Merce Cunningham

(1919—2009) American dancer and choreographer

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John Cage (1912—1992) American composer, pianist, and writer

Martha Graham (1894—1991) American dancer, teacher, and choreographer



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(b Centralia, Wash., 16 Apr. 1919; d New York, 26 Jul. 2009)

US dancer, choreographer, and company director. One of the towering figures of 20th-century modern dance. He studied tap, folk, and ballroom dancing locally, followed by training in modern dance at the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle, at Mills College, Oakland, California, and at the Bennington Summer School of Dance. In 1939 he joined the Martha Graham company and for the next six years was one of her leading performers. A lithe, witty dancer with a fine elevation he created roles in many of her works, including Every Soul is a Circus (1939), El Penitente (1940), Letter to the World (1940), Punch and Judy (1941), Deaths and Entrances (1943), and Appalachian Spring (1944). During this time he also studied ballet at the School of American Ballet. In 1942 he gave a recital of his own choreography at Bennington College using music by John Cage and in 1944 he and Cage gave a joint concert at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio Theater in New York. Cage, Cunningham's life partner, was also to become his musical collaborator and adviser until his death. After leaving Graham's company in 1945 Cunningham became an independent choreographer developing a style that combined aspects of ballet (fast rhythmic footwork and high leg extensions) with the free, mobile torso and blunt thrust of modern dance. His works also made a point of eschewing narrative, character, or theme. One of his early commissions was The Seasons (mus. Cage) for Ballet Society, which was danced at its premiere on 18 May 1947 by Tanaquil LeClercq and Cunningham. He set up his own company in the summer of 1953, with dancers including Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Remy Charlip, and Paul Taylor and John Cage and David Tudor as resident musicians. The company gave its New York debut on 29 Dec. 1953 at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village, touring the US in 1955, and making its first international tour in 1964. As an increasingly central figure in the American avant-garde, Cunningham worked with leading figures from the art world including Robert Rauschenberg (resident designer 1954–64), Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns. However a defining feature of these collaborations was Cunningham's insistence upon the creative independence of design, dance, and music in each work. With the exception of his earliest choreography these three elements usually came together for the first time in performance, and the only commonality between them was that they happened within the same time frame and within the same space. Cunningham also began to create his dances through chance procedures, allowing decisions about the order or trajectory of the movement or the number of dancers to be made by the toss of a coin, for example, or the roll of the I Ching. Throughout his long career Cunningham continued to experiment with new creative methods. He was the first major choreographer to use computer technology, creating movement sequences on screen before setting them on his dancers, and thus facilitating an increasing complexity of action and stage patterning. In 1991 he helped develop the choreographic computer software Life Forms. His 1999 work BIPED was his first digital dance, in which computer-generated images, including dancing figures, were projected onto the stage to create a perspective-altering interaction with the live performers. Apart from a few exceptions including Septet (1953, set to music by Satie) most of the scores accompanying Cunningham's work were specially composed for him and were electronic rather than orchestral or acoustic. He favoured a select group of composers although exceptions from this included rock groups Radiohead and Sigur Ros who provided the score for Split Sides (2003).


Subjects: Dance.

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