Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham in 1961
Mercier Philip Cunningham

(1919-04-16)April 16, 1919
DiedJuly 26, 2009(2009-07-26) (aged 90)
New York City, New York, U.S.
  • Dancer
  • choreographer
Years active1938–2009
PartnerJohn Cage[1]
Merce Cunningham

Mercier Philip "Merce" Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009) was an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of American modern dance for more than 50 years. He frequently collaborated with artists of other disciplines, including musicians John Cage, David Tudor, Brian Eno, and graphic artists Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns; and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. Works that he produced with these artists had a profound impact on avant-garde art beyond the world of dance.

As a choreographer, teacher, and leader of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company,[2] Cunningham had a profound influence on modern dance. Many dancers who trained with Cunningham formed their own companies. They include Paul Taylor, Remy Charlip, Viola Farber, Charles Moulton, Karole Armitage, Deborah Hay, Robert Kovich, Foofwa d'Imobilité, Kimberly Bartosik, Flo Ankah, Jan Van Dyke, Jonah Bokaer, and Alice Reyes.

In 2009, the Cunningham Dance Foundation announced the Legacy Plan, a plan for the continuation of Cunningham's work and the celebration and preservation of his artistic legacy.[3]

Cunningham earned some of the highest honours bestowed in the arts, including the National Medal of Arts and the MacArthur Fellowship. He also received Japan's Praemium Imperiale and a British Laurence Olivier Award, and was named Officier of the Légion d'honneur in France.

Cunningham's life and artistic vision have been the subject of numerous books, films, and exhibitions, and his works have been presented by groups including the Paris Opéra Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, White Oak Dance Project, and London's Rambert Dance Company.


Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington, in 1919, the second of three sons. Both of his brothers followed their father, Clifford D. Cunningham,[4] into the legal profession. Cunningham first experienced dance while living in Centralia. He took tap dance class from a local teacher, Mrs Maude Barrett, whose energy and spirit taught him to love dance. Her emphasis on precise musical timing and rhythm provided him with a clear understanding of musicality that he implemented in his later dance pieces.[5] He attended the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, headed by Nellie Cornish, from 1937 to 1939 to study acting, but found drama's reliance on text and miming too limiting and concrete. Cunningham preferred the ambiguous nature of dance, which gave him an outlet for exploration of movement.[6] During this time, Martha Graham saw Cunningham dance and invited him to join her company.[7] In 1939, Cunningham moved to New York City and danced as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company for six years. He presented his first solo concert in New York in April 1944 with composer John Cage, who became his lifelong romantic partner and frequent collaborator until Cage's death in 1992.[8]

In the summer of 1953, as a teacher in residence at Black Mountain College, Cunningham formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Throughout his career, Cunningham choreographed more than 200 dances and over 800 Events, or site-specific choreographic works. In 1963 he joined with Cage to create the Walker Art Center's first performance, instigating what would be a 25-year collaborative relationship with the Walker. In his performances, he often used the I Ching to determine the sequence of his dances and, often, dancers were not informed of the order until the night of the performance. In addition to his role as choreographer, Cunningham performed as a dancer in his company into the early 1990s.

In 1968 Cunningham published his book Changes: Notes on Choreography, edited by Francis Starr, containing various sketches of his choreography.

Cunningham continued to live in New York City and lead his dance company as Artistic Director until his death. He presented his last work, a new work, Nearly Ninety, in April 2009, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, to mark his 90th birthday.[9] Later that year he died in his home at the age of 90.[10]

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Cunningham formed Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at Black Mountain College in 1953. Guided by its leader's radical approach to space, time and technology, the company has forged a distinctive style, reflecting Cunningham's technique and illuminating the near limitless possibility for human movement.

The original company included dancers Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Marianne Preger-Simon, Paul Taylor, and Remy Charlip, and musicians John Cage and David Tudor. In 1964 the Cunningham Dance Foundation was established to support his work.[11]

MCDC made its first international tour in 1964, visiting Europe and Asia.[11]

From 1971 until its dissolution in 2012, the company was based in the Westbeth Artists Community in the West Village; for a time Cunningham himself lived a block away at 107 Bank Street, with John Cage.

