A seminal figure of the twentieth-century avant-garde, American choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) engaged the boundaries of dance for more than seventy years. Mikhail Baryshnikov, who performed a duet with the eighty-year-old choreographer in 1999, noted in Charles Atlas' biographical documentary A Lifetime of Dance (2000) that Cunningham "deconstructed classicism in his language." Emerging from and expanding upon traditions of theatre, classical ballet and modern dance, Cunningham radically rearticulated the semiotics of the dancing body and created a distinctive language that survives him.
Quoting a Cunningham dance "phrase," the viewer intuits a pedestrian hopping up on a sidewalk or the careful craning of a bird's neck, sometimes vacillating wildly between staccato and legato paces. What the reader of the dance will not come across are conventional elements of narrative structure such as, in Cunningham archivist David Vaughan's words, "conflict and resolution, cause and effect, climax and anti-climax." In part to escape these tropes, and inspired by collaborators such as composer John Cage and artist Marcel Duchamp, Cunningham connected his phrases through chance methodologies. He used I Ching, dice and cards to rigorously compose his dances. Cunningham's inquiry was one of the kinetics of dance itself, placing dancers in neither psychological nor theatrical roles but rather perpetual states of "becoming-dancer."
Mercier Philip Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919. Here, through a woman his mother knew from church, he studied vaudeville, tap and exhibition ballroom dancing. In 1937, Cunningham began at the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, hoping to become an actor. The school, which encourages an interdisciplinary education, introduced Cunningham to modern dance through the teachings of Bonnie Bird. Cunningham first met Cage in 1938, when Bird hired him as her music director. The two would reconnect later in New York City and begin their lifelong artistic collaboration and partnership.
In 1939, Martha Graham, while giving a workshop at Mills College in California, invited the 20-year-old Cunningham to join her company. Cunningham left his theater career behind and was quickly catapulted into the New York dance world. The young dancer taught modern dance at New York City Ballet while at the same time beginning his six-year tenure as a soloist with Graham, which ended in 1945. Senior New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay cites this time as a formative moment in Cunningham's career. Remembering the choreographer in his 2009 article "Merce Cunningham, Dance Visionary, Dies," Macaulay writes that, "though [Cunningham] was not the first modern dancer to study ballet, his way of splicing elements from both genres in his own work was a breakthrough." The critic goes on to relay Cunningham's "dance vocabulary" as owing much to Graham in its use of the back as well as to ballet in its use of the legs and feet.
Cunningham's choreographic beginnings coincided with the arrival in New York of Cage, who encouraged him to create his own dances. In 1944, Cage composed music for a selection of dance solos that Cunningham both choreographed and performed. By the 1950s, Cage and Cunningham developed their now-famous approach of relating music and dance: composing them entirely separately and emphasizing the autonomy of each medium, even in their co-presence. The pair drew from Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Klein, as well as from the Dadaist sensibilities of Max Ernst and Duchamp.
Cage and Cunningham's early experimentations led them to Black Mountain College, an avant-garde haven in North Carolina, where they met artist Robert Rauschenberg, who became their stage manager and set designer. It was here in the summer of 1953 that Cunningham started the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, touring first around the United States in a Volkswagen bus and then embarking on an international tour in 1964.
Cunningham's early interest in video is an often-overlooked cornerstone in his career. In the 1960s, the choreographer worked with several experimental filmmakers to integrate their work into his dance performances. An example of this type of collaboration is the archival footage from Variations V, which shows Stan VanDerBeek and Nam June Paik's iconoclastic montages projected over Cunningham's dancers. Starting in the 1970s, Cunningham began to explore video with friend and then-resident company filmmaker, Charles Atlas. The choreographer intentionally entwined dance with video, creating pieces with filming in mind and coining the term "video-dance." Examples of "video-dances" include Squaregame Video (1976), Coast Zone (1983) and Beach Birds for Camera (1993). In part, this method came out of practical concerns. Atlas describes in an interview with Mary Lisa Burns how "it was easier to expand something from the narrow field of the video image than to narrow something from the expanded field of the stage." Yet it also ties into the greater conceptual force behind Cunningham's work, with tensions between repetition and the ephemeral figuring prominently.
Over the course of his career, Cunningham choreographed more than 150 dances and over 800 "Events" or dance collages, performing in traditional proscenium spaces as well as in gymnasiums, museums, cathedrals and videos. He trained dancers such as Karole Armitage, Jonah Bokaer and Carolyn Brown, and collaborated with numerous visual artists and musicians, including Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, La Monte Young, Takehisa Kosugi, Christian Wolff and David Tudor.
Throughout his long career, Cunningham continuously experimented with the limits of human movement, always gaging the historic relevancy of his practice, particularly in relation to current technologies. In the 1990s, Cunningham pioneered use of IBM software to compose dances such as BIPED (1999), expanding beyond video to embrace computer technology.
The choreographer danced in his company until the early 1990s, maintaining close creative and mentor relationships with collaborators and dancers. His many honors include Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, Italy's Porselli Prize and New York City's Handel Medallion. Until his death at ninety in 2009, Cunningham lived and breathed dance, orchestrating events such as the 2008 performances of Ocean (1994) in Minnesota, which Atlas' 2011 film version captures so stunningly. Ocean is an homage to Cage, who died in 1992, and its 2008 revival perhaps marked for the choreographer a reconciliation with both his oeuvre and death—a final meditation on the kinetic and expressive capacity of the dancing body as his own said farewell.