Merce Cunningham born 16 April in 1919 (d. 2009)
Merce Cunningham was a ground-breaking 20th century American dancer and choreographer.
Merce Cunningham born in Centralia, Washington, received his first formal dance and theatre training at the Cornish School – Cornish College of the Arts – in Seattle, where he met his life-partner John Cage, who was a piano accompanist for dance classes.
From 1939 to 1945, he was a soloist in the company of Martha Graham. He presented his first New York solo concert with John Cage in April 1944. Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed in 1953. Since then Cunningham choreographed around 200 works for his company. His work has been presented in many of the world’s leading dance theatres including the New York City Ballet, the Ballet of the Paris Opéra, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Zurich Ballet, London’s Rambert Dance Company, and many others.
Along with their close friends, painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Cunningham and Cage and other like-minded young gay artists defined an alternative creative art scene in 1950s New York that was an essential part of the development of what was to be known as post-modernism.
Cunningham’s contribution to modern dance has several key elements. Cunningham applied the same use of chance to his choreography that Cage utilises in his music, so choices about sequences of movement would be determined randomly, making new relationships between movement, music and other applied arts and creating exciting new forms of narrative.
Cunningham also applied conventions of classical ballet to everyday activities, finding the structured yet fluid dance in running and walking for example. He also re-envisioned the use of dance space on stage, bringing the full dance area into play, wherever the dancer faces being ‘front’. Rather than express sexuality through mixed or same-sex couples, combinations of dancers occur with the same use of ‘chance’, making gender and thus sexuality fluid and almost irrelevant.
Cunningham always embraced new technology in his work, with Cage, pioneering multimedia in dance and creating some of the first dance work to integrate music, movement, visual art and verse in equal balance. Since the 1990s Cunningham worked with a complex computer program called Life Forms, which provided a new way of creating choreography, and integrated the creation of images for projection during performance. He continued to experiment with music, choreographing to the music of Radiohead and Sigur Ros.
The inspirational personal and professional relationship between Merce Cunningham and John Cage lasted for 54 years, until Cage’s death in 1992.
Merce Cunningham was one of the most significant and influential American choreographers of the 20th century, helping define modern dance and redefine elements of classical dance.
Although spent his last few years using a wheelchair, he continued his work until he died peacfully at home on 26 July 2009, aged 90.