Cunningham’s dances decentralize space, telescope or stretch time, allow for sudden unison activity, repetition, and rich variety and dispersal.
Modern dance visionary Merce Cunningham (1919–2009) had a 65-year career as a dancer and choreographer. He is known not only as a developer of the Cunningham technique, but also as a reinventor of choreography and composition. Many of the key features of postmodern dance, such as the use of everyday movement or the abandonment of front-facing space, were already part of Cunningham’s work and further developed at Judson Dance Theater. Many dancers who were active at Judson had worked or trained with Cunningham. Merce Cunningham can therefore be seen as a hinge or sliding transition between white modern dance and postmodern dance in the United States. (see article The Postmodern Spectrum)
Cunningham had grown up with American modern dance in Centralia, Washington State. In the late 1930s, Martha Graham invited him to join her company in New York, and Cunningham danced as a soloist in Graham’s major choreographies such as El Penitente (1940) and Appalachian Spring (1944) until 1946. (see chapter Developments of Dance Modernisms from the 20th Century Onwards) Cunningham began his own choreographic work in the late 1930s, and his collaboration with composer John Cage strongly influenced his understanding of choreography. In 1944, Cunningham gave his first solo concert, with music by Cage.
Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s provided Cunningham and Cage a place to teach and develop their artistic work. Cunningham choreographed dances that were fast and light, close to ballet in technique, and partly ironic, but did not include storytelling or emphasise emotional expression of the body. Their work resonated well outside the field of dance, attracting interest from visual artists, musicians and poets.
An event organised by Cage at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952, a kind of happening, brought together artists from several areas to experiment with ideas about how different arts could coexist. Cage was inspired by Zen influences and Antonin Artaud’s book Towards Critical Theatre (1938). The event lasted 45 minutes, during which Cunningham danced, Cage spoke, David Tudor played the piano, Robert Rauschenberg played records, and Charles Olson and M.C. Richards read poems. Rauschenberg’s white paintings were hung from the ceiling. The audience sat in the middle of the room and could only see part of the action at a time. The multidisciplinary encounter was a step forward in Cunningham and Cage’s artistic collaboration; a cornerstone of this was close interaction with the major artists of the era. In addition to Cage, Cunningham was strongly influenced by the thinking of Robert Rauschenberg, and he became the visual artist for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (initially Merce Cunningham and Dance Company), founded in 1953, until 1964.
Dance, Movement, Technique
Cunningham saw dance technique as a way to expand the body’s range of movement. He had taken ballet classes at the School of American Ballet, founded by George Balanchine, and appreciated the systematic foot technique of ballet. From modern dance, Cunningham picked up the versatile movement of the torso, especially the use of the spine, which curves and bends in all directions, and which he had adopted as a dancer in Martha Graham’s company. Cunningham’s technique is therefore a combination of the supported technicality of ballet and the powerful movement and arcs of the torso of modern dance. For Cunningham, the aim in a technique class is to make “the movement pass completely into and through the body.” Technique increases the dancer’s control of the body and is a collaboration of physical and mental energy.
The dancer’s movement in Cunningham’s work is extremely careful and concentrated. Movement is central to the dance, as Cunningham did not seek to convey symbolic meaning or the psychological dimension of dance through movement, as in American modern dance. Nor did he want to direct the audience’s interpretation of his works or give them reading instructions; it was enough for the dancers to move on stage while the audience watched them move. Carrie Noland has shown that Cunningham did not, however, deny the content that emerged from movement – especially the narrative elements that emerged through the use of chance methods or the emotional content of physicality, even the eroticism or cultural, social or historical meanings that movement evoked – but allowed dance to evoke emotions and ideas in surprising and therefore new ways. The starting point for the dances could also be an observation of everyday life or even the energy between the dancers.
For Cunningham, any kind of movement was useful as dance material. He was interested in stillness, but also in elaborate movement sequences. Each piece required its own way of approaching movement, rather than repeating the movement language of the previous choreography. In Excerpts from Symphonie pour un homme seul (1952), Cunningham first used everyday movement:
- 5 people file their nails )
- 5 people comb their hair ) duration 15’
- 4 people skipping )
Everyday movement was used as material, not for mimetic purposes, while everyday embodiment did not become part of Cunningham’s aesthetics, but the movement appeared stylised. The elaborate embodiment of the works built up a precise, even virtuosic movement language that Sally Banes describes as exuding “modern intellect.”
The use of everyday movement can be understood in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s readymadeworks, whichCunningham admired: any movement could be dance. More broadly, Duchamp’s ideas about readymade objects can be seen in Cunningham’s use of movement sequences from technique classes as such, as parts of works, as readymadematerial: art, in Duchampian terms, is not about making art, but about looking something as art.
