Merce Cunningham Dance Company
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MERCE CUNNINGHAM, born in Centralia, Washington, received his first formal dance and theater training at the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts) in Seattle. From 1939 to 1945, he was a soloist in the company of Martha Graham. He presented his first New York solo concert with John Cage in April 1944. Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1953. Since that time Cunningham has choreographed nearly 200 works for his company. In 1973 he choreographed Un jour ou deux for the Ballet of the Paris Opéra, with music by John Cage and design by Jasper Johns. (A revised version was presented there in 1986.) The Ballet of the Paris Opéra also performed a revival of his Points in Space in 1990.  His work has also been presented by New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, White Oak Dance Project, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Zurich Ballet, and Rambert Dance Company (London), among others.


Cunningham has worked extensively in film and video, in collaboration first with Charles Atlas and later with Elliot Caplan. In 1999 the collaboration with Atlas was resumed with the production of the documentary Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance. In 2004/2005 they collaborated again on a new piece whose final form is in two versions, Views on Camera and Views on Video. This was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; further projects under this grant include films of Split Sides (2003) and Ocean (1994, revived 2005). Cunningham's interest in contemporary technology has led him to work with the computer program DanceForms, which he has used in making all his dances since Trackers (1991). In 1997 he began work in motion capture with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar of Riverbed Media to develop the decor for BIPED, with music by Gavin Bryars, first performed in 1999 at Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley. Another major work, Interscape, first given in 2000, reunited Cunningham with his early collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, who designed both décor and costumes for the dance, which has music by John Cage.

“If a dancer dances–which is not the same as having theories about dancing or wishing to dance or trying to dance or remembering in his body someone else’s dance–but if the dancer dances, everything is there. . . Our ecstasy in dance comes from the possible gift of freedom, the exhilarating moment that this exposing of the bare energy can give us. What is meant is not license, but freedom. . .”

Merce Cunningham (1952)

In August 2001 Merce returned to the stage in the first theatrical presentations of John Cage’s An Alphabet, at the Edinburgh Festival, with subsequent engagements in Berlin, Champaign-Urbana (Illinois), Berkeley, California, and Perth, Western Australia. In the revival of How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965), first performed in the 2002 Lincoln Center Festival at the New York State Theater, Merce Cunningham, together with David Vaughan, read the accompanying stories by John Cage. In the 2002–03 season the Merce Cunningham Dance Company celebrated its 50th anniversary, beginning with performances at the 2002 Lincoln Center Festival in New York City and ending in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in October 2003, when a new work with music by two rock bands, Radiohead and Sigur Rós, Split Sides, was presented. The décor was by the photographers Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass, with costumes by James Hall and lighting by James F. Ingalls. In the summer of 2005 MCDC again appeared in the Lincoln Center Festival, presenting a revival of the 1994 work Ocean. Cunningham’s latest work, eyeSpace, was presented at the Joyce Theater in New York in October 2006.


In October 2005 Merce Cunningham received the Praemium Imperiale in Tokyo. Other honors and awards include: the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2000); the Handel Medallion from the Mayor of New York City (1999); the Bagley Wright Fund Established Artists Award, Seattle (1998); the Nellie Cornish Arts Achievement Award from his alma mater, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle (1996); the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale (1995); and the Wexner Prize of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Columbus (with John Cage, posthumously, 1993). Cunningham was also a recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1990 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1985, in which year he also received a Laurence Olivier Award in London and a MacArthur Fellowship. In France, he was made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1982 and first Chevalier (1989) and then Officier (2004) of the Légion d'Honneur. Cunningham has collaborated on two books about his work: Changes: Notes on Choreography, with Frances Starr (Something Else Press, New York, 1968), and The Dancer and the Dance, interviews with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (Marion Boyars, New York and London, 1985). The latter, originally published in French, has also been translated into German and Italian. Merce Cunningham/Dancing in Space and Time, a collection of critical essays edited by Richard Kostelanetz (second edition), was published in 1998 by the Da Capo Press. Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, chronicle and commentary by David Vaughan, archivist of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, was published in 1997 by Aperture and in French translation by Editions Plume. A digital supplement (CD-ROM) entitled Merce Cunningham: Fifty Forward was produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation in 2005. Aperture published a book of Cunningham’s drawings and journals, under the title Other Animals, in the spring of 2002.

A major exhibition about Cunningham and his collaborations, curated by Germano Celant, was first seen at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1999, and subsequently at the Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 1999; the Museum moderner Kunst Stifftung Ludwig, Vienna, 2000; and the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, 2000. A trio of exhibitions devoted to John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham, curated by Ron Bishop, were shown in the spring of 2002 at the Gallery of Fine Art, Edison College, Fort Myers, Florida. Merce Cunningham: Dancing on the Cutting Edge, an exhibition of recent design for MCDC, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, in January 2007. The major exhibition Invention: Merce Cunningham & Collaborators at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will close on October 13, 2007.

View the Merce Video.



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