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Mercier "Merce" Philip Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009) was an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of the American avant garde for more than fifty years. Throughout much of his life, Cunningham was considered one of the greatest creative forces in American dance. Cunningham is also notable for his frequent collaborations with artists of other disciplines, including musicians John Cage and David Tudor, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Nauman, designer Romeo Gigli, and architect Benedetta Tagliabue. Works that he produced with these artists had a profound impact on avant-garde art beyond the world of dance.

As a choreographer, teacher, and leader of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Cunningham had a profound influence on modern dance. Many dancers who trained with Cunningham formed their own companies, and they include Paul Taylor, Remy Charlip, Viola Farber, Charles Moulton, Karole Armitage, Robert Kovich, Foofwa d’Immobilité, Kimberly Bartosik, Floanne Ankah and Jonah Bokaer.

In 2009, the Cunningham Dance Foundation announced the Legacy Plan, a precedent-setting plan for the continuation of Cunningham’s work and the celebration and preservation of his artistic legacy.

Cunningham earned some of the highest honors bestowed in the arts, including the National Medal of Arts and the MacArthur Fellowship. He also received Japan's Praemium Imperiale, a British Laurence Olivier Award, and was named Officier of the LĂ©gion d'honneur in France.

Cunningham’s life and artistic vision have been the subject of numerous books, films, and exhibitions, and his works have been presented by groups including the Ballet of the Paris Opéra, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, White Oak Dance Project, and London's Rambert Dance Company.


Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, the second of three sons. Both his brothers followed their father into the legal profession. Cunningham initially asked to attend dance school when he was 10 years old, and received his first formal dance and theater training at the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Artsmarker) in Seattle, which he attended from 1937-9. During this time, Martha Graham saw Cunningham dance and invited him to join her company.

In the fall of 1939, Cunningham moved to New York and began a six-year stint as a soloist in the company of Martha Graham. He presented his first solo concert in New York in April 1944 with composer John Cage, who became his life partner and frequent collaborator until Cage's death in 1992.

In the summer of 1953, as a teacher in residence at Black Mountain College, Cunningham formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a forum to explore his new ideas on dance and the performing arts.

Over the course of his career, Cunningham choreographed more than 200 dances and over 800 “Events,” which are site-specific choreographic works. In 1963 he joined with Cage to create the Walker Art Center'smarker first performance, instigating what would be a 25 year collaborative relationship with the Walker. In his performances, he often used the I Ching in order to determine the sequence of his dances and, often, dancers were not told until the night of the performance. In addition to his role as choreographer, Cunningham performed as a dancer in his company into the early 1990s.

He continued to lead his dance company until his death, and presented a new work, Nearly Ninety, in April 2009, at the Brooklyn Academy of Musicmarker, New York, to mark his 90th birthday.

Cunningham lived in New York City, and was Artistic Director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham died peacefully in his home on July 26, 2009.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Cunningham formed Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at Black Mountain College in 1953. Guided by his radical approach to space, time, and technology, the Company has forged a distinctive style, reflecting Cunningham’s technique and illuminating the near limitless possibility for human movement.

The original Company included dancers Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Paul Taylor, and Remy Charlip, and musicians John Cage and David Tudor.

In its early years, MCDC toured in a Volkswagen bus driven by John Cage with just enough room for six dancers, the two musicians, and a stage manager, who was often Robert Rauschenberg. MCDC’s first international tour in 1964—which included performances in Western and Eastern Europe, India, Thailand, and Japan—solidified a constant stream of national and international bookings. In the years since, MCDC has continued to tour the world to critical and popular acclaim, serving as an ambassador for contemporary American culture.

Recent performances and projects include a two-year residency at Dia:Beacon, where MCDC performed Events, Cunningham’s site-specific choreographic collages, in the galleries of Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt among others. In 2007, MCDC premiered XOVER, Cunningham’s final collaboration with Rauschenberg, at Dartmouth Collegemarker in New Hampshire. In 2009, MCDC premiered Cunningham’s newest work, Nearly Ninety, at the Brooklyn Academy of Musicmarker. The Company continues to perform and tour internationally.

