Cunningham, Merce [Mercier Philip ]
- Susan Au
(b Centralia, WA, Apr 16, 1919; d New York, NY, July 26, 2009). American dancer, choreographer, and dance company director. He began to study dance in his native Centralia. While attending the Cornish Institute in Seattle, he met John Cage, with whom he formed a lasting and productive partnership. He also studied modern dance at Mills College and the Bennington School of the Dance, and ballet at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York. He performed as a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company (1939–45), where he originated the role of the Revivalist in Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944; Aaron Copland). He first began to choreograph in 1942, and in 1944 presented his first solo concert in New York, dancing to music by Cage. In 1953 he formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with Cage as music director. The two men shared an innovative mindset, which defined the company’s aesthetic mission. The Cunningham school, which trained dancers for the company, was established in 1959.
Cunningham transformed the process by which a dance work was created by applying new concepts such as aleatory procedures and open form, the latter adopted from composers Morton Feldman and Earle Brown. He treated the various elements of his works—dance, music, stage design, costumes, and lighting—as independent and sometimes interchangeable entities, which could be created without reference to each other and brought together in different ways for each performance. Influenced by his and Cage’s interest in the I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes, he first used chance methods to determine a work’s components in Suite by Chance (1953; Christian Wolff). In the 1970s he introduced a type of performance he called Events, in which choreographic excerpts, music, and scenic elements from different works were recombined in new juxtapositions.
Perhaps more than any other choreographer of his generation, he readily incorporated advanced technology into his work both as part of the creative process and the finished product. He worked with many experimental composers, among them Cage, Brown, Feldman, David Tudor, Wolff, Gordon Mumma, and Takehisa Kosugi. He was one of the first choreographers to use electronic music, both live and prerecorded, and musique concrète. In collaboration with filmmakers Charles Atlas and Elliot Caplan, he created dances especially for film and video, beginning with Westbeth (1974; Cage). Starting in 1991 he choreographed his works with the help of the computer program DanceForms (formerly called Life Forms), which he helped develop. He began to work with motion capture in 1997, applying it in Biped (1999; Gavin Bryars) in the form of animated projections that shared the stage space with live dancers. Active into the first decade of the twenty-first century, he was arguably the most innovative choreographer of his time.
- Changes: Notes on Choreography, ed. F. Starr (New York, 1968)
- The Dancer and the Dance, interviews with J. Lesschaeve (New York, 1985)
- Other Animals: Drawings and Journals (New York, 2002)
- J. Klosty, ed.: Merce Cunningham (New York, 1975)
- D. Vaughan: Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York, 1997)
- International Dictionary of Modern Dance (Detroit, 1998)
- International Encyclopedia of Dance (New York, 1998)
- R. Kostelanetz, ed.: Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time (New York, 2/1998)
- Merce Cunningham: Fifty Forward (New York, 2005). [CD-ROM supplement to Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years.]