Cunningham was interested in the singularity of the dancer, which he saw as the personal way each body moves, both in dance and in everyday life. For him, dancers were not faceless or abstract, but each body had movement qualities that interested the choreographer’s eye.
The dancers have been, and continue to be, the life of my work. […] One side is to have the clarity, the strength, the virtuosity of movement and its demands of the body, like flexible steel. The other side is the abandon, if I may use the word, that allows you to be human.
Cunningham was interested in the humanity of the dancers within the technical skill and choreography: the nuances that each dancer brought to the movement.
Chance, Methods, Technology and Decision
In the late 1940s, Cunningham studied Indian music and Eastern philosophies, including Zen Buddhism, which had a major influence on his thinking about the structure of choreography. Cage and Cunningham shared the idea of art that was not a reflection of the artist’s feelings or desires. The distance from the choreographer’s personality could be increased by finding artistic solutions through methods based on the use of chance. The direction, duration, dynamics, use of body parts, leaving and entering a space, or even the collaboration of the dancers could be determined by throwing dice or coins. This made it possible to construct works whose events were beyond the reach of the choreographer’s imagination or aesthetic eye.
In Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951), the order of movement sequences within the choreography was for the first time determined by chance, using the hexagrams of the Chinese Yijing (also known as the I Ching). The iconic work Summerspace (1958) is based on cutting through the space with moving dance sequences. It was created through a highly complex process, where the space was first divided into sections and the routes between the areas were marked with numbers, creating 21 possible routes. For each route, a sequence of movements was assigned and a chance method was used to decide:
- Direction, i.e., from where to where. This gave the movement its basic form.
- Whether the movement was done fast, medium, or slow.
- Whether the movement happened in the air, across the surface, or on the ground.
- Length of time in seconds, assuming 5” as a minimum,
- Shape of space, i.e. in what way the space was covered (straight lines, diagonal lines, circular, and so on).
- Number of dancers involved in this particular action.
- Did they perform this action together or separately.
- Did they end the action on or off stage.
Coincidence brought unexpected developments, situations and encounters to the choreographies, expanding the possibilities for both composition and dramaturgy. Space was used in a variety of ways, and the front of the stage was just one direction among others. All areas of the space were seen as equally important, as Cunningham shared Albert Einstein’s idea that “[t]here are no fixed points in space.” Many events often happened simultaneously on the stage, and the work could reach a climax at any moment – or not at all. Chance methods tended to remove conventions and habits not only from the construction of the choreography but also from its reception, since dismantling conventional hierarchies infinitely extended the options for reading the work. In dance, anything or anyone could become the focus of action and interest. The encounter between the dancers also became a kind of found object, an object trouvé, not the content or meaning of the dance as conceived by the choreographer, but the very appearance of the encounter allowed the choreographer to construct the duet.
The use of technology and experimentation has always been part of Cunningham’s work. In the 1970s and 1980s, he choreographed for the camera (film, video), exploring the possibilities of movement and image. In the early 1990s, when he was in his seventies, Cunningham began to use computers as an aid to his choreography. The virtual characters in the computer program Life Forms enabled him to discover unexpected movement patterns and to control several bodies simultaneously. From 1991 onwards, the program was used, at least in part, in almost all of Cunningham’s choreography. These included Trackers (1991), Beach Birds (1991), CRWDSPCR (1993), which is based on nonstop and unexpected movements, and Ocean (1994), which is constructed in a circular shape and aims to eliminate the notions of front and back. Perhaps the most difficult work based on Life Forms was Rondo (1996), which was not only rhythmically challenging but also structurally variable. In its first part, there were duets and trios that could move from one dancer to another or be grouped in different ways in performances, including changing their order.
Digitally created animation and motion capture were part of Cunningham’s choreography in the process of Hand-drawn Spaces (1998), in which motion sensors were attached to the dancers’ bodies. The result is a multimedia installation based on 70 choreographed sequences of movements, the final composition of which was manipulated by Cunningham on a computer screen. The process continued with BIPED (1999), in which an animated 3D body, called Biped, dances in performance with the dancers. The performers include abstract figures, such as lines and dots.
