’s teaching technique with video of advanced technique class, Company rehearsal, archival footage, and interviews with current and former Company members, choreographers, and collaborators.
The Cunningham Dance Foundation announced the Legacy Plan (LLP) in June 2009. The Plan provided a roadmap for the future of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, as envisioned by Cunningham. The first of its kind in the dance world, the plan represents Merce Cunningham’s vision for continuing his work in the upcoming years, transitioning his Company once he was no longer able to lead it, and preserving his oeuvre.
The Legacy Plan includes a comprehensive documentation and preservation program, which will ensure that pieces from his repertory can be studied, performed and enjoyed by future generations with knowledge of how they originally came to life. By other provisions of the plan, the Merce Cunningham Trust, established by Cunningham to serve as the custodian for his works, takes control of his dances for licensing purposes; Cunningham associates prepared detailed records of the dances so they could be licensed and given authentic productions by other companies. In addition, to ensure the authenticity of the presentation of his oeuvre once Cunningham was no longer able to lead his Company, the plan outlined a final international tour for the Company, and, ultimately, the closure of the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the transfer of all assets to the Merce Cunningham Trust. From Merce's death at age 90 through the Board's last meeting in 2012, the Legacy Plan implemented his wish that the Company complete a worldwide legacy tour and then close. December 31, 2011 was the final performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
The final meeting of the Board of Directors for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was held March 15, 2012, in Cunningham's studio at the top of the Westbeth building in the West Village.
There have been numerous exhibitions dedicated to Cunningham’s work. In addition, he is a visual artist represented by Margarete Roeder Gallery.
The major exhibition Invention: Merce Cunningham & Collaborators at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts closed on October 13, 2007.
Merce Cunningham: Dancing on the Cutting Edge, an exhibition of recent design for MCDC, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, in January 2007.
A trio of exhibitions devoted to John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham, curated by Ron Bishop, were shown in the spring of 2002 at the Gallery of Fine Art, Edison College, Fort Myers, Florida.
A major exhibition about Cunningham and his collaborations, curated by Germano Celant, was first seen at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1999, and subsequently at the Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 1999; the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, 2000; and the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, 2000.
Cunningham choreographed almost two hundred works for his company.
Suite for Five (1956–1958)
Music: John Cage, Music for Piano
Costumes: Robert Rauschenberg
Lighting: Beverly Emmons
Music: Conlon Nancarrow (from Rhythm Studies for Player Piano)
Costumes, Lighting: Robert Rauschenberg
Music: David Tudor
Décor: Andy Warhol (Silver Clouds)
Costumes: Jasper Johns (uncredited)
Lighting: Richard Nelson
Second Hand (1970)
Music: John Cage, (Cheap Imitation)
Décor & Costumes: Jasper Johns
Lighting: Richard Nelson (1970) Christine Shallenberg (2008)
Music: David Tudor, Toneburst & Untitled (1975/1994)
Décor, Lighting, Costumes: Mark Lancaster
Music: Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, Short Waves & SBbr
Décor, Costumes: Dove Bradshaw
Lighting: Josh Johnson
Music: John King, blues 99
Décor, Lighting, Costumes: Mark Lancaster
Music: David Tudor,Soundings: Ocean Diary and Andrew Culver, Ocean 1–95
Décor, Lighting, Costumes: Marsha Skinner
Music: Gavin Bryars, Biped
Décor: Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar
Costumes: Suzanne Gallo
Lighting: Aaron Copp
Split Sides (2003)
Music: Radiohead, Sigur Rós
Décor: Robert Heishman, Catherine Yass
Costumes: James Hall
Lighting: James F. Ingalls
Views on Stage (2004)
Music: John Cage, ASLSP and Music for Two
Décor: Ernesto Neto, Other Animal
Costumes: James Hall
Lighting: Josh Johnson
Music: Mikel Rouse, International Cloud Atlas
Décor: Henry Samelson, Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves
Costumes: Henry Samelson
Lighting: Josh Johnson
Music: John Cage, Aria (1958) and Fontana Mix (1958)
Décor & Costumes: Robert Rauschenberg, Plank
Lighting: Josh Johnson
Honors & awards
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award
Skowhegan Medal for Performance
