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How Merce Cunningham reinvented the way the world saw dance

Marking the centenary of his birth, we probe into the life and legacy of one of dance’s most celebrated and avant-garde trailblazers

Composite image of Merce Cunningham pieces: (interior) Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Anniversary Event during the exhibition of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate Modern in London, November 2003;a screen shot of Décor for Scramble (1967) on Event for Television, 1977. Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS)/Courtesy WNET-TV New York Archives

Merce Cunningham was an exceptionally good dancer. Better yet, he was an incredibly accomplished master of modern choreography, with a prolific roster of over 150 dances and 800 of what he called dance ‘events’ attached to his name. As a perennial collaborator, his work reached high acclaim as he produced performances alongside artistic visionaries and musicians like Robert Rauschenberg, Brian Eno, Roy Lichtenstein, Radiohead, Rei Kawakubo, and Jasper Johns. Ultimately, he was known for filling the void that lay between dance and the rest of the art world, without ever compromising on the power of each discipline in their separate forms.

Born in Centralia, Washington, in 1919, Cunningham’s talent and powerful leaps saw him join the Martha Graham Dance Company at the age of 20 before going on to work on his own terms. Later he met who would become his partner, John Cage, who was arguably the most important chess piece in Cunningham’s life and work.

Cunningham didn’t always have much to say and didn’t care a lot for what things meant – to himself or the rest of the world. Rather, he was a man of action; a mover. Direct and unmediated, he listened to his influences of Zen, ballet, and art. And without complication or high-flown explanations, he continued to create something totally new throughout a career that spanned over 70 years.

Today is what would have been Cunningham’s 100th birthday, and while many important choreographers seem to fall by the wayside unless you’re especially well informed in dance and its theory, Cunningham made a point of documenting and preserving his contributions – perhaps partly so that they could be celebrated on days like these. In his memory, we revisit the life of one of dance’s biggest pioneers of chance and vanguards of modern movement.

“Cunningham didn’t always have much to say and didn’t care a lot for what things meant – to himself or the rest of the world. Rather, he was a man of action; a mover”


While the rest of the world was dancing to a beat, tune, or rhythm, Cunningham was sinking his heels into the sporadic, the unsystematic, and the unpredictable. His signature methods included what has been termed as ‘choreography by chance’, with sequences of movements sometimes determined on the night of performances by the tossing of a coin. The composer Morton Feldman, who wrote the score for Summerspace, described Cunningham’s method: "Suppose your daughter is getting married and her wedding dress won't be ready until the morning of the wedding, but it's by Dior."

It was part of his artistic process that himself and his dancers would not rehearse to the music in advance, and often the music and the set would be created without the knowledge of the dance itself – the end results just as unknown to his dance company as it would have been to his audience. Cunningham himself once said, “It is hard for many people to accept that dancing has nothing in common with music other than time and the division of time.” By intentionally separating two things that had been so incessantly linked throughout history, Cunningham reinvented the wheel, not only in terms of choreography, but also in how it was performed in the moment and received by those who experienced it. It certainly took many of Cunningham’s spectators and critics time to warm up to Cunningham’s initial introduction to his ultra-modern style, but never faltering, he continued this methodology almost religiously throughout the rest of his career.


Cunningham’s experimentation with breaking down the boundaries between various forms of art and philosophy was revolutionary during the 1940s and early 50s. One of the most notable elements of his work was how he incorporated the forms of dance, music, and visuals through artistic collaboration. What was key, though, was that his trusted collaborators understood him, and trusted him back. The ongoing uncertainty of Cunningham’s working process was no doubt then eased by the fact that most of his collaborators were around for the long haul, often working alongside each other over periods of years and in some cases, decades.

The dance piece, Rainforest, that saw David Tudor responsible for the electronic score and Andy Warhol create the set design was choreographed by Cunningham back in 1968; a momentous year remembered for its student revolts and public social rebellion. Warhol created large silver pillows filled with helium that floated freely over the performance, uncontrollable and anarchic. In an open-air performance of the piece, some of the pillows blew away totally, an unprecedented event that was literally and metaphorically out of their hands. What Cunningham, Warhol, and many of Cunningham’s artistic and philosophic collaborators had was a common ground, where dance theory, art, ancient mantras, and modernist attitudes could come together, both exclusively and as one.


When once asked what one dance was about, he answered: "it's about 40 minutes". As a rebel against the status quo of the choreography that came before him, he rebuffed typical use of narrative, structure, and expression, and led the way with his ‘pure movement’ ethos. Some might translate this as a parallel to “art for art’s sake”; an approach to dance that many saw as an adventure out onto previously untrodden land. Most of all, he rejected the idea of dance needing to be justified by any specific point or explanation. As far as Cunningham was concerned, all connotations and perceptions were valid reactions, and none more valid than the other.


Many know of Cunningham and his work through his working and romantic connection to John Cage – it’s a rare occasion to come across their names in a sentence without one or the other. As a prominent American composer, Cage pioneered the use of ‘chance composition’ and indeterminacy in music, which allowed for the freedom of the audience’s perception, and extended technique; the practice of playing instruments in unconventional ways to achieve strange and irregular sounds. Many have noted Cage as one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde, so it’s no wonder that the Cage-Cunningham duo was so compatible, as two names working synonymously in time with each other. Despite their synchronicity and some of Cunningham’s most celebrated works coming from their collaboration, they both famously asserted that music and dance should co-exist but not be intentionally coordinated, with the only common denominators being time and rhythmic structure.

