Mercier Philip Cunningham
April 16, 1919
Centralia, Washington, U.S.
|Died||July 26, 2009 (aged 90)|
New York City, New York, U.S.
Mercier Philip "Merce" Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009) was an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of American modern dance for more than 50 years. He frequently collaborated with artists of other disciplines, including musicians John Cage, David Tudor, Brian Eno, and graphic artists Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns; and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. 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. They include Paul Taylor, Remy Charlip, Viola Farber, Charles Moulton, Karole Armitage, Deborah Hay, Robert Kovich, Foofwa d'Imobilité, Kimberly Bartosik, Flo Ankah, Jan Van Dyke, Jonah Bokaer, and Alice Reyes.
In 2009, the Cunningham Dance Foundation announced the Legacy Plan, a plan for the continuation of Cunningham's work and the celebration and preservation of his artistic legacy.
Cunningham earned some of the highest honours bestowed in the arts, including the National Medal of Arts and the MacArthur Fellowship. He also received Japan's Praemium Imperiale and 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, Clifford D. Cunningham, into the legal profession. Cunningham first experienced dance while living in Centralia. He took tap dance class from a local teacher, Mrs Maude Barrett, whose energy and spirit taught him to love dance. Her emphasis on precise musical timing and rhythm provided him with a clear understanding of musicality that he implemented in his later dance pieces. He attended the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, headed by Nellie Cornish, from 1937 to 1939 to study acting, but found drama's reliance on text and miming too limiting and concrete. Cunningham preferred the ambiguous nature of dance, which gave him an outlet for exploration of movement. During this time, Martha Graham saw Cunningham dance and invited him to join her company. In 1939, Cunningham moved to New York City and danced as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company for six years. He presented his first solo concert in New York in April 1944 with composer John Cage, who became his lifelong romantic 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.
Throughout his career, Cunningham choreographed more than 200 dances and over 800 Events, or 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 to determine the sequence of his dances and, often, dancers were not informed of the order 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.
In 1968 Cunningham published his book Changes: Notes on Choreography, edited by Francis Starr, containing various sketches of his choreography.
Cunningham continued to live in New York City and lead his dance company as Artistic Director until his death. He presented his last work, a new work, Nearly Ninety, in April 2009, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, to mark his 90th birthday. Later that year he died in his home at the age of 90.
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.
The original company included dancers Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Marianne Preger-Simon, Paul Taylor, and Remy Charlip, and musicians John Cage and David Tudor. In 1964 the Cunningham Dance Foundation was established to support his work.
MCDC made its first international tour in 1964, visiting Europe and Asia.
From 1971 until its dissolution in 2012, the company was based in the Westbeth Artists Community in the West Village; for a time Cunningham himself lived a block away at 107 Bank Street, with John Cage.
In its later years, the company had 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, with a performance at the Park Avenue Armory.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company frequently collaborated with visual artists, architects, designers, and musicians.
Many of Cunningham's most famous innovations were developed in collaboration with composer John Cage, his life partner. Cunningham and Cage used chance procedures to generate material, discarding many artistic traditions of narrative and form. Famously, they asserted that dance and its music should not be intentionally coordinated with one another.
John Cage, after his death, was succeeded in the role of music director by David Tudor. After 1995, MCDC's music director was Takehisa Kosugi. MCDC commissioned more work from contemporary composers than any other dance company. Its repertory included works by musicians ranging from Cage and Gordon Mumma to Gavin Bryars, as well as popular bands like Radiohead, Sigur Rós and Sonic Youth.
The company also collaborated with an array of visual artists and designers. Robert Rauschenberg, whose famous "Combines" reflect the approach he used to create décor for several 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 50s. 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
Cunningham valued the process of a work over the product. Because of his strong interest in the creation of the choreography he used chance procedures in his work. A chance procedure means that the order of the steps or sequence is unknown until the actual performance and is decided by chance. For instance in his work Suite by Chance he used the toss of a coin to determine how to put the choreographed sequences together. Indeterminacy was another part of Cunningham's work. Many of his pieces had sections or sequences that were rehearsed so that they could be put in any order and done at any time. 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 considered every piece created in this fashion a masterpiece. Those dances that did not "work" were quickly dropped from the repertory, while those that did were celebrated as serendipitous discoveries.
Cunningham used "non-representational" choreography which simply emphasizes movement, and does not necessarily represent any historical narrative, emotional situation, or idea. Such non-representational dance appears in many styles throughout history, but was not commonly used by ballet or Martha Graham, Cunningham's primary influences. In the use of chance procedures, Cunningham abandoned the more traditional structured form of dance. He did not believe that dance needs a beginning, middle or end.
Examples in works
In Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951), Cunningham used Indeterminacy for the first time in this piece; the changing element for each show was the sequence of the sections.
