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Merce Cunningham

American Dancer and Choreographer

Merce Cunningham Photo
Movements and Styles: Neo-Dada, Performance Art, Queer Art, Postmodernism

Born: April 16, 1919 - Centralia, Washington, U.S.

Died: July 26, 2009 - New York, New York

"Dancing is a spiritual exercise in a physical form"

Summary of Merce Cunningham

One of the most innovative artists of the 20th century, Merce Cunningham employed a range of tactics to create his sometimes difficult dance productions that confounded and delighted viewers. Often working with his life partner, avant-garde composer John Cage, Cunningham banished dance's traditional reliance on emotive narrative and instead infused it with a sense of the everyday and ordinary. Embracing chance and allowing dancers more autonomy and choice, Cunningham's dances are grounded in the random and unexpected but can also reveal deep meditations on human relationships and how we exist in the world at large.

Working on the edges of Happenings, Fluxus, and Neo-Dada, Cunningham's collaborative practice led him to work with some of the most innovative musicians, including Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, and LaMont Young, as well as artists such as Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Morris. Inhabiting this intermedia landscape for so many decades, Cunningham's influence can be felt in many corners of the art world.

Key Ideas

Mostly defying categories, Cunningham was a central participant in the group of Neo-Dadaist artists that included John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Taking cues from lt;span class="marked_text chart-tooltip-target-top tooltip_id-duchamp_marcel">Marcel Duchamp, these artists used found objects to critique high and traditional notions of art and often parodied the self-expression of the lt;span class="marked_text chart-tooltip-target-top tooltip_id-abstract_expressionism">Abstract Expressionists. Additionally, Cunningham incorporated the performative aspects of Happenings and Fluxus to push the boundaries of dance.
Perhaps inspired by John Cage, Cunningham largely relied on chance to choreograph his dances. Using playing cards, tossing coins, or sometimes consulting the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese text used for divination, Cunningham would order and arrange movements, sometimes employing ordinary actions, into a dance. According to Cunningham, chance freed his imagination and let him work outside of cultural clichés.
At heart, Cunningham's practice was collaborative. Often he called on musicians and contemporary artists to create scores, set designs, and costumes for his dances. Drawing on Cunningham's interest in chance, the choreographer, musician, and artist would work separately with only the barest structure known to each, and only at the end would the full scope of the production come into focus.
Over the decades, Cunningham employed new technologies and media into his dances, including electronic music, video, motion sensors, and computer programs. In doing so, he explored and expanded the scope of what dance was capable of doing and reimagined the human body in the process.
Louis Stevenson's photo of Merce Cunningham Dance Company's <i>Springweather and People</i> (1955). Pictured: Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown.

Dancer Valda Setterfield once said: "Merce was like the sun. He had the most astonishing power – and if you got too close, or stayed a little too long, well, you might get burned." But this "rail-thin, zen-like powerhouse" was also a titan of dance who changed choreography forever.

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