Dead, Mercier Philip “Merce” Cunningham on July 26, 2009 at the age of 90, he was an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of the American modern dance for more than 50 years. Born in Centralia, Washington on April 16, 1919, the second of three sons, both his brothers followed their father, Clifford D. Cunningham, into the legal profession. Cunningham first experienced dance while living in Centralia.
He took tap class from a local teacher, Mrs. Maude Barrett, whose energy and spirit taught him to love dance. Her emphasis on precise musical timing and rhythm provided him a clear understanding of musicality that he implemented in his later dance pieces.
He attended the Cornish School in Seattle, headed by Nellie Cornish, from 1937 to 1939 to study acting, but found drama’s reliance on text and miming too limiting and concrete. Cunningham preferred the ambiguous nature of dance, which gave him an outlet for exploration of movement.
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’Imobilité, Kimberly Bartosik, Floanne Ankah and Jonah Bokaer.
Many of Cunningham’s most famous innovations were developed in collaboration with composer John Cage, his life partner. Cunningham and Cage used stochastic (random) procedures to generate material, discarding many artistic traditions of narrative and form. Famously, they asserted that a dance and its music should not be intentionally coordinated with one another.
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.”
An active choreographer and mentor to the arts world until his death at the age of 90, Cunningham earned some of the highest honors 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, and the British Laurence Olivier Award in 1985, and was named Officier of the Legion d’Honneur in France in 2004.
Cunningham’s life and artistic vision has been the subject of four books and three major 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.
Cunningham celebrated his eightieth birthday with a special duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1999. By this time, he had become physically fragile but was still as imaginative as ever. Cunningham debuted Biped that same year, which incorporated computer-generated imagery alongside his dancers.