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Merce Cunningham - More Resources

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Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

by Michelle Potter

Merce Cunningham’s approach to dancing was distinguished by constant experimentation, incessant questioning, perpetual curiosity, and a distinctive attitude to collaboration across art forms.  American born and bred, but international in audience reach and artistic renown, he made dance a contemporary idiom, an art form able to keep pace with, and at times be ahead of, developments in other art forms, and able to encompass advances in technology and new media.

Born in Centralia, Washington State, and trained initially at a local dance school and then at the Cornish School in Seattle, Cunningham worked as dancer and choreographer for over seven decades. In his early career as a professional performer he danced with the company of Martha Graham before embarking on a new path of personal creativity. For the company he formed in 1953, initially called Merce Cunningham and Dance Company (the “and” was later dropped), he choreographed over 150 works culminating in Nearly Ninety in 2009, the year of his death in New York City. In addition, he put together hundreds of Events--excerpts or fragments from his existing repertory, which he pieced together in different combinations to make a new entity each time.

Cunningham’s dances have been taken into the repertoire of several major companies, including the Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Ballet Rambert, and the Royal Swedish Ballet; and, in the United States, Boston Ballet, the White Oak Dance Project, New York City Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. 

The Dancer

Whether they capture him as a student, a performer with Martha Graham, or in his own solos and works for his embryonic company, early images of Cunningham as a dancer show a lean and muscular body with a long back, a tiny waist and narrow pelvis. A slightly underdeveloped upper body accentuates his head, which one of his early teachers, Bonnie Bird, once described as “the head of a satyr” (Vaughan 16). Those images also show a body capable of extending itself beyond the predictable and beyond the confines of any one dance technique. They give a glimpse of expressive feet and hands, a face that changes expression according to the movement, and a capacity to jump, spring, stride, bend, and even simply pose with a feeling that the body is extending itself: upwards, sideways, forwards, in fact in whatever direction or according to whatever impulse the movement demands. Cunningham danced in many of the works he created for his company, and continued to do so into the 21st century. As he aged and became less mobile, he made brief, cameo-style appearances. They never lost the charisma that was apparent in those early images.

Basic Principles

In 1994, Cunningham outlined four basic principles, “Four events that have led to large discoveries,” which he believed had shaped his work. They were:

Like his apparently simplistic statement in 1952 that dancing is “an art in space and time” (Cunningham, 1952, 150), and like his remark to arts writer John Gruen in 1980 that he didn’t try for a style but rather tried “to make things clear” (Cunningham, 1980, 3), the convenient summation of his work under four basic principles belies the complexity behind Cunningham’s work. Everything was process to Cunningham, and process is never static or easily summarised or pigeon-holed.

Choreographic Explorations

Cunningham’s explorations into how dance exists in time and space included a rejection of the idea, traditional to both classical and much modern dance, that center-stage is the visually dominant position. His Summerspace (1958), made using chance procedures to determine movements and directional patterns, was, like a Jackson Pollock painting, without a central focus. The composition of Summerspace suggested that the audience was seeing part of a much larger canvas of movement, one that continued beyond the stage space and that included the audience within its scope. This was a radical and uncomfortable suggestion for many dance-goers at the time. But the idea has since become an influential concept and a well-used choreographic tool. In terms of a lack of central focus, Cunningham’s CRWDSPCR (1993), made using DanceForms software, has a similar feel. But there is little sense that CRWDSPCR, 35 years younger than Summerspace, is a radical departure from known choreographic structures. It recalls Grand Central Station Concourse at rush hour, and much of that sense of comfort in the known is a result of Cunningham’s own early investigative work.

Cunningham’s explorations were also a significant step in the history of artistic collaboration. Cunningham began quite early to work with the idea that individual contributions to a collaboration remain just that: individual. In conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve in the 1970s, he said: “What we have done in our work is to bring together three separate elements in time and space, the music, the dance and the decor, allowing each one to remain independent” (Cunningham, 1991, 137). Such explorations opened up not just new ways of making dance but also new ways for the spectator to watch and be involved with dance.

His experiments with film, technology and new media did the same. One of the last works he created, eyeSpace (2006), involved the use by the audience of iPod Shuffle devices. They gave audience members a unique and personal listening experience. Then, the creation in the 2000s of a series of webcasts, Mondays with Merce, opened up classes, rehearsals, interviews and archival footage to a whole new audience.

The Role of the Spectator

Cunningham always hoped that the spectator would feel free to form an independent critical response to his works. On the 1974 video recording, A Video Event with Merce Cunningham, he remarked that he thought of an audience as a number of separate individuals, and that separateness and openness in collaboration allowed for an ambiguity of meaning, which in turn allowed each spectator to develop his own opinion about any piece. And while it is no longer so common for there to be outraged spectators during or after a Cunningham show, in early performances of his works opinions were sometimes made known in a vociferous manner. Carolyn Brown writes of the reception she and Cunningham received in Venice in 1960 when they performed Hands birds (1960): “It was certainly exciting—and the audience was clearly divided—People bravo-ed themselves hoarse and boo-ed themselves hoarse. Some people had come with whistles—prepared to cause a small riot” (Brown 297).

Cunningham Technique

As impressive as his choreographic explorations and their outcomes are, at least as significant is the dance technique he developed over time. Brown has astutely remarked that the Cunningham technique “evolved out of his personal explorations in determining the primary needs necessary to train the whole body so that it could be ready to move in the many ways possible to it, without adhering to any one rigid style” (Brown 31).  Cunningham technique develops flexibility and strength. It encompasses the premise that every part of the body has a unique and important role to play in dancing. It focuses on the ability of the spine to be flexible. It develops the body’s ability to change direction quickly and purposefully. It is a gift to the dance profession. Those who embrace its ideas, whether they work strictly within the Cunningham “framework” or whether they use it for their own ends, create better dance by calling on the way of moving that it promotes.

Cunningham once said that he preferred the active word “dancing” to the more static noun “dance.” Throughout a lifetime of dancing, as performer, choreographer, collaborator or simply explorer, an active approach of engagement with the world and what it can offer to dance has been a feature of Cunningham’s work.

Michelle Potter is an independent dance writer, historian and curator based in Canberra, Australia. She was inaugural Curator of Dance at the National Library of Australia, 2002-2006 and Curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library, 2006-2008. She holds a doctorate in Art History and Dance History from the Australian National University.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Brown, Carolyn. Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Celant, Germano (ed.). Merce Cunningham. Milan: Charta, 2000.

Cunningham, Merce. “space, time and dance.” trans/formation, 1, No. 3 (1952), 150-151.

…………………….. Changes: Notes on Choreography. Edited by Frances Starr. New York: Something Else Press, 1968.

………………………. Interview with Merce Cunningham by John Gruen, January 14, 1980. Unpublished typescript (*MGZMT 3-1055). Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

…………………….. The dancer and the dance. Merce Cunningham in conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve. Revised edition. New York: Marion Boyars, 1991.

…………………….. “Four events that have led to large discoveries,” in Vaughan (1997).

Vaughan, David. Merce Cunningham. Fifty Years. Edited by Melissa Harris. New York: Aperture Foundation, 1997.


The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library holds a large collection of archival videos and other archival materials from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Online Resources

The website of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company includes an extensive bibliography of works about Cunningham and his company. It also makes available archival footage and interviews with many connected with Cunningham and his company.