Pioneer of Modern Dance
In the age of conformity, Merce Cunningham has resisted the temptation to remain aligned with his peers. Cunningham has pioneered a new school of thought in dance, and has set the standard for future pioneers. He is passionate about what he does and it has been evident in his works as a dancer and a choreographer.
Cunningham was born on April 16, 1919, in Centralia, Washington. At the age of twelve, Cunningham became interested in dance and started informal instruction. Upon graduation from high school, Cunningham began his formal dance instruction at the Cornish School of Fine and Applied Arts. After two years at the Cornish School, he studied at Mills College and at Bennington College; this is where he was invited to join Martha Graham’s dance company in 1939. Graham was an incredible dancer who also choreographed during her career. While dancing for Graham, Cunningham began to make a name for himself in the dancing community. It was with Graham’s encouragement that Cunningham started to choreograph on his own. His decision to start choreographing can be looked at as one of the most important decisions in the history of dance.
With the encouragement of John Cage, a composer, Cunningham left Martha Graham’s Dance Company in 1945 to pursue a fulltime partnership with Cage. The two men would go on to have a very storied career. On the night of April 6, 1944, at the Humphrey Weidman Studio, Cunningham and Cage performed their first solo recital. In attendance that night was acclaimed dance critic, Edwin Denby. “When he was actively reviewing, Edwin Denby was this country’s most respected critic of the dance”(Klosty 215). Cunningham’s first performance captured Denby from the very beginning with Cunningham’s amazing steps, runs, and knee bends and he described them as “brilliant in lightness and speed.” Denby was also impressed by Cunningham’s gifts as a lyric dancer. Denby’s first review of Cunningham helped launch his career forward. Denby ended his review of Cunningham’s first solo performance by saying “I have never seen a first solo recital that combined such taste, such technical finish, such originality of dance material, and so sure a manner of presentation.”
Before the 1940’s, expressionist was the leading form of modern dance. Cunningham on the other hand, was opposed to this type of dance and started to develop his own unique form of dance. While Graham had usually structured her dances around a certain narrative, Cunningham “developed ‘choreography by chance,’ a technique in which isolated movements are assigned sequence by such random methods as tossing a coin”(Britannica Online). Cunningham rejected “the literary and psychological themes of Graham”(Encarta). In 1953, Cunningham began the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Black Mountain College. Cage became instrumental in the success and future of Cunningham’s newly started Dance Company. Cage would help out in all facets of the dance company ranging from program designer to fund raiser. Cunningham and Cage shared the same belief that dance and music can survive independently of one another. This type of thought was completely different from what Cunningham had experienced with Graham. However, in some sense all of their dancing somehow revolved around music in one way or the other. The music Cunningham used in his productions would sometimes be impossible to dance to in the conventional way. John Cage was once quoted as saying:
Merce Cunningham developed his own school of dancing and choreography, the continuity of which no longer relies on linear elements, be they narrative or psychological, nor does it rely on a movement towards and away from climax. As in abstract painting, it is assumed that an element (a movement, a sound, a change of light) is in and of itself expressive; what it communicates is in large part determined by the observer himself. (Merce Biography)
This new style of dance demanded the most out of the dancers in Cunningham’s company. Everything they knew about traditional dancing had to be forgotten in order to be successful in Cunningham’s innovative style.
Traditional stage space was even something that Cunningham had abandoned. Since the Renaissance Period, the center of the stage had always been the “center of gravity”(Klosty 12). Klosty compared the stage to a class society where the center of the stage was regal, where the soloist should appear, and the outskirts of the stage were for the leftovers. However, Cunningham refused to use this stage setup in his dances. The best spot on the floor could be anywhere at any given time. Cunningham’s use of space relationship has made his dances seem to be overflowing with action. Events in the dance would happen in one corner of the stage only to be followed up by the next main section in the opposite corner of the stage. Other people had not implemented this type of choreography, but the audience embraced this new form with widespread acceptance. However, other individuals in the dancing community were less tolerant to Cunningham’s new style. Some saw this change as threatening to their traditional types of dances.
One famous dance using Cunningham’s “’choreography by chance’” was entitled Suite By Chance (Britannica Online). Not only did Suite By Chance use this new style of choreography, it was also the first modern dance to use an electronic score. This dance was the first major dance where almost everything was to put together by chance. Since Suite By Chance was choreographed, Cunningham has used this chance method in every dance he has choreographed.
Cunningham’s new style of dance “embraced an extraordinarily wide spectrum, from natural, everyday actions such as sitting down and walking to virtuosic dance movements”(Britannica Online). Dancers were light on their toes allowing them to be free to move around the stage. Phrases were centered around the torso and the back with a “greater emphasis on the vertical and less emphasis on the body’s weight and the force of gravity”(Britannica Online). Using these movements, the phrases tended to consist of swift position changes across the vast space of the stage.
After many years of experimenting with this type of dance, Cunningham chose a new direction for his company’s future. Cunningham chose to do what he called “Events.” These were simply parts taken from old and new dances that were put together to create a new dance. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company continues to use “Events” in their dance performances. After this, Cunningham and his company began to produce videos with their dancing and they also worked in film, producing such titles as Locale, Duets, and Fielding Sixes.
Jack Anderson recently wrote a review of Into Terra Incognita With Merce Cunningham, which was performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the New York State Theater. Cunningham “continues to travel inquisitively across time and space by creating dances for big casts and small” (Anderson). This performance consisted of a 1995 work called “Windows”, “Sounddance”, “Occasion Piece.” This performance was the only one during the entire season where “Windows” was performed. During the performance of “Windows,” it was easy to see the “distinctive atmosphere” (Anderson). It was a very dim atmosphere with a soft score from Emanuel Dimas de Melo. Melo used “soft rumblings with chimes” to help create a mystifying atmosphere (Anderson). During the performance, the dancers used this atmosphere to help them move. Anderson described the dancers as “to be moving always with care, but never with fear.” It was almost a mystical journey to which the dancers were traveling. “Each step took them farther into some strange terrain” (Anderson).
Cunningham has been honored with many awards during his storied career as a dancer and as a choreographer. In September of 1990, at a ceremony at the White House, President Bush honored Cunningham by presenting him with the National Medal of Arts. Various groups and countries around the world have honored Cunningham for his contributions to the arts.
At eighty years old, Merce Cunningham continues to be on the pioneering edge of dance. His innovative techniques continue to astound audiences around the world with his creativity and expertise. In every time period throughout history, there has always been a select few who have changed the times. Whether it is Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, or Merce Cunningham, society will always be indebted to these individuals for the contributions they have made in various aspects our lives.
Anderson, Jack. “Dance Review: Into Terra Incognita With Merce Cunningham.” New York Times 26 July 1999: E5.
“Cunningham, Merce.” Encarta Encyclopedia. 1998 ed.
“Cunningham, Merce.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. [Accessed 31 August 1999].
“Dance.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. [Accessed 31 August 1999].
Denby, Edwin. “Review.” Merce Cunningham. Ed. James Klosty. New York City, NY: Saturday Review Press, 1976. 213.
Klosty, James. Introduction. Merce Cunningham. By Klosty. New York City, NY: Saturday Review Press, 1975. 11-17.
“Merce: biography.” Cunningham Dance Foundation. Online. Internet. 31 Aug. 1999. Available WWW:http://www.merce.org/merce_bio.html.