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, Robert Kovich, Foofwa d’Imobilité, Kimberly Bartosik, Flo Ankah, Jan Van Dyke, 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 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 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 a clear understanding of musicality that he implemented in his later dance pieces. He attended the Cornish School 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 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 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.
Over the course of 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 in order 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 and Francis Starr published a book, Changes: Notes on Choreography, containing various sketches of their choreography.
He continued to lead his company until his death, and presented a new work, Nearly Ninety, in April 2009, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, to mark his 90th birthday.
Cunningham lived in New York City, and was Artistic Director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He died in his home at the age of 90.
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, 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 West Village; for a time Cunningham himself lived a block away at 107 Bank Street, with John Cage.
On July 20, 1999 Merce Cunningham and Mikhail Baryshnikov performed together at the New York State Theater for Cunningham’s 80th birthday.
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.
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 stochastic (random) procedures to generate material, discarding many artistic traditions of narrative and form. Famously, they asserted that a dance and its music should not be intentionally coordinated with one another.
After his death, John Cage 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 John 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 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.Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance
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.
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 repertory, while those that do 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 a dance needs a beginning, middle or end.
In Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951) Cunningham used Indeterminacy for the first time in this piece and 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 can do with what they please. This included exiting and entering at will, executing it in any order and however many times they wanted.
In Story (1963) Cunningham experimented with the variable of costumes and sets. Before each performance dancers were to choose 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 every show with items he could find in the theatre.
In Suite by Chance (1953) it 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) This piece was created by using playing cards. Each movement was assigned a playing card and chosen randomly.
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 after 1991 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. Cunningham was one of the first choreographers to begin experimenting with film. He created an original work for the video Westbeth (1974). This was in collaboration with filmmaker Charles Atlas
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 own 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's sees 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 center 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 represents 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.
Cunningham's approach was always in combining technology and dance performances, which lead to a 3D movie inspiration that set to be directed by Dance in Film leader Alla Kovgan
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: David Behrman, Long Throw and/or Annea Lockwood, Jitterbug
Décor: Daniel Arsham, ODE/EON
Costumes: Daniel Arsham
Lighting: Josh Johnson
Music: John Cage, Aria (1958) and Fontana Mix (1958)
Décor & Costumes: Robert Rauschenberg, Plank
Lighting: Josh Johnson
Nearly Ninety (2009)
Music: John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, Sonic Youth
Décor: Benedetta Tagliabue
Costumes: Romeo Gigli for io ipse idem
Lighting: Brian MacDevitt
Video Design: Franc Aleu
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
Kitty Carlisle Hart Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts (Arts & Business Council), New York NY
MATA (Music at the Anthology) Award, New York NY
Medal of the City of Dijon, France
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
Village Award, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, New York
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
BITEF Award, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
Honorary degree from the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana IL
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