April 16, 1919 – Merce Cunningham
“Falling is one of the ways of moving.“
With his partner in life and art, John Cage, Cunningham created some of the most memorable dance pieces of the 20th century and beyond. He is one of the world’s greatest choreographers. Cunningham ranks with Isadora Duncan, Serge Diaghilev, Martha Graham and George Balanchine in giving the public the chance to rethink the essence of dance and choreography.
Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington. No one in his family had any connection with the arts, though Cunningham once said that his father, a lawyer, had a certain histrionic talent in the courtroom. Cunningham, being questioned once on jury duty, said:
“I’m the criminal in the family.“
As a teenager, Cunningham studied tap and ballroom with a local teacher. He performed in school recitals, and even went with his teacher on what he described as “a short and intoxicating vaudeville tour” the year before he graduated from high school, an experience that turned him into a trouper, which he remained throughout his career.
Cunningham met Cage at Seattle’s Cornish College Of The Arts. Other famous Dance alumni include Graham and Mark Morris, actor Brendan Fraser (class of 1990), winner of the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Jinkx Monsoon (class of 2010), and Academy Award-winning actor Beatrice Straight (class of 1934).
Cunningham and Cage met in 1937, when Cage took a job as a dance accompanist while taking classes at Cornish. During the Seattle years, Cage and Cunningham organized an all-percussion band, collected unusual instruments and explored the Pacific Northwest.
After the couple moved to New York City, Cunningham was discovered by Graham. His first solo concert, in 1944, was in collaboration with Cage. Cage and Cunningham’s artistic and romantic partnership would last 54 years, until Cage left this world in 1992. Together and apart, the couple changed the relationship of music to dance.
Cunningham formed his own dance company in 1953. The company quickly became known for innovation and established itself as an important contributor to the post-war New York dance and arts scene. Cage served as music director of Cunningham’s dance company, and for many years he was its manager, main fundraiser, cook, company philosopher, morale-booster and liaison between the introverted choreographer and the dancers.
Artist Robert Rauschenberg worked as the company’s stage manager, and collaborations with other major American artists: Richard Serra, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Sol LeWitt continued into the new century. As late as 2007, Cunningham and Rauschenberg continued to premiere new pieces.
Cage began to experiment with pieces for the prepared piano, a piano he created with objects placed on and between the strings to alter sound. He also used record players and phonographs, appliances, kiddie toys, and flower pots as instruments. He was as influential in the world of serious music as Cunningham was in dance. As a couple, they provided an artistic punch that slammed through the conventions of post-war America. They experimented with chance encounters of dance, music, and structures.
Cunningham never seemed that he was concerned with what happened to his work after he was gone. He was, like most creative artists, chiefly involved in the work he was doing now, or was going to do next. He embraced new technology. His pioneering work in film and video, which began in the early 1970s, introduced a new way of looking at dance on camera. In the 1990s, his fascination with the computer program DanceForms led to new choreographic complexity.
The most controversial of the innovations that he and Cage introduced to the world was the separation of dance from music, prompted by their belief that the most important thing the two arts have in common is that they exist in time. Cunningham could have achieved greater popularity if he had choreographed to recognizable music instead of the live electronic music composed by Cage and other musicians who worked with him. But, of course, his work would have been very different if he had.
At Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, the school attached of the New York City Ballet, Cunningham taught a class in modern dance once a week.
During that era, Lincoln Kirstein, the school’s general director, was not as dismissive of modern dance as he was later in his career. In 1947, he commissioned a ballet from Cunningham and Cage, The Seasons, with sets by Isamu Noguchi for the company. This was the first of what came to be known as Cunningham’s “chance ballets”, followed by Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951). Cage played for Cunningham’s class at School for American Ballet school; he knew at most three tunes, among them Three Blind Mice.
Never in the closet, Cunningham and Cage rarely talked openly about the nature of their personal life, as opposed to their professional relationship. When someone hoped to “out” them once asked in a public forum about their domestic life, Cage said, after a pause:
“Well, I do the cooking … and Merce does the dishes.“
Most of his early reviews were terrible, but Cunningham was a rare, instinctive showman. On stage he was mesmerizing, and audiences caught on. Cunningham’s detractors said that his dances are too emotionless, too detached. Even his admirers felt that while the dances were superb, the music could be an interference. Those discordant moments pleased him:
“I think the separation of elements, of having dance, music and design created independently, when they do come together they can produce something which no one could predict. They can make something happen that hasn’t happened before.“
At 80 years old, he danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov, but Cunningham gradually relinquished day to day management of his dance company. Even in his late 80s, when he was ravaged by arthritis, he continued to dance, and the dances he created were just as compelling. Some of his works are very funny; some inexplicably moving.
Cage left this world in August 1992, taken by a stroke when he was 79 years old at the New York apartment he shared with Cunningham.
Cunningham never stopped challenging himself, though he challenged the rest of us. On a July evening in 2009, he died peacefully in his sleep in his apartment. He was 90 years old when he took that final curtain call.