In Field Dances (1963), Cunningham experimented with giving the dancer more freedom. Each dancer was given a sequence of movements with which they could do as they pleased. This included exiting and entering at will, executing it in any order and as many times as desired.
In Story (1963), Cunningham experimented with the variables of costumes and sets. Before each performance dancers chose an outfit from a pile of second-hand clothes picked out by the designer, Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg was also responsible for creating a new set for every show with items he found in the theatre.
Suite by Chance (1953) was his first work made entirely through chance procedures. Charts were created listing elements such as space, time, and positions. A coin was then tossed to determine each of these elements.
Canfield (1969) was created by using playing cards. Each movement was assigned a playing card and chosen randomly.
Use of technology
Cunningham's lifelong passion for exploration and innovation made him a leader in applying new technologies to the arts. He began investigating dance on film in the 1970s, and after 1991 choreographed using the computer program LifeForms, a software made by Zella Wolofsky, Tom Calvert, and Thecla Schiphorst. 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.
Cunningham was one of the first choreographers to begin experimenting with film. He created an original work for the video Westbeth (1974) in collaboration with filmmaker Charles Atlas The computer program later became DanceForms and uses avatars of dancers with color-coded limbs as a platform for choreography.
In 2009, Cunningham's interest in new media led to the creation of the behind-the-scenes webcast Mondays with Merce.
The use of stage space also changed in Cunningham's choreography. The "front and centre" spot traditionally coveted by soloists no longer exists in his works. Dance can take place on any part of the stage; it need not even be frontally oriented, but can be viewed from any angle (at performances in Cunningham's studio, for instance, audiences are seated in an L-shaped configuration). The viewer's focus is never directed to a particular spot; he must often decide among many centres of activity.
Merce Cunningham saw randomness and arbitrariness as positive qualities because they exist in real life. Most of Cunningham's choreographic process works to break the boundaries of "putting on a show," the removal of centre stage is an example of this—without a focal point for the audience, no one dancer or step holds the most value and can be seen as arbitrary... or not.
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 represented 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 included a comprehensive digital documentation and preservation program, which ensures 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, controls 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. Besides, 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. The final performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was on December 31, 2011, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City.
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. Also, his visual art is 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, was 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.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (February 2023)
Cunningham choreographed almost 200 works for his company.
|1956-1958||Suite for Five||John Cage's Music for Piano||Robert Rauschenberg||Beverly Emmons|
|1960||Crises||Conlon Nancarrow's Rhythm Studies for Player Piano||Robert Rauschenberg|
|1968||Rainforest||David Tudor||Jasper Johns (uncredited)||Richard Nelson||Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds|
|1970||Second Hand||John Cage's Cheap Imitation||Jasper Johns||Richard Nelson (1970)
Christine Shallenberg (2008)
|1975||Sounddance||David Tudor's Toneburst & Untitled (1975/1994)||Mark Lancaster||Mark Lancaster||Mark Lancaster|
|1987||Fabrications||Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta's Short Waves & SBbr||Dove Bradshaw||Josh Johnson||Dove Bradshaw|
|1993||CRWDSPCR||John King's blues 99||Mark Lancaster||Mark Lancaster||Mark Lancaster|
|1994||Ocean||David Tudor's Soundings: Ocean Diary
Andrew Culver's Ocean 1–95
|Marsha Skinner||Marsha Skinner||Marsha Skinner|
|1999||BIPED||Gavin Bryars' Biped||Suzanne Gallo||Aaron Copp||Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar|
|2003||Split Sides||Radiohead & Sigur Rós||James Hall||James F. Ingalls||Robert Heishman, Catherine Yass|
|2004||Views on Stage||John Cage's ASLSP & Music for Two||Josh Johnson||Ernesto Neto, Other Animal|
|2006||eyeSpace||Mikel Rouse's International Cloud Atlas||Henry Samelson||Henry Samelson's Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves|
|2007||David Behrman's Long Throw and/or Annea Lockwood's Jitterbug||Daniel Arsham||Daniel Arsham's ODE/EON|
|XOVER||John Cage's Aria (1958) & Fontana Mix (1958)||Robert Rauschenberg's Plank||Robert Rauschenberg's Plank|
|2009||Nearly Ninety||John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, Sonic Youth||Romeo Gigli's io ipse idem||Brian MacDevitt||Benedetta Tagliabue||Video design by Franc Aleu|
Honors and awards
This section needs additional citations for verification. (February 2023)
- "Merce Cunningham obituary". The Telegraph. July 27, 2009. Retrieved January 26, 2010.
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.
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Jill Johnston privileged information.Quoted in Glueck, Grace (9 February 1997). "Hiding Behind the Flag". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
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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
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- Vaughan, D. and Cunningham, M. (2002), Other Animals. Aperture. ISBN 978-0-89381-946-0
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- DLAR Artists bio
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- Kennedy Center biography
- Archive footage of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Cunningham's piece Banjo in 1955 at Jacob's Pillow
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