Presidential Lecture Series
Merce Cunningham
John Rockwell
Stanford Humanities Center
title name: Merce Cunningham

in conversation with John Rockwell


Merce Cunningham portrait
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.[1]

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. 

Split Sides b

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.[2]

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 that?”[3]

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.[4] John Cage composed the music for them, and the collaboration marked the beginning of a strikingly new relationship between music and dance:

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 it.[5]

The autonomous 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."[6]

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. 

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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.[7]

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.[8]

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. . . .[9] 

Suite for Five sketch 1 Suite for Five sketch  2 Suite for Five foto: 1 Suite for Five foto: 2

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.[10] 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.[11] 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: large file!)

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.[12] 

Walkaround Time

Video clip from Walkaround Time. (Caution: large file!)

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 file!)

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 in close-up?"[13]

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: large file!)

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. 

Merce Cunningham at his computer.

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.[14]

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.[15]


[1] Merce Cunningham, “The Impermanent Art,” 7 Arts 3 (1955): 77.

[2] See Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance,” Trans/Formation 1 (1952). 

[3] Merce Cunningham, The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (New York: Marion Boyars, Inc., 1985), 42.

[4] 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. 

[5] Merce Cunningham, "Four Key Discoveries: Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Fifty," Theater 34 (Summer 2004), 105.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 106.

[8] Cunningham, “The Impermanent Art,” 71.

[9] Merce Cunningham, The Dancer and the Dance, 90–91.

[10] 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 Orozco.

[11] Roger Copeland quoting various critics in Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Dance (New York: Routledge, 2004), 47. 

[12] David Vaughan, “Merce Cunningham, “ in Dancers on a Plane, 86. 

[13] Roger Copeland, Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Dance, 173. 

[14] Ibid., 191. 

[15] 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 Foundation.


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