On July 20, 1999, Merce Cunningham and Mikhail Baryshnikov performed together at the New York State Theater for Cunningham's 80th birthday.[12]

In its later years, the company had a two-year residency at Dia:Beacon, where MCDC performed Events, Cunningham's site-specific choreographic collages, in the galleries of Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt, among others. In 2007, MCDC premiered XOVER, Cunningham's final collaboration with Rauschenberg, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. In 2009, MCDC premiered Cunningham's newest work, Nearly Ninety, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The company concluded its farewell tour on December 31, 2011,[13] with a performance at the Park Avenue Armory.[14]

Artistic philosophy


Still frame from Loops, a digital art collaboration with Cunningham and The OpenEnded Group that interprets Cunningham's motion-captured dance for the hands.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company frequently collaborated with visual artists, architects, designers, and musicians.

Many of Cunningham's most famous innovations were developed in collaboration with composer John Cage, his life partner. Cunningham and Cage used chance procedures to generate material, discarding many artistic traditions of narrative and form. Famously, they asserted that dance and its music should not be intentionally coordinated with one another.[15]

John Cage, after his death, was succeeded in the role of music director by David Tudor. After 1995, MCDC's music director was Takehisa Kosugi. MCDC commissioned more work from contemporary composers than any other dance company. Its repertory included works by musicians ranging from Cage and Gordon Mumma to Gavin Bryars, as well as popular bands like Radiohead, Sigur Rós and Sonic Youth.[16]

The company also collaborated with an array of visual artists and designers. Robert Rauschenberg, whose famous "Combines" reflect the approach he used to create décor for several MCDC's early works, served as the company's resident designer from 1954 through 1964. Jasper Johns followed as Artistic Advisor from 1967 until 1980, and Mark Lancaster from 1980 through 1984. The last Advisors to be appointed were William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw in 1984. Other artists who have collaborated with MCDC include Daniel Arsham, Tacita Dean, Liz Phillips, Rei Kawakubo, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Ernesto Neto, Frank Stella, Benedetta Tagliabue, and Andy Warhol.

Chance operations

John Cage and I became interested in the use of chance in the 50s. I think one of the very primary things that happened then was the publication of the "I Ching", the Chinese book of changes, from which you can cast your fortune: the hexagrams.

Cage took it to work in his way of making compositions then; and he used the idea of 64—the number of the hexagrams —to say that you had 64, for example, sounds; then you could cast, by chance, to find which sound first appeared, cast again, to say which sound came second, cast again, so that it's done by, in that sense, chance operations. Instead of finding out what you think should follow—say a particular sound—what did the I Ching suggest? Well, I took this also for dance.

I was working on a title called, "Untitled Solo", and I had made—using the chance operations—a series of movements written on scraps of paper for the legs and the arms, the head, all different. And it was done not to the music but with the music of Christian Wolff.

— Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance, 2000

Cunningham valued the process of a work over the product. Because of his strong interest in the creation of the choreography he used chance procedures in his work. A chance procedure means that the order of the steps or sequence is unknown until the actual performance and is decided by chance. For instance in his work Suite by Chance he used the toss of a coin to determine how to put the choreographed sequences together. Indeterminacy was another part of Cunningham's work. Many of his pieces had sections or sequences that were rehearsed so that they could be put in any order and done at any time.[17] Although the use of chance operations was considered an abrogation of artistic responsibility,[18] Cunningham was thrilled by a process that arrives at works that could never have been created through traditional collaboration. This does not mean, however, that Cunningham considered every piece created in this fashion a masterpiece. Those dances that did not "work" were quickly dropped from the repertory, while those that did were celebrated as serendipitous discoveries.

Cunningham used "non-representational" choreography which simply emphasizes movement, and does not necessarily represent any historical narrative, emotional situation, or idea. Such non-representational dance appears in many styles throughout history, but was not commonly used by ballet or Martha Graham, Cunningham's primary influences. In the use of chance procedures, Cunningham abandoned the more traditional structured form of dance. He did not believe that dance needs a beginning, middle or end.[17][19]

Examples in works

In Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951), Cunningham used Indeterminacy for the first time in this piece; the changing element for each show was the sequence of the sections.

In Field Dances (1963), Cunningham experimented with giving the dancer more freedom. Each dancer was given a sequence of movements with which they could do as they pleased. This included exiting and entering at will, executing it in any order and as many times as desired.