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Nelson A. Rockefeller Award, Purchase College School of the Arts, State University of New York
Montgomery Fellow (Arts and Literature), Dartmouth College, Hanover NH
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle WA
Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN
Praemium Imperiale, Tokyo
Officier of the Légion d'Honneur, France
Edward MacDowell Medal in interdisciplinary art, the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough NH
Coat of Arms of the City of Mulhouse, France
La Grande Médaille de la Ville de Paris (echelon vermeil) from the Mayor of Paris
Career Transition for Dancers Award, New York NY
Herald Archangel Award, Glasgow, Scotland
Honorary degree from Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia
Nijinsky Special Prize, Monaco
The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, New York NY
Named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, Washington DC
Premio Internazionale “Gino Tani,” Rome
Handel Medallion from the Mayor of New York City NY
Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Lifetime Achievement, San Francisco CA
Fellow of the Academy of Performing Arts, Hong Kong
The key to the City of Montpellier, France
Bagley Wright Fund Established Artists Award, Seattle WA
Barnard College Medal of Distinction, New York NY
Grand Prix of the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, France
Nellie Cornish Arts Achievement Award from his alma mater, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle WA
Honorary degree from Wesleyan University, Middletown CT
Carina Ari Award (Grand Prix Video Danse with Elliot Caplan), Stockholm, Sweden
Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale, Italy
Inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY
Dance and Performance Award for Best Performance by a Visiting Artist, London, England
Medal of Honor from the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, Spain
(With John Cage, posthumously) the Wexner Prize of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Columbus OH
New York Dance and Performance Award (“Bessie”), New York NY
Tiffany Award from the International Society of Performing Arts Administrators, New York NY
National Medal of Arts, Washington DC
Porselli Prize, Italy
Digital Dance Premier Award, London, England
Award of Merit from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, New York NY
Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, France
Dance/USA National Honor, New York NY
Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas TX
Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production (Pictures), London, England
Kennedy Center Honors, Washington DC
MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago IL
Inducted as an Honorary Member into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York NY
The Mayor of New York’s Award of Honor for Arts and Culture, New York NY
The Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award, Durham NC
Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France
Capezio Award, New York NY
New York State Award, Albany NY
Gold Medal for Choreographic Invention at the Fourth International Festival of Dance, Paris
Medal of the Society for the Advancement of Dancing in Sweden, Stockholm
Dance Magazine Award, New York NY
1959 & 1954
Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York NY
- Merce Cunningham obituary, Telegraph (UK), July 27, 2009, retrieved 2010-01-26, "Merce Cunningham who died on July 26 aged 90, was a colossus of 20th-century choreography; his career in dance, which lasted more than 60 years, began when, as a Seattle-based dance student in 1939, he was invited by Martha Graham to join her company in New York" Unknown parameter
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- Village Voice Deborah Jowitt, Wednesday, September 7th, 2011
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- Bremser, M. (Ed) (1999) Fifty Contemporary Choreographers. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-10364-9
- Cunningham, Merce (1968) Changes/Notes on Choreography. Something Else Press.
- Cunningham, M. and Lesschaeve, J. (1992) The Dancer and the Dance. Marion Boyars Publishers. ISBN 0-7145-2931-1
- Vaughan, David (1999) Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years. Aperture. ISBN 0-89381-863-1
- Vaughan, D. and Cunningham, M. (2002) Other Animals. Aperture. ISBN 978-0-89381-946-0
- Kostelanetz, R. (1998) Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80877-3
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- Kennedy Center biography
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- Online memorial
- Obituary in the Star-Gazette
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