Photo by Annie Leibowitz; used by permission of the Cunningham Dance Foundation.
All my subsequent involvement with dancers who were concerned
with dance as a conveyor of social message or to be used as a testing
ground for psychological types have not succeeded in destroying
that feeling Mrs. J. W. Barrett gave me that dance is most deeply
concerned with each single instant as it comes along, and its life
and vigor and attraction lie in just that singleness. It is as
accurate and impermanent as breathing.
In 1932, when a 13-year-old Merce Cunningham, from Centralia, Washington,
stepped into his first tap dancing class with Maud Barrett, he began
a career that would profoundly change modern dance. His own performance
style and the nearly 200 original works he has choreographed since
the 1940s have propelled dance through a series of dazzlingly new
orbits that have left conventional notions of the art far behind.
Acclaimed for decades as one of the world’s preeminent dancer/choreographers,
Cunningham, like other highly evolved artists, constantly reinvents
his craft. Not only does he tirelessly devise new methods for the
composition and execution of movement itself, but he also challenges
how audiences see and interpret dance.
Cunningham is a true artistic revolutionary. Since composing his
first works in the 1940s, his innovations are many and radical.
Perhaps most fundamentally, he has created a wholly new vocabulary
of movement. Abandoning the established idioms of modern dance and
ballet, he invents a lexicon of gestures that range from the most
routine of urban-inspired activities to startlingly original, virtuosic
sequences. He has introduced chance operations and made indeterminacy
an important compositional device. He has crafted a dialogic relationship
between dance, music, and visual decor where each is arrived at
independently but performed simultaneously. He has “decentralized”
performance space, dismantling the notion (derived from Renaissance
perspective and the proscenium stage) that the actions of dancers
radiate from a central point. In a Merce Cunningham work, the position
of one dancer on the stage is no more important than that of another.
Moreover, he has displaced the linear, plot-driven narrative of
traditional dance with a dynamic, non-hierarchical field in which
cause and effect no longer govern the performers’ movements. Since
sequences are not rigidly thematized, they can easily sustain a
myriad of interpretations, whose sheer variety celebrates the essential
“singleness” of the moment in space and time.
Cunningham’s early career augured an auspicious future. He received
his first formal training in dance and theater at the Cornish School
of Performing and Visual Arts in Seattle. There, under instructor
Bonnie Bird, he learned the Martha Graham dance technique. He also
met John Cage, who had been hired by the school as an accompanist/composer
and would become one of Cunningham’s most significant and long-lasting
creative partners. Then at Mills College in Oakland, California,
Cunningham performed before Martha Graham herself, who promptly
asked him to join her company. Cunningham accepted and made the
bold, cross-country move to New York City, where he danced with
her company as a soloist from 1939 to 1945.
His time with Martha Graham not only developed his skills as a
dancer but also provoked Cunningham to envision radically different
possibilities for modern dance. Though he admired Graham’s efforts
to reach beyond classical ballet and especially appreciated her
ability to maximize the weight of the body so that gravity itself
produced expressive form, Cunningham also had reservations. He particularly
objected to the strong emotionalism of Graham’s work and to its
reliance on narrative subjects susceptible to verbal summary. “Even
when I was first there, I thought the way she moved was very amazing,
but I didn’t think the rest of it was interesting at all.... I
just tried to see what the movement was, not to expect it to be
like she did it, not in the least. The same with ballet exercises:
if I put my leg out there and it’s supposed to go out at a 180 degree
angle and your back’s supposed to be straight, how do I do
It was this
curiosity about the mechanics of movement and the physical process
of getting from one position to another that compelled Cunningham.
With this fascination with movement firmly entrenched in his creative
psyche, he began his first dance compositions. Several of his earliest
works, such as Totem Ancestor (1942) and Root of an Unfocus
(1944), were solos that blended Cunningham’s own ideas about movement
for the sake of movement with gestures he adopted from ballet and
Graham’s style of modern dance.
