Merce Cunningham was a leader of the American avant-garde throughout his seventy-year career and is considered one of the most important choreographers of our time. Through much of his life, he was also one of the greatest American dancers. With an artistic career distinguished by constant innovation, Cunningham expanded the frontiers not only of dance, but also of contemporary visual and performing arts. His collaborations with artistic innovators from every creative discipline have yielded an unparalleled body of American dance, music, and visual art. Of all his collaborations, Cunningham’s work with John Cage, his life partner from the 1940s until Cage’s death in 1992, had the greatest influence on his practice. Together, Cunningham and Cage proposed a number of radical innovations.
Born in Centralia, Washington, 1919, Cunningham began his professional modern dance career at 20 with a six-year tenure as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company. In 1944 he presented his first solo show and in 1953 formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a forum to explore his groundbreaking ideas. Over the course of his career, Cunningham choreographed more than 150 dances and over 800 »Events«. Dancers who trained with Cunningham and have gone on to form their own companies include Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Karole Armitage, Foofwa d’Imobilité, and Jonah Bokaer.
Cunningham’s lifelong passion for exploration and innovation made him a leader in applying new technologies to the arts. He began investigating dance on film in the 1970s, and choreographed using the computer program LifeForms during the latter part of his career. He explored motion capture technology to create décor for »BIPED« (1999), and his interest in new media led to the creation of »Mondays with Merce«. This webcast series provides a never-before-seen insight into his company and Cunningham’s teaching technique with video excerpt from trainings and rehearsal, with archival footage and interviews.
An active choreographer and mentor to the arts world until his death at the age of 90, Cunningham earned some of the highest honours bestowed in the arts. Among his many awards are the National Medal of Arts (1990) and the MacArthur Fellowship (1985). He also received the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award in 2009, Japan’s Praemium Imperiale in 2005, the British Laurence Olivier Award in 1985, and was named Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in France in 2004. Cunningham’s life and artistic vision have been the subject of four books and three major exhibitions, and his works have been presented by renowned companies including the Ballet of the Paris Opera, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, White Oak Dance Project, and London’s Rambert Dance Company.
Cunningham passed away in his New York City home in 2009. Always forward-thinking, he developed a precedent-setting Legacy Plan prior to his death to guide his company and ensure the preservation of his artistic legacy. Through the Merce Cunningham Trust, his vision continues to live on, regenerated time and time again through new generations of dance artists.