Artistic philosophy


Since its founding, Merce Cunningham Dance Company has frequently collaborated with visual artists, architects, designers, and musicians.

From the company's beginnings, Cunningham collaborated with John Cage, its Musical Advisor and Cunningham's life partner from the 1940s until Cage’s death in 1992. Cage had the greatest influence on his practice. Together, Cunningham and Cage proposed a number of radical innovations. The most famous and controversial of these concerned the relationship between dance and music, which they concluded may occur in the same time and space, but should be created independently of one another. They also made extensive use of chance procedures, abandoning not only musical forms, but narrative and other conventional elements of dance composition—such as cause and effect, and climax and anticlimax. For Cunningham the subject of his dances is always dance itself.

After his death, John Cage was succeeded by David Tudor. Since 1995, MCDC has been under the music direction of Takehisa Kosugi. MCDC has commissioned more work from contemporary composers than any other dance company. Its repertory includes works by musicians ranging from John Cage and Gordon Mumma to Gavin Bryars and Sonic Youth.

The Company has also collaborated with an array of visual artists and designers. Robert Rauschenberg, whose famous “Combines” reflect the approach he used to create décor for a number of MCDC’s early works, served as the Company’s resident designer from 1954 through 1964. Jasper Johns followed as Artistic Advisor from 1967 until 1980, and Mark Lancaster from 1980 through 1984. The last Advisors to be appointed were William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw in 1984. Other artists who have collaborated with MCDC include Tacita Dean, Rei Kawakubo, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Ernesto Neto, Frank Stella, Benedetta Tagliabue, and Andy Warhol.

Chance operations

John Cage and I became interested in the use of chance in the 50's. I think one of the very primary things that happened then was the publication of the "I Ching," the Chinese book of changes, from which you can cast your fortune: the hexagrams.

Cage took it to work in his way of making compositions then; and he used the idea of 64—the number of the hexagrams —to say that you had 64, for example, sounds; then you could cast, by chance, to find which sound first appeared, cast again, to say which sound came second, cast again, so that it's done by, in that sense, chance operations. Instead of finding out what you think should follow—say a particular sound—what did the I Ching suggest?Well, I took this also for dance.

I was working on a title called, “Untitled Solo,” and I had made—using the chance operations—a series of movements written on scraps of paper for the legs and the arms, the head, all different. And it was done not to the music but with the music of Christian Wolff.

—Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance, 2000

Although the use of chance operations was considered an abrogation of artistic responsibility, Cunningham was thrilled by a process that arrives at works that could never have been created through traditional collaboration. This does not mean, however, that Cunningham holds every piece created in this fashion is a masterpiece. Those dances that do not "work" are quickly dropped from repertory, while those that do are celebrated as serendipitous discoveries.

Another of Cunningham's innovations was the development of what might be called "non-representative" dance which simply emphasizes movement: in Cunningham's choreography, dancers do not necessarily represent any historical figure, emotional situation, or idea.

Use of technology

Cunningham’s lifelong passion for exploration and innovation has made him a leader in applying new technologies to the arts. He began investigating dance on film in the 1970s, and since 1991 has choreographed using the computer program DanceForms. Cunningham explored motion capture technology with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to create Hand-drawn Spaces, a three-screen animation that was commissioned by and premiered at SIGGRAPH in 1998. This led to a live dance for the stage, BIPED, for which Kaiser and Eshkar provided the projected decor. In 2008, Cunningham released his Loops choreography for the hands as motion-capture data under a Creative Commons license; this was the basis for the open source collaboration of the same name with The OpenEnded Group.

In 2009, Cunningham’s interest in new media led to the creation of Mondays with Merce. This webcast series provides a never-before-seen look at the Company and Cunningham’s teaching technique with video of advanced technique class, Company rehearsal, archival footage, and interviews with current and former Company members, choreographers, and collaborators.