John Cage composed the music for them, and the collaboration
marked the beginning of a strikingly new relationship between music
John Cage didn’t like the idea of one art supporting
another or one art depending on another. He liked the idea of independence
and wondered if there were another way we could work separately
to produce a work of music and dance. The first things we made
were short solos, and it was difficult for me to do, not having
the music as support in the traditional way. But at the same time
there was marvelous excitement in this way of working, so I pursued
yet coordinated confluence of dance and music would lead to chance
collisions and near misses, giving Cunningham's work a sense of
freshness and unpredictability: "I remember so clearly the
first day when we were rehearsing with John and I made a large,
strong movement—there was no sound but just about three seconds
later came this ravishing sound, and it was very clear that this
was a different way to act: not being dependent upon the music but
equal to it. You could be free and precise at the same time."
In the summers of 1948, 1952, and 1953, Cunningham and Cage were
invited to teach and present their work at Black Mountain College.
Located near Ashville, North Carolina, it was an experimental liberal
arts institution that attracted some of that period’s most innovative
and creative minds, working in a variety of disciplines. At Black
Mountain, Cunningham and Cage met modern-day polymath Buckminster
Fuller, painters Willem and Elaine de Kooning, playwright Irving
Penn, Bauhaus artist/designer Josef Albers, educator/philosopher/visual
artist M. C. Richards, and artist Robert Rauschenberg.
The summer of 1953 at Black Mountain marked a propitious beginning.
Cunningham brought to the college six dancers from New York, some
of whom were students in classes he offered at a small studio in
the city. The ensemble presented three programs, including a few
dances that Cunningham choreographed. The group functioned as a
loosely formed company—the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—and upon
their return to New York, their association became more formalized.
The cultural climate that Cunningham and his company found in New
York in the 1950s and 1960s could not have been more stimulating.
Indeed, clear parallels exist between the revolutionary developments
of the city’s art world and Cunningham’s own renovations of modern
dance. The shocking use of objects such as old tires, crumpled
newspapers, and cheap clocks in the paintings and “combines” of
Robert Rauschenberg coincides with Cunningham’s incorporation of
everyday movements into dance. And Allan Kaprow’s first “Happening”—a
performance event that disjunctively juxtaposes different artistic
media in an open, unstructured environment—finds a corollary in
Cunningham’s decentralized performance space.
But perhaps the most striking of Cunningham’s adoptions of new
techniques is his use of chance and indeterminacy. In a recent
interview, he notes that in the 1950s, the Institute of Random Numbers
had declared random numbers to be as useful as logic.
Chance had also assumed new importance because of a fresh English
translation of the I Ching. This Chinese classic relies on
the casting of yarrow sticks or the tossing of coins to generate
its divinatory hexagrams. Extrapolating from these developments
and also taking cues from Cage and contemporary Fluxus artists,
Cunningham used chance methods to decide how to sequence choreographic
phrases, how many dancers would perform at any given point, where
they would stand on stage, and where they would enter and exit.
The earliest of his works in this mode were performed by his company
and others at the Festival of Creative Arts at Brandeis University
(1952). A year later came Suite By Chance (1953), the first
piece to be produced entirely by chance operations. Cunningham
described his methodology, which resonates with the premises of
the I Ching:
When I choreograph a piece by tossing pennies—by chance, that
is—I am finding my resources in that play, which is not the product
of my will, but which is an energy and a law which I too obey.
Some people seem to think that it is inhuman and mechanistic to
toss pennies in creating a dance instead of chewing the nails
or beating the head against a wall or thumbing through old notebooks
for ideas. But the feeling I have when I compose in this way
is that I am in touch with a natural resource far greater than
my own personal inventiveness could ever be, much more universally
human than the particular habits of my own practice, and organically
rising out of common pools of motor impulses.
Suite for Five (1956-1958), which the company performs this
spring at Stanford, provides further insight into Cunningham’s approach
to chance techniques
The space was done by taking pieces of paper and marking the
imperfections in each piece—if you look at any piece of paper…you
see little dots—I would number these dots, and by chance means
decide where somebody started in space and to what space he went
next, the next one and so on. Each dancer had different dots.