Music, Costume, Stage
In Cunningham’s works, all artistic disciplines were independent and unmixed entities: choreography, soundscape, stage and costume design were built as separate units that met at the premiere of the work. They coincided in the same space and time, but were not otherwise interdependent. Often, Cunningham did not ask or instruct the designers to do anything in particular, but might share the central idea of the dance, e.g, “It has no center point.” The lighting design for Winterbranch (1964) was by Robert Rauschenberg and was partly based on chance, which meant that the stage was almost dark at certain moments. In RainForest (1968), the stage was filled with large, shiny, cushion-like helium-filled balloons designed by Andy Warhol, which floated erratically around the space and danced their own choreography, partly under the influence of the dancers’ movements.
The costumes in Cunningham’s works are mostly figure-hugging and based on full-body leotards, so that the dancers’ movements are clearly visible. In Summerspace, Rauschenberg used pointillism in both the dancers’ clothing and the backcloth. As the dancers move to the back of the stage, they blend momentarily into their surroundings, hidden as if by camouflage. The design of Scenario (1997) was made by Rei Kawakubo, whose costumes transformed the body with accessories and hunchbacks, so that when the dancer turned, the body shape was different from what the viewer expected. Cunningham’s visual collaborators have included artists Jasper Johns, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella.
From his early creative years, music and choreography were separated in Cunningham’s works, with dancers rehearsing in silence and often only hearing the music when they danced with it for the first time at the premiere. Choreography and soundscape were independent artistic entities, and dancers were not supposed to surrender to the music when performing, but to concentrate on the dance.
In Variations V (1965), sensitive antennas placed on the stage picked up the dancers’ movement, which was transformed into the soundscape of the piece. Pond Way (1998) used Brian Eno’s New Ikebukuro (For 3 CD Players) as its music, and during the performance the three CDs of the composition were played in random order. The soundscape of eyeSpace (2006 version) consisted of speech, sound and instruments recorded by the dancers. Audience members were given an iPod, which played music in random order, creating a unique soundscape for each viewer, as the 3,628,800 sound capsules in the work could be arranged in 3,628,800 different ways. The iPod thus served as a tool for instant composition. At the same time, a composition based on the soundscapes of the city was played in the space, which the viewer also could listen to.
Cunningham’s artistic career began in strong collaboration with the experimental and minimalist composer John Cage. However, the soundscapes of Cunningham’s works ranged extremely widely, with compositions by David Tudor, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, Radiohead and Sigur Rós.
The separately rehearsed and prepared elements of the work met in a performance event. The chance method helped to break up routines and create new options, yet the work was extremely planned and prepared: there was little improvisation or other spontaneous activity in the performances. The works allowed the senses to wander and search for what to perceive, whether patterns, sequences or themes. Different art forms met in a synergistic interaction, where they seemed to be in conversation. Carrie Noland described Cunningham’s art as a nonhierarchical perception in which each detail or aspect of an event could become its most interesting point.
Often, the choreographies were in dialogue with several different visualisations or soundscapes to create new versions. For example, Rune (1959) – adance whose order changes with each performance – has been performed with several different compositions by Cristian Wolff. The set was initially designed by Robert Rauschenberg, but in 1995 Mark Lancaster designed a new backdrop. Split Sides (2003) is extremely transformative, with a quick throw of the dice in front of the audience before each performance determining the order in which the existing choreography, as well as the lighting, music and costumes, will be presented that night. Mathematically, the piece has 32 possible versions.
Cunningham’s works were also inspired by each other and different forms were sought for the material. Filmmaker Elliot Caplan made first a film version of Beach Birds, Beach Birds for Camera, which was also the basis for an installation in 1994. Inspired by this, Cunningham built Installation (1996) for 14 dancers, in which the movement of the living body is combined with the installation-like structure of dancers filmed by Caplan.
Since 1964 the company has been performing a series called Events, pieces that play with existing movement material – complete works or parts of works – but also new movement series, often taking place outside theatres, in open spaces that are not oriented around a stage such as museums or sports halls. Behind these choreographic collages lay the idea of unpredictable events, centred not on a theatrical situation or a fixed viewing point, but on experimentation, questioning and exploration of unknown situations.
Zen Buddhism was a great inspiration for Cunningham, as it was for John Cage, but from a very Western perspective, as Cunningham’s works are not in line with slow-paced observation. It is more about clarity of observation in often fast-paced and unpredictable movement, unexpected composition and multidisciplinary artistic settings. Cunningham sought fragmentation built on simultaneous stimuli, in the midst of which the precision of observation became more important than immediate pleasure.
Cunningham has produced over 180 works and around 700 eventsduring his career. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s first international tour in 1964 extended to Europe, Japan, India and Thailand. The reception of the works varied widely, with the group’s performances in London being a sensation, while audiences in Paris protested. In the late 1960s, Cunningham began collaborating with institutions and dance companies; for example, in a new version of Summerspace by theNew York City Ballet in 1966, the female dancers wore pointe shoes.