Legacy Plan

The Cunningham Dance Foundation announced the Legacy Plan (LLP) in June 2009. The Plan provides a roadmap for the future of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, as envisioned by Cunningham. The first of its kind in the dance world, the plan represents Merce Cunningham’s vision for continuing his work in the upcoming years, transitioning his Company once he is no longer able to lead it, and preserving his oeuvre.

The Legacy Plan includes a comprehensive documentation and preservation program, which will ensure that pieces from his repertory can be studied, performed and enjoyed by future generations with knowledge of how they originally came to life. In addition, once Cunningham is no longer able to lead his Company, the plan outlines a final international tour for the Company, and, ultimately, the closure of the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company and transfer of all assets to the Merce Cunningham Trust, established by Cunningham to serve as the custodian for his works.


There have been numerous exhibitions dedicated to Cunningham’s work. In addition, he is a visual artist represented by Margarete Roeder Gallery.

The major exhibition Invention: Merce Cunningham & Collaborators at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts closed on October 13, 2007.

Merce Cunningham: Dancing on the Cutting Edge, an exhibition of recent design for MCDC, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, in January 2007.

A trio of exhibitions devoted to John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham, curated by Ron Bishop, were shown in the spring of 2002 at the Gallery of Fine Art, Edison College, Fort Myers, Florida.

A major exhibition about Cunningham and his collaborations, curated by Germano Celant, was first seen at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1999, and subsequently at the Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 1999; the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, 2000; and the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, 2000.


Cunningham choreographed almost two hundred works for his company.

Suite for Five (1956 - 1958)

Music: John Cage, Music for Piano

Costumes: Robert Rauschenberg

Lighting: Beverly Emmons

Crises (1960)

Music: Conlon Nancarrow (from Rhythm Studies for Player Piano)

Costumes, Lighting: Robert Rauschenberg

Rainforest (1968)Lighting: Richard Nelson

Second Hand (1970)

Music: John Cage, (Cheap Imitation)

DĂ©cor & Costumes: Jasper Johns

Lighting: Richard Nelson (1970)Christine Shallenberg (2008)

Sounddance (1975)

Music: David Tudor, Toneburst & Untitled (1975/1994)

DĂ©cor, Lighting, Costumes: Mark Lancaster

Fabrications (1987)

Music: Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, Short Waves & SBbr

DĂ©cor, Costumes: Dove Bradshaw

Lighting: Josh Johnson


Music: John King, blues 99

DĂ©cor, Lighting, Costumes: Mark Lancaster

Ocean (1994)

Music: David Tudor,Soundings: Ocean Diary and Andrew Culver, Ocean 1-95

DĂ©cor, Lighting, Costumes: Marsha Skinner

BIPED (1999)

Music: Gavin Bryars, Biped

DĂ©cor: Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar

Costumes: Suzanne Gallo

Lighting: Aaron Copp

Split Sides (2003)

Music: Radiohead, Sigur RĂłs

DĂ©cor: Robert Heishman, Catherine Yass

Costumes: James Hall

Lighting: James F. Ingalls

Views on Stage (2004)

Music: John Cage, ASLSP and Music for Two

DĂ©cor: Ernesto Neto, Other Animal

Costumes: James Hall

Lighting: Josh Johnson

eyeSpace (2006)

Music: Mikel Rouse, International Cloud Atlas

DĂ©cor: Henry Samelson, Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves

Costumes: Henry Samelson

Lighting: Josh Johnson

eyeSpace (2007)

Music: David Behrman, Long Throw and/or Annea Lockwood, Jitterbug

DĂ©cor: Daniel Arsham, ODE/EON

Costumes: Daniel Arsham

Lighting: Josh Johnson

XOVER (2007)

Music: John Cage, Aria (1958) and Fontana Mix (1958)