I superimposed them to see if there were any points that came
together, and where they did, I would have sequences with people
together…The time was done in seconds. I gave some kind of allowance
for how long a given movement or sequence of movements might take.
Say the person is here doing a certain kind of movement, and he’s
going to end over there—the chance means would say how long that
would take…Now in the course of that, they might cross somebody
else’s path, and I would allow for some kind of connection, a
lift or a pose. . . .
The sets and costumes designed for the first performances of the
Merce Cunningham Dance Company were created by Rauschenberg, the
company’s official artistic advisor from 1954 to1964.
Rauschenberg, with the aid of his assistant (none other than
a young Jasper Johns), created fanciful structures that the dancers
could couru and jeté into, out of, and around. The props also incorporated
contemporary commercial products, such as comic book strips, a maneuver
reflecting the rise of Pop art. Like Cage with his music, Rauschenberg
worked independently of Cunningham, and at times the final version
of his sets and costumes were unveiled to the dancers a day before
a performance, or on opening night!
It is interesting to note that critical response in the U.S. to
Cunningham’s work in the 1950s was not usually positive. The few
writers who published reviews typically complained of the disagreeable
sounds emitted by electronic scores and the dancers’ moving about
on stage in no relationship to one another or to the audience.
It was not until 1964, when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company
returned from a mostly European tour, that critics and audiences
in the U.S. began to take serious note.
|Video clip from Variations V. (Caution:
In 1966, Cunningham collaborated with filmmaker Stan
Van Der Beek to produce Variations V, the first of its kind
“dance film.” What must have excited Cunningham about this venture
was how the camera could work as a creative instrument, framing
and structuring the look and feel of dance in a way that differed
tremendously from viewing a performance in a concert hall. Variations
V is also intriguing as an early and consummate example of the
collage-like effect of multimedia. The dancers perform in a dark
space broken up by vertical antennae, photoelectric devices, and
a plant-like object. Multiple projection screens, with moving images
from film and television, displayed both the sublime (man's walk
on the moon) and the mundane (a man coming home to his house in
suburbia). As the dancers advance near the antennae, or cut through
beams of photoelectric light, they trip sensors that emit the electronic
bleeps and blips of John Cage’s musical score. Ambient sound, an
occasional piano solo, and the auditory snow that one hears between
radio stations contributed to the complexity of Cage’s soundscape.
Movement ranges from elaborate ensembles, with dancers rolling,
spinning, and somersaulting on the floor to unusual solos (Cunningham
pulls off the leaves of the plant-like object, only to replace them
later; a female dancer, sporting a 1960s dress fit for a go-go club,
stands on her head). The hypersensory event is completed with the
projection of bright spotlights and spiral patterns on the stage
that are sometimes superimposed on the dancers’ bodies.
|Video clip from Walkaround Time. (Caution:
Cunningham’s and Atlas’s first full collaborative piece was
Walkaround Time, filmed in 1974, though the work was first performed
live in 1968. A part of the dance/film's visual appeal resides
in the special décor designed by Jasper Johns, who succeeded Robert
Rauschenberg, serving as artistic director of the company from 1967
to 1980. Johns’s set consisted of seven framed rectangular pieces
placed on the ground and suspended in the air. The rectangles were
made of a translucent vinyl decorated with abstract, mechano-biomorphic
patterns. The set pieces paid direct homage to Marcel Duchamp’s
The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even)
[1915–1923], whose work Johns admired. At the request of Duchamp
himself, the end of dance reveals the disparate parts of Johns's
decor placed together to form a sculptural whole.
|Video clip from Westbeth. (Caution: large
Westbeth, also filmed in 1974 in collaboration with Charles
Atlas, was originally composed for video. Named after the Cunningham
dance studio in New York, the work is a montage that problematizes
the relationship between dance and video. One of the questions
it poses was raised by writer Roger Copeland: "What becomes
of the integrity of 'stage space' when the dancers are filmed exclusively
The close-ups occur when dancers stop and look straight into the
camera. They also occur when pairs of dancers, sitting or standing
on the dance floor, are filmed in profile, engaged in actual (or
perhaps theatrical) verbal conversations. Yet the effect of close-ups
comes to its most artful (and photographic) fruition when the camera
focuses on discrete body parts: the arms, torsos, and legs of several
different dancers lined up next to each other.