In Story (1963), Cunningham experimented with the variables of costumes and sets. Before each performance dancers chose an outfit from a pile of second-hand clothes picked out by the designer, Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg was also responsible for creating a new set for every show with items he found in the theatre.

Suite by Chance (1953) was his first work made entirely through chance procedures. Charts were created listing elements such as space, time, and positions. A coin was then tossed to determine each of these elements.

Canfield (1969) was created by using playing cards. Each movement was assigned a playing card and chosen randomly.[20]

Use of technology

Cunningham's lifelong passion for exploration and innovation made him a leader in applying new technologies to the arts. He began investigating dance on film in the 1970s, and after 1991 choreographed using the computer program LifeForms, a software made by Zella Wolofsky, Tom Calvert, and Thecla Schiphorst.[21] Cunningham explored motion capture technology with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to create Hand-drawn Spaces, a three-screen animation that was commissioned by and premiered at SIGGRAPH in 1998. This led to a live dance for the stage, BIPED, for which Kaiser and Eshkar provided the projected decor. In 2008, Cunningham released his Loops choreography for the hands as motion-capture data under a Creative Commons license; this was the basis for the open-source collaboration of the same name with The OpenEnded Group.

Cunningham was one of the first choreographers to begin experimenting with film. He created an original work for the video Westbeth (1974) in collaboration with filmmaker Charles Atlas[17] The computer program later became DanceForms and uses avatars of dancers with color-coded limbs as a platform for choreography.[22]

In 2009, Cunningham's interest in new media led to the creation of the behind-the-scenes webcast Mondays with Merce.[23]


The use of stage space also changed in Cunningham's choreography. The "front and centre" spot traditionally coveted by soloists no longer exists in his works. Dance can take place on any part of the stage; it need not even be frontally oriented, but can be viewed from any angle (at performances in Cunningham's studio, for instance, audiences are seated in an L-shaped configuration). The viewer's focus is never directed to a particular spot; he must often decide among many centres of activity.[24]

Merce Cunningham saw randomness and arbitrariness as positive qualities because they exist in real life.[17] Most of Cunningham's choreographic process works to break the boundaries of "putting on a show", the removal of centre stage is an example of this—without a focal point for the audience, no one dancer or step holds the most value and can be seen as arbitrary ... or not.

Legacy Plan

The Cunningham Dance Foundation announced the Legacy Plan (LLP) in June 2009. The Plan provided a roadmap for the future of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, as envisioned by Cunningham. The first of its kind in the dance world, the plan represented Cunningham's vision for continuing his work in the upcoming years, transitioning his company once he was no longer able to lead it, and preserving his oeuvre.

The Legacy Plan included a comprehensive digital documentation and preservation program, which ensures that pieces from his repertory can be studied, performed and enjoyed by future generations with knowledge of how they originally came to life. By other provisions of the plan, the Merce Cunningham Trust, established by Cunningham to serve as the custodian for his works, controls his dances for licensing purposes; Cunningham associates prepared detailed records of the dances so they could be licensed and given authentic productions by other companies.[25] Besides, the plan outlined a final international tour for the company, and, ultimately, the closure of the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the transfer of all assets to the Merce Cunningham Trust. From Merce's death at age 90 through the Board's last meeting in 2012, the Legacy Plan implemented his wish that the company complete a worldwide legacy tour and then close. The final performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was on December 31, 2011, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City.

The final meeting of the board of directors for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was held March 15, 2012, in Cunningham's studio at the top of the Westbeth building in the West Village.[26]


There have been numerous exhibitions dedicated to Cunningham's work. Also, his visual art was represented by Margarete Roeder Gallery until her death on December 11, 2023.

The major exhibition Invention: Merce Cunningham & Collaborators at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts closed on October 13, 2007.

Merce Cunningham: Dancing on the Cutting Edge, an exhibition of recent design for MCDC, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, in January 2007.

A trio of exhibitions devoted to John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham, curated by Ron Bishop, was shown in the spring of 2002 at the Gallery of Fine Art, Edison College, Fort Myers, Florida.

A major exhibition about Cunningham and his collaborations, curated by Germano Celant, was first seen at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1999, and subsequently at the Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 1999; the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, 2000; and the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, 2000.

