The Life and Work of Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham was a respected dancer and choreographer. He was born in April of 1919 and passed away during the summer of 2009. He started his life in Centralia, Washington and ended his days in the Big Apple. His avant-garde dance performances and innovative choreography earned him plenty of fans and lots of critical acclaim. He created a body of work which is now a powerful and inspiring legacy.

In this blog post, we’d like to share more information about the life and work of Merce Cunningham. We’ll discuss the early period of his life and then move onto his major career highlights. We’ll also talk about just a handful of the awards and accolades that he received for his ground-breaking and compelling work.


Early Life Highlights

Merce always believed that people who committed their lives to dancing did so because they loved it. This is why he danced. He lived for the act of dancing itself and the feeling of vitality that it gave him.

The desire to dance started early, so he began to tap dance while he was still a boy. His tap dancing allowed him to enter into the world of theater. Soon enough, theater life became captivating. While he was a teenager, he learned more about dancing, via a vaudevillian and circus performer named Maude Barrett. He also had a short stint at George Washington University. He made the switch to Seattle’s Cornish School of Fine Arts during 1937. At this post-secondary educational institution, he became friends with John Cage, who was a composer. Cage was destined to be his true love, as well as his work partner.

While at the fine arts school in Seattle, Cunningham decided to major in dance, rather than focusing on theater as he’d planned. He began to choreograph dances while attending the Cornish School of Fine Art. Merce also attended Mills College during 1938 and went to Bennington College the next year. While at Bennington, dancing legend, Martha Graham, asked him to join her dance troupe. He became a soloist at her company and created a series of notable roles.


Highlights of His Career

In 1943, Martha Graham’s interest in his choreography motivated Cunningham to create more dance pieces. One of this first works was called “Root of an Unfocus”. Another was deemed, “Mysterious Adventure”. As he created his new works, his romance with John Cage evolved. In 1945, Cunningham departed the dance company of Martha Graham and started working with John Cage. They were collaborators who put on yearly recitals in New York City.

They also collaborated on a host of works, including “The Seasons”, which was performed during 1947, and “Inlets”, which was performed during 1952. The same year that he created Inlets, alongside his partner, he started a dance company of his own.

His choreography for his own dance company was inspired by a range of unsystematic phenomena, which were utilized in order to determine structure. As well, he pursued the concept of pure motion, removed from emotion. He added elements of chance during his creation of dances. For example, he might toss a coin in order to figure out the next move. He was also known to use the I Ching in order to bring exciting chance into the mix!

During 1952, he made history by creating choreography (Suite by Chance) which was performed alongside electronic music. The music came from an avant-garde composer known as Christian Wolff.

His dances featured a prism of moods and were characterized by sudden changes in movement which provided a lot of visual contrast. His work is linked with certain art movements, including Dadaism, Surrealism and Existentialism.


Cunningham Received Many Awards

His dancing and choreography dazzled audiences and critics alike. He was rewarded with a glittering assortment of awards, including a gold medal (for choreographic invention) in Paris, at the 4th International Festival of Dance. During the early 1970s, he received an award at a prestigious cultural festival in Serbia (the Belgrade International Theatre Festival Award).

During the mid-1980s, he was given a MacArthur Fellowship and also received honors from the Kennedy Center. In the 1990s, he made into the National Museum of Dance’s Hall of Fame. At the end of the 1990s, he received the Isadora Duncan Dance Award, which recognized his lifetime achievement in his field.

During 2005, he was awarded the Japan Art Association’s prize, Praemium Imperiale, for film and theater.

On the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, Brooklyn’s Academy of Music put on a performance of his last work, which was titled, Nearly Ninety. The dance piece was performed during April of 2009.


His Talent Was Extraordinary

Few dancers and/or choreographers have been so innovative and so passionate about their craft. Cunningham was a bold pioneer who was a visionary. He utilized a mixture of formal training, raw talent, hard work and collaboration in order to create and/or perform dance pieces that gave audiences pleasure, as well as food for thought. Known for his penchant for chance, he brought exciting new elements into contemporary choreography. As well, his long relationship with John Cage was heartwarming and very inspirational in term of driving him to produce his best work.

Clearly, the two made a perfect pair, on and off the stage.

These days, Merce Cunningham’s spirit lives on through the Merce Cunningham Trust.  This Trust was created in 2000, by Cunningham himself, and it functions as the custodian for all of Cunningham’s work. The Trust exists to ensure that this work is preserved, enhanced and maintained, and that the public has access to it. During 2012, the Trust set up a headquarters within the City Center in NYC.

Now that you know more about this superlative dancer and choreographer, who embraced a modern aesthetic in a memorable and graceful way, you may want to learn more. The Merce Cunningham Trust website is a great place to access so much factual and interesting information about this American dance pioneer and his life and times. What’s wonderful about the Trust is that it licenses his work, so that it may be performed by modern dance groups today.