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Dance choreography innovations: Merce Cunningham

By Catalogs Editorial Staff

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company: A legacy for the future

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company: A legacy for the future

Dancer and choreographer Merce (Mercier) Cunningham (April 16, 1919 ? July 26, 2009) is celebrated as a visionary artist and performer who profoundly impacted the world of contemporary dance. Merce Cunningham choreography is synonymous with modern dance innovation.

Merce Cunningham’s groundbreaking experimentation in pairing dance with new electronic music and technology, designing movement governed by chance, innovative space, timing, and computer programs, as well as his collaborations with avante-guard visual artists, musicians, architects and designers all served to build his reputation as one of the most honored and forward-thinking dancers of all time.

Mere Cunningham was born and raised in Washington state. His formative dance experience began in the early 1930’s, when, as a teenager he participated in tap dance. Cunningham’s first formal dance training began at the Cornish School, known today as the Cornish College of the Arts located in Seattle, Washington.  

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A pioneering dancer named Martha Graham first saw Cunningham dance in a Cornish School production when he was just 20 years old. She invited him to join her dance company This opportunity inspired Cunningham’s 1939 relocation from the West Coast to New York City, where he trained and performed exclusively with the Martha Graham company until 1945.

In 1944, Cunningham collaborated with composer and music theorist John Cage, who designed an innovative soundtrack for Cunningham’s first solo concert in New York City. Cunningham and Cage became fast friends, life long romantic partners, and frequent artistic collaborators.


Merce Cunningham and John Cage were invited to teach contemporary dance, and present several performances at Black Mountain College during the summers of 1948, 1952 and 1953. Black Mountain College, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina was a small, newly formed, experimental liberal arts college that was attracting some of the world’s most creative visual artists, poets, composers, philosophers, etc.

The Black Mountain College summer of 1953 is lauded in history books as the true beginning of Merce Cunningham’s dance company. Cunningham and Cage arrived at Black Mountain College with a small group of New York city dancers, who studied and practiced together throughout the summer. At the end of the summer, the group decided to form the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. After their return to New York City, the group gained famed for their prominent productions, and soon began to tour nationally, and internationally.

Merce Cunningham choreography is know for the over two-hundred unique works for Cunningham’s company of dancers. His works have also been presented by the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, White Oak Dance Project, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Zurich Ballet, the Ballet of the Paris Op?ra, and Rambert Dance Company (London), among others.

Many of the dancers who originally trained with Cunningham have gone on to form their own distinguished dance companies. These recognized dancers include Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Karole Armitage, Foofwa d?Immobilit?, and Jonah Bokaer.

Merce Cunningham passed away peacefully in his New York City home in July of 2009. He was ninety years old. During his lifetime, Cunningham received honors, awards, fellowships and grants too numerous to count. Today, Merce Cunningham choreography, his life and his creative vision have been the subject of four books and three major international museum exhibitions. 

A legacy, which Cunningham established before he died, has helped to preserve the dance company he founded. Today, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is a highly esteemed training and touring institution comprised of fourteen dancers (seven men and seven women) who continue to perform the works of Merce Cunningham, in collaboration with contemporary musicians and artists. 


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