Today is the 98th birthday of Washington boy made good Merce Cunningham. His dance company collaborated musically with everyone from John Cage to Radiohead to Sonic Youth and artistically with Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein, and Warhol. I was lucky enough to work with his dance company for a week when they performed at a theatre where I was working. The performances were incredible and the dancers were brilliantly funny people. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Merce Cunningham
BIRTH DATE: April 16, 1919
DEATH DATE: July 26, 2009
EDUCATION: George Washington University, Cornish School of Fine Arts
PLACE OF BIRTH: Centralia, Washington
PLACE OF DEATH: New York, New York
BEST KNOWN FOR: Merce Cunningham was a dancer and choreographer known for his long-time collaboration with avant-garde composer John Cage.
Born on April 16, 1919, in Centralia, Washington, Mercier Philip Cunningham became one of the most innovative and influential choreographers of the 20th century. He took up dancing at a young age. “I started as a tap dancer,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It was my first theater experience, and it has stayed with me all my life.”
In his teens, Cunningham studied with Maude Barrett, a circus performer and vaudevillian. He briefly attended George Washington University before enrolling at the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle in 1937. There he met composer John Cage, who eventually became his partner in life and work. Cunningham changed majors during his time at Cornish, switching from theater to dance. He choreographed his first dance pieces while at the school.
A gifted dancer known for his powerful leaps, Cunningham was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1939. He spent several years with the group, performing lead roles in such productions as El Penitente in 1939 and Appalachian Spring in 1944. Also in 1944, Cunningham debuted some of his solo works that he choreographed, including Root of an Unfocus, featuring music by Cage.
Over the years, Cunningham developed his own unique choreography process. He created the choreography for his pieces separate from the music. The two elements were only combined during final rehearsals or at the time of the performance. Cunningham also liked to incorporate chance into his choreography, using dice and The I Ching to determine how the dancer should move.
The following year, Cunningham left Graham’s troupe to branch out on his own. He also continued to develop numerous solo pieces with himself as the dancer. Then in 1953, he established the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cage composed the music for many of the company’s productions. Artist Robert Rauschenberg worked as a designer early on. Later Cunningham collaborated with other artists, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
Cunningham first found great acclaim for his avant-garde works abroad. His company wowed audiences in London in 1964 during their first international tour. As the years progressed, Cunningham kept looking for new ways to innovative. He started to choreograph using a computer animation program in the 1990s. He told the 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.”
Cunningham celebrated his eightieth birthday with a special duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1999. By this time, he had become physically fragile but was still as imaginative as ever. Cunningham debuted Biped that same year, which incorporated computer-generated imagery alongside his dancers.
Cunningham created several more dance pieces before his death. He passed away of natural causes on July 26, 2009 at his home in New York. His namesake dance company went on a two-year tour after his death as a tribute to the great choreographer. After the tour, the company closed its doors. The Merce Cunningham Trust was established to preserve his works, including more than 150 dances, and his legacy.
During his nearly 70-year career, Cunningham received numerous honors. He won two Guggenheim fellowships—in 1954 and in 1959. In 1985, Cunningham received the Kennedy Center Honors and a MacArthur Fellowship. He also was granted several honorary degrees from such schools as Bard College and Wesleyan University.