|Video clip from Changing Steps. (Caution:
In the 1980s and 1990s Cunningham continued to explore the rich
possibilities of the intersection of dance and video. Changing
Steps, originally choreographed and performed in 1975, was directed
by Cunningham and video artist Elliot Caplan in 1989 and filmed
by Cunningham himself. A tribute to dancer Carolyn Brown, a longtime
member of the company who left it in 1972, it begins with a female
soloist in a studio, awkwardly executing ballet movements in an
apparent struggle to maintain a vertical balance, like a newborn
colt. The video then moves to a nature scene, focusing on a budding
flower in a verdant landscape. The action next shifts to a quartet,
dancing in a garden setting. The musical score, entitled Cartridge
Music by John Cage, mixes silence with ambient noise, and its
linkages to the dancer's movements result in unusual juxtapositions,
typical of Cunningham's and Cage's earliest collaborations. The
rest of the work moves fluidly between solos, pas de deux, and larger
ensembles. Quick and unexpected tempo changes and fouettés play
off of dramatic pauses in action, and the varied architectural and
landscape settings and props, designed by artistic director Mark
Lancaster, add further to the overall dynamism of the piece.
Not surprisingly, Cunningham’s most recent work continues to advance
and expand the possibilities of modern dance. Now in his 80s and
suffering from arthritis, Cunningham no longer dances, but his choreography
— and more specifically, his choreographic methods — have taken
on a new life.
Since 1989, Cunningham has used a 3-D motion creation software
program called Life Forms and the cinematographic technique of motion
capture to map and experiment with movement. Both tools have shown
the potential of liberating movement from a dancer's body and propelling
his/her "skeleton" or other corporeal "residues"
into virtual space.
Life Forms represents the human body as individual joints moving
in space and time. The software can be used to illustrate the flexing
of a joint, to determine the height or length of a jump, to reveal
a dancer's exact location in a virtual performance space, and to
elucidate the transition from one dance phrase to another.
At first, Cunningham used the software to create shapes that he
incorporated into his dances. Since then, he has combined the software
with chance operations. He notes:
I like to produce movement that seems out of range, to enlarge
the range and add things to what we think of as dance…. From
the beginning — like the other discoveries, such as separating
music and movement — the software has constantly brought up other
possibilities. I’ve always felt that there is a limit to the structural
activity of the human body: once we stood up on two legs, we were
caught and have to work that way. But there is always some other
way to do it…. That’s been the history of movement; dance is another
way someone has found to deal with the question of what movement
can be. The computer has opened it up to me. It has broadened
what I think of as possible in dance.
See Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance,”
Trans/Formation 1 (1952).
Merce Cunningham, The Dancer and the Dance:
Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve
(New York: Marion Boyars, Inc., 1985), 42.
Richard Francis, “’If Art is not Art, then what
is it?,’” in Dancers on a Plane: Cage, Cunningham, Johns
(New York: Alfred A Knopf; London: Thames & Hudson; in association
with Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 1990), 27.
Merce Cunningham, "Four Key Discoveries:
Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Fifty," Theater 34
(Summer 2004), 105.
Cunningham, “The Impermanent Art,” 71.
Merce Cunningham, The Dancer and the Dance,
Other artists who have designed sets, props,
and/or costumes for Cunningham include Andy Warhol, Frank Stella,
Isamu Noguchi, Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris, Ernesto Neto, and Gabriel
Roger Copeland quoting various critics in Merce
Cunningham: The Modernizing of Dance (New York: Routledge, 2004),
David Vaughan, “Merce Cunningham, “ in Dancers
on a Plane, 86.
Roger Copeland, Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing
of Dance, 173.
Merce Cunningham, “Four Key Discoveries,” 110–111.
Text by Vanessa Kam, Associate Art Librarian
Stanford University Libraries ©2005.
All images, video clips and incidental art ©
and used by permission of
The Cunningham Dance