DĂ©cor & Costumes: Robert Rauschenberg, Plank

Lighting: Josh Johnson

Nearly Ninety (2009)

Music: John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, Sonic Youth

DĂ©cor: Benedetta Tagliabue

Costumes: Romeo Gigli for io ipse idem

Lighting: Brian MacDevitt

Video Design: Franc Aleu

Honors & awards


Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award

Skowhegan Medal for Performance


Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY


Nelson A. Rockefeller Award, Purchase College School of the Arts, State University of New York

Montgomery Fellow (Arts and Literature), Dartmouth College, Hanover NH


Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle WA


Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN

Praemium Imperiale, Tokyo


Officier of the LĂ©gion d'Honneur, France


Edward MacDowell Medal in interdisciplinary art, the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough NH


Carlisle Hart Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts (Arts & Business Council), New York NY

MATA (Music at the Anthology) Award, New York NY

Medal of the City of Dijon, France


Coat of Arms of the City of Mulhouse, France

La Grande MĂ©daille de la Ville de Paris (echelon vermeil) from the Mayor of Paris

Career Transition for Dancers Award, New York NY

Herald Archangel Award, Glasgow, Scotland

Honorary degree from Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia


Nijinsky Special Prize, Monaco

The 2000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, New York NY

Named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, Washington DC


Premio Internazionale “Gino Tani,” Rome

Handel Medallion from the Mayor of New York City NY

Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Lifetime Achievement, San Francisco CA

Fellow of the Academy of Performing Arts, Hong Kong

The key to the City of Montpellier, France


Bagley Wright Fund Established Artists Award, Seattle WA


Barnard College Medal of Distinction, New York NY

Grand Prix of the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, France


Nellie Cornish Arts Achievement Award from his alma mater, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle WA


Honorary degree from Wesleyan University, Middletown CT

Carina Ari Award (Grand Prix Video Danse with Elliot Caplan), Stockholm, Sweden

Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale, Italy


Inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, NY

Dance and Performance Award for Best Performance by a Visiting Artist, London, England

Medal of Honor from the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, Spain

(With John Cage, posthumously) the Wexner Prize of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Columbus OH

New York Dance and Performance Award (“Bessie”), New York NY

Tiffany Award from the International Society of Performing Arts Administrators, New York NY


National Medal of Arts, Washington DC

Porselli Prize, Italy

Digital Dance Premier Award, London, England

Award of Merit from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, New York NY


Chevalier of the LĂ©gion d'Honneur, France


Dance/USA National Honor, New York NY


Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas TX


Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production (Pictures), London, England

Kennedy Center Honors, Washington DC

MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago IL


Inducted as an Honorary Member into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York NY


The Mayor of New York’s Award of Honor for Arts and Culture, New York NY


The Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award, Durham NC

Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France


Capezio Award, New York NY


New York State Award, Albany NY


BITEF Award, Belgrade, YugoslaviaHonorary degree from the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana IL


Gold Medal for Choreographic Invention at the Fourth International Festival of Dance, Paris


Medal of the Society for the Advancement of Dancing in Sweden, Stockholm


Dance Magazine Award, New York NY

1959 & 1954

Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York NY



  • Bremser, M. (Ed) (1999) Fifty Contemporary Choreographers. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-10364-9
  • Cunningham, Merce (1968) Changes/Notes on Choreography. Something Else Press.
  • Cunningham, M. and Lesschaeve, J. (1992) The Dancer and the Dance. Marion Boyars Publishers. ISBN 0-7145-2931-1
  • Vaughan, David (1999) Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years. Aperture. ISBN 0-89381-863-1
  • Vaughan, D. and Cunningham, M. (2002) Other Animals. Aperture. ISBN 978-0893819460
  • Kostelanetz, R. (1998) Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80877-3
  • Brown, Carolyn (2007) Chance and Circumstance Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-40191-1 Biography 53750

External links

  • [ New York Times Obituary 28 July 2009

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