Cunningham, Merce

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Cunningham, Merce

Merce Cunningham (Mercier Philip Cunningham), 1919–2009, American modern dancer and choreographer, b. Centralia, Wash. Cunningham studied modern dance with Martha Graham and ballet at Balanchine's School of American Ballet. A superb dancer, long-bodied, long-necked, and lean with an amazing ability to jump, he was a soloist in Graham's company from 1940 to 1955. He presented his first work in 1942 and formed his own company in 1953, creating innovative dances to the music of avant-garde composers, including his life partner and musical director John Cage. His company began touring the world in 1964. His best-known early works include Suite by Chance and Symphonie pour un homme seul (both 1952), which reveal his spare, expressive style. Devoted to the new, Cunningham redefined dance. Often dealing with the isolation of dancers in space, his usually plotless works are composed of abrupt changes and suspensions of motion, some performed by autonomously moving dancers in chance sequence. Dances often occur in a decentralized stage space where movement and music both coexist and are independent of one another.

Cunningham also was known for collaborations with American artists, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, who created sets and costumes that were integral parts of his productions. He created nearly 200 works for his company, appearing in all of them until he reached the age of 70 and dancing in many new works thereafter. During his later years he was widely considered the world's greatest living choreographer. Later dances include Locale and Duets (both 1980); Fabrications (1987); Trackers (1991), the first work he created with the aid of a computer; Crwdspcr (1994); Installations (1996); Scenario (1997); Biped (1999), a work employing motion-capture technology; Way Station (2001); Split Sides (2003), with music by the experimental rock bands Radiohead and Sigur Ros; Xover (2007); and Nearly Ninety (2009). After his death, his company undertook a two-year legacy tour and then disbanded (2011).

See his Changes: Notes on Choreography (1968) and The Dancer and Dance (1985); C. Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (2007); biography by D. Vaughan (1997); studies by J. Klosty (1975, repr. 1986), R. Kostelanetz, ed. (1992), G. Celant, ed. (1999), and R. Copeland (2004); C. Atlas, dir, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance (documentary film, 2002).

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