Merce Cunningham: The Choreographer Series

5th January 2022

Merce Cunningham: The Choreographer Series
Maria Hanlon

Maria Hanlon

Have you heard the name Merce Cunningham before? If not, we need to bring him to your attention as he’s considered to be one of the greatest American choreographers of all time. Join us as we find out about his life, work, and influence on modern dance.

Who Is Merce Cunningham?

Merce Cunningham was one of the most innovative and influential choreographers of the 20th century. He is known for his distinctive dance moves and long-time collaboration with avant-garde composer John Cage. 

When Was Merce Cunningham Born?

Mercier Philip “Merce” Cunningham was born on April 16th, 1919, in Centralia, Washington. He began dancing at a young age, “I started as a tap dancer,” he told the Los Angeles Times. As a teenager, Cunningham studied with circus performer and vaudevillian, Maude Barrett. He briefly attended George Washington University before enrolling at the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle in 1937 where he choreographed his first dance pieces. Whilst there, he met composer John Cage, who became his partner in life and work. 

Merce Cunningham’s Work 

In 1939 Cunningham was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company (check out our article on Martha Graham). He spent several years with the group, landing lead roles in productions such as El Penitente in 1939 and Appalachian Spring in 1944. That same year, Cunningham showcased some of his solo works, including Root of an Unfocus, featuring music by Cage.

A year later, Cunningham left Graham’s group to branch out on his own, developing many dance pieces with himself as the dancer. Then in 1953, he established the famous Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham had a team of talented creatives working alongside him including Cage composing the music, Artist Robert Rauschenberg working as a designer and later collaborated with other artists including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Cunningham developed his own unique choreography process. Unusually, he would create the choreography for his pieces separate from the music meaning that the two elements were only combined during final rehearsals or during the performance. Cunningham implemented chance into his choreography too, using dice and book The I Ching to choose how the dancer should move. 

His avant-garde works abroad were also very well received and elevated his profile even more. His company amazed audiences in London during 1964 with their first international tour. As the years went by, Cunningham kept looking for new ways to be original. He started to choreograph with a computer animation program in the 1990s, he told Los Angeles Times: “The computer allows you to make phrases of movements, and then you can look at them and repeat them, over and over, in a way that you can’t ask dancers to do because they get tired.”

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Cunningham Technique

Cunningham Technique was created to train dancers for Cunningham’s company. Its rigorous form of training was designed to create strength and flexibility of both the body and mind, and places focus on:

Torso and Legwork – The technique develops clarity, strength and flexibility in both the spine and legwork. The torso and legs are used together in coordination or separately in opposition. 

Spatial Awareness – Spatial Awareness is formed by implementing multiple changes of direction within a single phrase. In more advanced work, various parts of the body move simultaneously in multiple directions.

Rhythmic Accuracy – Meter and tempo are used throughout the class to build a foundation for rhythmic precision and dynamic movement.

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How Did Merce Cunningham Die?

In 1999, Merce Cunningham celebrated his 80th birthday with a special duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at Lincoln Center in New York. By this time, he had sadly become physically fragile but was still as imaginative and creative as ever. Cunningham debuted Biped that same year, which was ground-breaking as it incorporated computer-generated imagery alongside his dancers.

Cunningham went on to create many more dance pieces before passing away of natural causes on July 26th, 2009, at his home in New York. His dance company went on a 2-year tour after his death as a tribute to the legendary choreographer. Once the tour was over, the company closed its doors and The Merce Cunningham Trust was established to preserve Cunningham’s works, including more than 150 dances, and his legacy. 

During his almost 70-year career, Cunningham received numerous honors including 2 Guggenheim fellowships—in 1954 and in 1959. In 1985, Cunningham received the Kennedy Center Honors, a MacArthur Fellowship and was granted honorary degrees from Bard College and Wesleyan University.

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Merce Cunningham Quotes

Here are some of Cunningham’s most famous quotes:

  • “Fortunately, dance has been what’s interested me all my life. So whether I am faced with incapacities or not, it still absorbs me.”
  • “Movement is expressive. I’ve never denied that. I don’t think there’s such a thing as abstract dance.”
  • “I think the thing that we agreed to so many years ago, actually, was that the music didn’t have to support the dance nor the dance illustrate the music, but they could be two things going on at the same time.”
  • “My work always comes from the same source – from movement. It doesn’t necessarily come from an outside idea, though the source can be something small or large that I’ve seen, often birds or other animals. The seeing can then provoke the imagining.”

“What really made me think about space and begin to think about ways to use it was Einstein’s statement that there are no fixed points in space. Everything in the universe is moving all the time.”

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That’s Everything You Need To Know About Merce Cunningham

Time to cool down after class! We hope you’ve had fun learning about the magnificent Merce Cunningham and his history with us. If you’d like to find out more about famous choreographers, have a look at the rest of our Choreographer Series.

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