When Cunningham first met Cage in his late teens, Cage was playing an accompaniment for a class in Seattle where Cunningham danced. Fast-forward to the 1940s in New York, and the pair were working together on their first collaboration, for which Cunningham was choreographing the dance and Cage writing the music separately. At this point, their conversation of a piece where music and dance were not dependent on one another was already well into the throes of its development, and this concept swiftly became the basis of almost all of Cunningham’s work. Cunningham may have said that dance and music had barely anything in common, but these two were quite obviously striding down the same garden path in their thinking.


Beyond the realms of their working relationship, the romantic ties between Cunningham and Cage as lovers and life partners further married their collective works and mantras in art and in life. Cunningham was likely to have come across I Ching after its first translation into English was published in the US in 1951, and alongside Cage (of whom I Ching had a hugely notable impact), he regularly consulted the ancient Chinese text to guide his choreography. The idea of escaping patterns of thought, was for both of them, of paramount importance. With narrative and classical structures out of the window, Cunningham was relying on pure stochasticity to inform his ‘events’ and free himself of cliché. Despite the intention of freeing his thinking, Cunningham’s pre-performance I Ching consultations were thorough and meticulous, but worth it for the occasional moments of wonder and surprise that they would conjure.  

In many ways, Cunningham owed his concept of ‘pure movement’ to the philosophies of Buddhism and Zen; especially exercising discipline and removing emotion and expression from the mix. His critics sometimes blasted him for not talking much about his work. But Cunningham was a man of direct action, and unlike many other forms of art that leave behind a physical record such as a book, a painting or a script, Cunningham understood that he was working in the momentary. In an interview with Peter Dickinson, however, Cunningham did touch on his appreciation for Zen and how it had impacted him. He said, “I happened to read this quotation of Einstein’s where he said there are no fixed points in space. I thought that was perfect for the stage, and there’s no point that’s any more important than any other. In that sense, it’s Buddhist or Zen. Any point could be important. Wherever anybody was, was in that sense a centre.”

“Cunningham reinvented the wheel, not only in terms of choreography, but also in how it was performed in the moment and received by those who experienced it”


The ongoing collaborative relationship between Cunningham and Rauschenberg saw them work together over the span of a decade from 1954 to 1964, where Rauschenberg created endless costumes, props, lighting, and set designs. Dance Works I is one of the best examples of Cunningham’s penchant for collaboration; a piece that featured enormous curtains painted by Rauschenberg and large scale sculptural pieces, as well as the slightly translucent, black and white collage curtains that he made for Cunningham’s Interscape, which allowed the audience to see the dancers warming up on stage.

Just like the working dynamic with Cage, Cunningham and Rauschenberg disjointed the connection between dance and visuals, allowing both to create independently, and with minimal knowledge of what the other was doing. Quite often, Cunningham would only allude figurative clues about what he was going for on his end. During the production of Winterbranch in 1964, for example, Cunningham told Rauschenberg ambiguously to “think of the night as if it were day”. In response, Rauschenberg’s visuals consisted of all-black costumes and sudden, bright headlight-like lighting that had the audience shielding their eyes while the dancers on stage were engulfed in darkness. Filmmaker Charles Atlas recalled the performance: “There were battery-operated lights held by various people in the wings, and the lighting design was very erratic. It had nothing to do with the dance.”

Cunningham, Cage, and Rauschenberg often worked all together on the same pieces – although their idea of “working together” was in fact a fragmented, exclusive process. Rauschenberg’s position as a long-standing collaborator came to an end with the 1964 world tour, after Rauschenberg commented egotistically that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was his “biggest canvas”, a comment that was construed as the colonisation of a relationship that was supposed to be all about independence.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Interscape (2000), with costumes and décor byRobert RauschenbergCourtesy Walker Art


In an interview with the Cunningham near the end of his life, Judith Mackrell observed that he seemed “bent on reinventing himself until the last”. Spending 90 years throughout one of the most transitory and shifting centuries in history saw him experience a multitude of new schools of thought and attitudes. He was forever looking ahead, adapting to the times, looking to utilise new change. Later in his career, he experimented with motion technology and an animated computer program called DanceForm in his choreography, and near his death, he created a ‘Legacy Plan’ with digital archives preserving his work and information on how he wished his company to be run after his death. Cunningham also set up the Merce Cunningham Trust in 2000; maintaining and enhancing his life work and protecting the public’s access to it.

Cunningham was a fearless innovator and marched ahead of the others for seven whole decades. When others seemed put off or confused by the irregularity and absence of resolution in his choreography, Cunningham just carried on doing it anyway. As the famed ballet dancer and choreographer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, said, “Merce Cunningham reinvented dance, and then waited for the audience”. Recognition for being boundless and state-of-the-art was achieved relatively early on in his career, but it was the opening up of limits and constraints in dance that had the biggest impact of all, on his contemporaries and those who continue to find incentive and experimentation through his work today.


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