Cunningham, Mercier Philip ("Merce")

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CUNNINGHAM, Mercier Philip ("Merce")

(b. 16 April 1919 in Centralia, Washington), dancer and pioneering choreographer who in the 1960s began earning recognition for his dance events—collaborations with musicians and artists that relied on chance for their outcomes.

Cunningham was one of three children of Clifford Cunningham, a lawyer, and Marion Cunningham. He started taking dance lessons at the age of eight, a decision his parents fully supported. In high school Cunningham studied tap with Maud Barrett, who belonged to the same Catholic church as the Cunninghams. Barrett was an energetic, somewhat eccentric woman who inspired Cunningham to approach dance with a sense of adventure and fun.

Cunningham attended the University of Washington in Seattle for one year in 1937, then decided to go to New York City to pursue a career in theater. His parents refused, and referred him instead to Seattle's Cornish School for Performing and Visual Arts, which he attended in 1938 and 1939. It was here that he discovered the Graham technique (which he studied under Bonnie Bird) and met the composer John Cage, who became his lifelong partner. Cunningham spent his summers at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he took classes from the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. Graham invited Cunningham to join her company in New York; he was a soloist with the Graham Company from 1939 to 1945.

Cunningham presented his first solo concert in New York in 1944, and began a lifelong collaboration with Cage, which continued until the composer's death in 1992. In 1947 the author and dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein commissioned Cunningham to create a work for the New City Ballet. Cunningham formed his first company of six dancers in 1953 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; they gave their first New York performance in 1954. The musicians were Cage and David Tudor; Robert Rauschenberg, the company's artistic advisor, made the posters for the concert. The week of performances received not one printed word of review.

In 1954 Cunningham received his first Guggenheim Fellowship, which, he said, "saved my life," but the company continued to struggle financially and received little critical acclaim in the United States for the remainder of that decade. In 1964 Cunningham and his company prepared for a world tour, which proved a turning point. Rauschenberg and Cage sold art, and friends donated funds to help finance the tour. From 1965 to 1968 the company made numerous appearances in the United States and abroad, but it continued to be financed largely by the sale of works by such artists as Joan Miró, Jasper Johns, and Marcel Duchamp. Cunningham did not receive a salary until 1967.

Cunningham did not create works designed to make audience members think or feel a certain way. He relied entirely on chance in the construction of his performances. The choreography was done independently of sets and the music, which was usually performed live. These elements were not combined until the last possible moment.

For Winterbranch (1963), Cunningham derived the movement from the motion of falling. Rauschenberg, who designed the lighting, focused noncolored lights differently at each performance. Consequently, they lit the dancers directly only by happenstance. Often, more than half of Winterbranch would be performed in complete darkness. The musical score, by La Monte Young, consisted of two tape-recorded sounds played at near-deafening levels.

In Story (1963), Cunningham had his dancers select their costumes each evening from a pile of clothing and props on the stage, and then decide what to do with them. Rauschenberg was on stage during the performance, constructing the scenery using found objects.

Cunningham gave his dancers the freedom to choose from a menu of gestures and movements in Field Dances (1963), and to arrange their choices as they pleased, or not to perform at all. In Variations V (1965), the movement of the dancers interacting with sensors in the set triggered electronic signals that prompted the musicians to generate the sound. The set consisted of movies, television images, a bicycle, a gym mat, plastic plants, and furniture. How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run (1965), a piece inspired by images from sports and games, was performed to the sound of Cage reading aloud several of his stories.

In 1967 Johns replaced Rauschenberg as the company's artistic advisor, and an increasing number of artists collaborated with Cunningham in his works. Frank Stella designed the sets for Scramble (1967), Andy Warhol for RainForest (1968), Johns and Duchamp for Walkaround Time (1968), and Robert Morris for Canfield (1969). Cunningham continued to rely on chance for the outcomes of his pieces. For RainForest, Warhol designed helium-filled Mylar pillows that drifted around the stage buoyed by air currents generated by the dancers' movements; the lighting changed for each performance.

Cunningham based the choreography for Canfield on the game of solitaire, composing it in thirteen sections with interludes between each. The arrangement and inclusion of the sections was usually determined on the day of the performance, hence the length of the performance varied from 20 to 105 minutes. The "score" consisted of three pages of typewritten instructions, which only generally described the type of equipment the musicians were to obtain and the types and continuity of sounds they were to produce. Johns's set consisted of a backdrop coated with a highly reflective substance, and the dancers' costumes were to be made of the same material. Depending on chance had its risks; Johns said of Canfield's premiere, "Nothing worked as intended."

Cunningham was also known for his "event performances" in the 1960s. These were uninterrupted, evening-long, nonrepertory works that he specifically choreographed for nonproscenium spaces such as gymnasiums or, in one instance, New York's Grand Central Station.

The 1960s were a time of experimentation, revolution, and freedom, and Cunningham embodied all of these forces. His followers at that time were largely other artists, but that began to change in the 1970s as his work gained exposure through regular video and television performances in New York. By the 1980s his company had an annual two-week season in New York City and regularly received respectful reviews and grant money. In 1988 they performed thirteen works over four weeks, with seven performances each week; Cunningham had become mainstream. He continued to perform with the company through the 1980s. In 1991 Cunningham performed in Trackers, partnering with a portable ballet barre.

Cunningham was "the key issue dividing the world of modern dance" in the 1960s, according to his biographer Richard Kostelanetz. At a time when people were questioning structures, Cunningham saw that dance could be done in another way, that anything, in fact, could be considered dance: performing a grand jeté, riding a bicycle, or simply standing still. For Cunningham, "Dance is a visible action of life." He revolutionized the way we think about and look at dance.

The partly autobiographical Changes: Notes on Choreography (1968), written by Cunningham and edited by Frances Starr, relates Cunningham's ideas on dance using his original working notebooks as source material. James Klosty, ed., Merce Cunningham (1975), includes an informative introduction followed by more than a dozen contributions by some of Cunningham's dancers and collaborators, including Carolyn Brown and John Cage; several striking photographs are also included. Elinor Rogosin, The Dancemakers: Conversations with American Choreographers (1980), offers a brief interview with Cunningham and the author's observations on his work. The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (1985) provides detailed descriptions and in-depth analyses of Cunningham's work by the choreographer himself. Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time (1992), is a compilation of essays by Cunningham's friends and colleagues from the 1950s to the early 1990s. David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (1997), also contains some biographical information.

Katharine Fisher Britton

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Cunningham, Mercier Philip ("Merce")

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