Selected works

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Cunningham choreographed almost 200 works for his company.[27]

Year(s) Title Music Costumes Lighting Decor Notes Ref
1956-1958 Suite for Five John Cage's Music for Piano Robert Rauschenberg Beverly Emmons
1960 Crises Conlon Nancarrow's Rhythm Studies for Player Piano Robert Rauschenberg
1968 Rainforest David Tudor Jasper Johns (uncredited) Richard Nelson Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds
1970 Second Hand John Cage's Cheap Imitation Jasper Johns Richard Nelson (1970)
Christine Shallenberg (2008)
Jasper Johns
1975 Sounddance David Tudor's Toneburst & Untitled (1975/1994) Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster
1987 Fabrications Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta's Short Waves & SBbr Dove Bradshaw Josh Johnson Dove Bradshaw
1993 CRWDSPCR John King's blues 99 Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster
1994 Ocean David Tudor's Soundings: Ocean Diary
Andrew Culver's Ocean 1–95
Marsha Skinner Marsha Skinner Marsha Skinner
1999 BIPED Gavin Bryars's Biped Suzanne Gallo Aaron Copp Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar
2003 Split Sides Radiohead & Sigur Rós James Hall James F. Ingalls Robert Heishman, Catherine Yass
2004 Views on Stage John Cage's ASLSP & Music for Two Josh Johnson Ernesto Neto, Other Animal
2006 eyeSpace Mikel Rouse's International Cloud Atlas Henry Samelson Henry Samelson's Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves
2007 David Behrman's Long Throw and/or Annea Lockwood's Jitterbug Daniel Arsham Daniel Arsham's ODE/EON
XOVER John Cage's Aria (1958) & Fontana Mix (1958) Robert Rauschenberg's Plank Robert Rauschenberg's Plank
2009 Nearly Ninety John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, Sonic Youth Romeo Gigli's io ipse idem Brian MacDevitt Benedetta Tagliabue Video design by Franc Aleu

Honors and awards

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Year Award Issuing body Ref
1954 Guggenheim Fellowship John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
1959 Guggenheim Fellowship
1960 Dance Magazine Award Dance Magazine
1964 Medal Society for the Advancement of Dancing in Sweden
1966 Gold medal for Choreographic Innovation International Festival of Dance
1972 BITEF Award Belgrade International Theatre Festival
Honorary degree University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
1975 New York State Award New York
1977 Capezio Dance Award Capezio
1982 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement in Choreography American Dance Festival
Commandeur Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
1983 Award of Honor for Arts and Culture New York
1984 Honorary membership American Academy of Arts and Letters
1985 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production Society of London Theatre
Kennedy Center Honors John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
MacArthur Fellowship MacArthur Foundation
1987 Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts Southern Methodist University
1988 Dance/USA National Honor
1989 Chevalier Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur
1990 National Medal of Arts United States Congress
Porselli Prize
Digital Dance Premier Award
Award of Merit Association of Performing Arts Presenters
1993 Induction National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame
Dance and Performance Award for Best Performance by a Visiting Artist
Medal of Honor Complutense University of Madrid
Wexner Prize (with John Cage) Wexner Center for the Arts
Bessie Awards Dance Theater Workshop
Tiffany Award International Society of Performing Arts Administrators
1995 Honorary degree Wesleyan University
Carina Ari Award Grand Prix Video Danse with Elliot Caplan
Golden Lion Venice Biennale
Nellie Cornish Arts Achievement Award Cornish College of the Arts
1997 Medal of Distinction Barnard College
Grand Prix Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques
1998 Established Artists Award Bagley Wright Fund
1999 Gino Tani Prize for the Art of Dance
Handel Medallion New York City
Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Lifetime Achievement
Fellow Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts
Key to the City Montpellier, France
2000 Nijinsky Special Prize
The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust
Living Legend Library of Congress
2001 Coat of Arms Mulhouse, France
Medal of the City of Paris Mayor of Paris
Award Career Transition For Dancers
Herald Archangel Award
Village Award Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
Honorary degree Edith Cowan University
2002 Kitty Carlisle Hart Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts Arts & Business Council
MATA Award Music at the Anthology
Medal of the city Dijon, France
2003 Edward MacDowell Medal MacDowell
2004 Officier Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur
2005 Honorary doctorate of human letters University of Minnesota
Praemium Imperiale Japan Art Association
2006 Honorary doctorate of Fine Arts Cornish College of the Arts
2007 Nelson A. Rockefeller Award Purchase College School of the Arts
Montgomery Fellow Dartmouth College
2008 Honorary doctorate of Fine Arts Bard College
2009 Dance Award Jacob's Pillow Dance
Skowhegan Medal for Performance

