The American Merce Cunningham (born 1919) was a solo dancer of commanding presence, a controversial choreographer, an influential teacher, and an organizer of an internationally acclaimed avant-garde dance company.
Born in Centralia, Washington, on April 19, 1919, Merce Cunningham studied modern dance under Bonnie Bird in Seattle. Here he met the composer John Cage. From 1940 to 1945 Cunningham was a soloist with the Martha Graham Company, creating such roles as the Christ Figure in El Penitente, the Acrobat in Every Soul Is a Circus, March in Letter to the World, and the Revivalist in Appalachian Spring.
While still with the Graham Company, Cunningham began independent work, at first in solo concerts. His first important large creation was The Seasons (1947), with music by Cage. For the next quarter century, Cage acted as Cunningham's chief composer and musical adviser.
Cunningham's first substantial success came in 1952 (also the year he formed his own company-school) with his setting of Igor Stravinsky's "dance episodes with song," Les Noces. He continued working with music by experimentalist composers such as Erik Satie, Pierre Schaeffer, and Alan Hovhaness, as well as with Cage. Cunningham also danced to sounds produced solely by his own voice: grunts, shrieks, squeals, and howls.
Cunningham's personal dance style, reflected in his choreography, was usually athletic in forcefulness. But he could also effect a slow, nearly suspended motion which, when opposed sharply to the cross rhythms of accompaniments—either musical, or antimusical—produced unique effects. Cunningham never used such "tricks" as facial expressions to reach an audience, relying solely upon pure body movement to produce effects.
Cunningham experimented with Cage and others of futuristic thought from fields of dance, music, theater, visual arts, and even the technical sciences in combining abstract dance elements with musique concrète, electronic music, random sounds, lighting effects, action films or photo slides superimposed upon or backlighting stage action, pure noise, and even silence. But, though he worked frequently with "chance" methods, Cunningham remained a deadly serious creator who never really left anything to uncertainty. For example, in the late 1960s he worked on dances using body-attached cybersonic consoles which could increase, reduce, distort, unbalance, and then rebalance sounds by stage movements, according to the dimensions of different spatial areas; and on the control of stage lighting as affected by the dancers moving within range of electronic devices that changed hues and densities of illuminations.
In 1958 Cunningham's company began tours which took them to nearly every continent. Cunningham gave lecture-demonstrations or participated in symposiums at universities and museums around the world. By 1970 he had created nearly 100 ensemble dance works and dozens of solos for himself, had made significant documentary films on modern dance, and had authored a book.
Cunningham's awards include honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1984), the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for lifetime contributions to dance (1982), the MacArthur Award (1985), the Laurence Olivier Award (1985), the National Medal of Arts (1990) and the Digital Dance Premier Award (1990).
Ocean, the final collaboration between Cunningham and John Cage, premiered at the University of California, Berkeley in April, 1996. In 1995, Cunningham developed a computer software program called Life Forms, to choreograph dances on computer.
Cunningham's partly autobiographical Changes (1968) mainly relates his ideas on dance. Pictures of his company's work are in Jack Mitchell, Dance Scene U.S.A. (1967), with commentary by Clive Barnes. Walter Sorell, ed., The Dance Has Many Faces (1951; 2d ed. 1966), includes good essays on modern dance and Cunningham's place in it. Cunningham was also featured in a public television broadcast of Point in Space (BBC, 1986).