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Merce Cunningham

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Merce Cunningham in his work Antic Meet (1958), photo by Richard Rutledge


Born in Centralia, Washington, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) was a dominant force in modern dance since the 1960s. Trained at the Cornish School, Mills College, and the School of American Ballet, he danced with the Martha Graham Company from 1939 to 1945, creating lead roles in a number of works, including Appalachian Spring. He began to present his own choreography in the 1940s and in 1953 founded what became the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Those first concerts initiated a collaboration with the composer John Cage that lasted for five decades. Under Cage's tutelage, Cunningham rejected psychological and dramatic content from his work. He experimented with chance procedures, worked closely with avant-garde artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and developed a collaborative approach that insisted upon the autonomy of music, design, and dance. Cunningham's controversial choreographic methods and technique, which emphasized balletic leg action and flexibility of the back and torso, influenced generations of dancers and choreographers, beginning with the Judson group. Ever a vanguardist, in the 1990s he began to choreograph using the computer program Life Forms.

Pictured right: Merce Cunningham in his work Antic Meet (1958). Images of Cunningham as a dancer "show a body capable of extending itself beyond the predictable and beyond the confines of any one dance technique," Michelle Potter writes. (Photograph by Richard Rutledge; courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation) 

Merce Cunningham and Dance Company, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1969, by Robert Rauschenberg


Pictured left: A poster for Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1969, designed by Robert Rauschenberg, one of the innovative contemporary artists who collaborated with the Cunningham company. (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dance Division.)


Essay by Michelle Potter -- Selected resources







Beach Birds for Camera (1991), filmed by frequent collaborator Elliot Caplan, was part of Cunningham's ongoing exploration of dance for camera.