See also


  1. ^ "Merce Cunningham obituary". The Telegraph. July 27, 2009. Retrieved January 26, 2010. Merce Cunningham, who died on July 26 aged 90, was a colossus of 20th-century choreography; his career in dance, which lasted more than 60 years, began when, as a Seattle-based dance student in 1939, he was invited by Martha Graham to join her company in New York.
  2. ^ "Merce Cunningham Dance Company". November 9, 2017. Archived from the original on 2009-07-13. Retrieved 2010-01-26.
  3. ^ "Legacy Plan". Cunningham Dance Foundation. Archived from the original on 2009-07-13. Retrieved 2010-01-26.
  4. ^ "Cunningham, Merce (1919-2009), Choreographer". Retrieved 2014-09-26.
  5. ^ Merce Cunningham. Cunningham Dance Foundation, 1980. VAST: Academic Video Online. Alexander Street Press. Accessed 27 June 2015.
  6. ^ Interview with Merce Cunningham. MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, 1999. Dance in Video: Volume II. Alexander Street Press. Accessed 27 June 2015.
  7. ^ "Merce Cunningham". 2013. Archived from the original on 2017-01-16. Retrieved 2013-03-13.
  8. ^ Kaufman, Susan (30 August 2012). "John Cage, with Merce Cunningham, revolutionised music, too". Washington Post. Retrieved 28 June 2015.
  9. ^ Vaughan, David (July 27, 2009). "Merce Cunningham". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  10. ^ "Dance great Cunningham dies at 90". BBC News. July 28, 2009. Retrieved November 18, 2012.
  11. ^ a b "History". Merce Cunningham Trust. Retrieved 28 June 2015.
  12. ^ Macauley, Alistair (23 March 2008). "Baryshnikov's Artistry, Behind the Camera". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2015.
  13. ^ Village Voice Archived 2011-11-30 at the Wayback Machine, Deborah Jowitt, Wednesday, September 7, 2011.
  14. ^ Macaulay, Alastair (December 30, 2011). "Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Park Avenue Armory". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 14, 2019.
  15. ^ "Merce Cunningham". Merce Cunningham Trust. Retrieved 28 June 2015.
  16. ^ Vadukul, Alex (April 20, 2009). "Sonic Youth, John Paul Jones Give Merce Cunningham's Dance Show a Fierce Soundtrack". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
  17. ^ a b c d Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance.
  18. ^ Johnston, Jill (1996). Jasper Johns: Privileged Information. New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500017360. Jill Johnston privileged information. Quoted in Glueck, Grace (9 February 1997). "Hiding Behind the Flag". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  19. ^ Au, Susan (2002). Ballet and Modern Dance. Thames & Hudson. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-500-20352-1.
  20. ^ Au, Susan (2002). Ballet and Modern Dance (2nd ed.). Thames & Hudson. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-500-20352-1.
  21. ^ Salter, Chris (2010). Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance. MIT Press. p. 264. ISBN 978-0-262-19588-1.
  22. ^ Jacobs, Ellen (2020-09-01). "When Merce Cunningham Took On a New Collaborator: The Computer". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-09-03.
  23. ^ "Mondays with Merce". Archived from the original on April 6, 2013. Retrieved March 11, 2021.
  24. ^ Au, Susan (2012). Ballet and Modern Dance. London, England: Thames & Hudson world of art. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-500-20411-5.
  25. ^ Daniel J. Wakin (June 9, 2009), Merce Cunningham Sets Plan for His Dance Legacy New York Times.
  26. ^ "Sutton's Law: A Final Goodbye". 2012-03-18. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  27. ^ "Merce Cunningham Dance Company – Biography". 2009. Archived from the original on October 1, 2006. Retrieved July 28, 2009.