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Merce Cunningham is one of the most influential and innovative choreographers of the twentieth century. He has created more than 200 choreographic works and many, such as Summerspace (1958), are in the repertoire of internationally celebrated companies, including the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opéra, Zurich Ballet, and Rambert Dance Company, among others.
Cunningham studied dance at the Cornish School (later renamed the Cornish College of the Arts) in Seattle. There he met the composer and musician, John Cage, who became his main artistic collaborator and life partner. Cunningham danced with Martha Graham's company from 1939 until 1945 before establishing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953. Along with Cage, Cunningham collaborated with other contemporaries, including Jaspar Johns, Andy Warhol, David Tudor, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg.
Cunningham's work is defined by several notable elements. For instance, Cunningham is not interested in narrative and character development; his choreography investigates the formal elements of dance. Cunningham and Cage shared the belief that movement and music are equal. Accordingly, they created the choreography and music separately in their collaborations. Cunningham also embraced the elements of chance and indeterminacy to free his imagination from habitual movement. He used techniques such as filling in squares on charts or tossing coins to determine specific movement combinations as well as to decide on the order of dance phrases. The results were works such as Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951) and Solo Suite in Space and Time (1953). Other notable features of Cunningham's work include his multi-focal use of the stage. He also does not privilege centrestage or orient his work toward the audience. Instead, in Cunningham's choreography, each dancer is his or her own centre. Similarly, Cunningham's works, including RainForest (1968), often involve dancers performing individual movement combinations simultaneously.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Cunningham received international acclaim for works such as Changing Steps (1975), Roadrunners (1979), and Inlet 2 (1983). In the 1990s, he was invited to Simon Fraser University in British Columbia to experiment with a computer software program now called DanceForms that allows users to manipulate animated figures. He has used this technology to create all of his choreographic works since Trackers (1991) and Beach Birds (1991). More recent choreographic works include BIPED (1999), Fluid Canvas (2002), Split Sides (2003) and Views on Stage (2004).
Merce Cunningham died on July 26, 2009 at the age of 90. He had announced a legacy plan six weeks before that involved a two-year world tour by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. At the end of that period, the company will wind down, and its assets will be transferred to the nonprofit Merce Cunningham Trust, entrusted with preserving his choreography.
Cunningham, Merce. Changes/Notes on Choreography. Ed. Frances Starr. New York: Something Else Press, 1968.
Vaughan, David. Merce Cunningham: 50 Years. New York: Aperture, 1997.