Following the death of the choreographer in 2009, the company went on a two-year worldwide memorial tour, after which the group ceased to exist in 2011. Today, the Merce Cunningham Foundation ensures the continuity of the teaching of the Cunningham technique and oversees Cunningham’s choreographic legacy. Many international dance companies perform Cunningham’s works as part of their repertoire.
1 Banes 1987, 7.
2 Judson Dance Theater questioned for example Cunningham’s authority as leader and the hierarchy of the company’s dancers, while the collective further developed many of the features that had emerged in Cunningham’s work with the choreography.
3 Placing Cunningham’s work unambiguously in the field of dance in relation to American modern and postmodern dance is challenging. For example, Roger Copeland and David Vaughan speak of Cunningham as a representative of modern dance, while Sally Banes places Cunningham’s work at the interface between modern and postmodern dance. Banes 1987, xvi.
4 Cunningham was introduced to dance in small local dance schools, especially under Maude Barrett, where he learned tap, ballroom and folk dance. He began theatre studies at the Cornish School (Seattle), but soon changed his major to dance, practising ballet and Graham technique. John Cage worked at the school as a composer and occasionally taught composition. The school was committed to interdisciplinary activities. In the summers, Cunningham participated in the renowned Bennington School of the Dance Festival at Mills College, where teachers included Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.
5 Cunningham 1992, 141–142. Vaughan 2012a, 19–21.
6 Cunningham & Lesschaeve 1985, 64.
7 Noland 2019, 9–11.
8 Vaughan 2012a, 15. Later, the work was also presented as Collage.
9 Everyday embodiment became central to many works of Judson Dance Theater.
10 Banes 1987, xvi.
11 Copeland 1979/1999, 158. The set for Walkaround Time (1982) contains references to Duchamp’s The Great Glass. For more on Duchamp, see Vaughan 1992.
12 Noland 2019, 8.
13 Cunningham describes his relationship with dancers in Vaughan 2012b, 6.
14 Vaughan 2012a, 5–6. Vaughan 1992, 67.
15 Vaughan 2012a, 71–72.
16 Cunningham & Lesschaeve 1985, 18.
17 Noland 2019, 2.
18 Noland 2019, 3.
19 Later called Dance Forms. Cunningham was involved in developing this new version of the program.
20 Vaughan 2012c.
21 Vaughan 2012c, 26–32.
22 Reply to Robert Rauschenberg on the content of Summerspace (1958). Cunningham’s unpublished text “Collaborating with Visual Artists,” IV/2/83Reply to Robert Rauschenberg on the content of Summerspace (1958). Cunningham’s unpublished text “Collaborating with Visual Artists,” IV/2/83: https://www.mercecunningham.org/the-work/writings/collaborating-with-visual-artists/ (accessed 1.1.2022). Summerspace was the first work in which Cunningham actually allowed the different art forms to be separate entities..
23 Copeland 1999, 159.
24 Vaughan 2012c, 78.
25 Noland 2019, 4–5.
26 Vaughan 2012c, 59–60.
27 Beach Birds is one of Cunningham’s nature studies, like the early RainForest and the lyrically sensual Pond Way (1998).
28 More in Cunningham’s article “Four Events that Have Led to Large Discoveries” (1994): https://www.mercecunningham.org/the-work/writings/four-events-that-have-led-to-large-discoveries/ (accessed 1.1.2022).
29 Copeland 2004, 3.
Banes, Sally. 1987. Terpsichore in Sneakers. Post-Modern Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Copeland, Roger. 1979/1999. “Merce Cunningham and the Politics of Perception.” In Germano Celant, ed. Merce Cunningham. Milan: Charta, 154–166.
Copeland, Roger. 2004. Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. New York and London: Routledge.
Cunningham, Merce. 1992. “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance (1982).” In Richard Kostelanetz, ed. by Merce Cunningham. Dancing in Space and Time. Pennington, NJ: A cappella books, 138–150.
Cunningham, Merce & Lesschaeve, Jacqueline 1985. The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve. London and New York: Marion Boyars.
Kovgan, Alla. 2019. Cunningham. Documentary. UK: Dogwoof.
Noland, Carrie. 2019. Merce Cunningham. After the Arbitrary. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Vaughan, David. 1992. “‘Then I Thought About Marcel’ Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time (1982).” In Richard Kostelanetz, ed. Merce Cunningham. Dancing in Space and Time. Pennington, NJ: A cappella books, 66–70.
Vaughan, David. 2012a. “Establishing The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, 1950–1960.” In Merce Cunningham: 65 Years. New York: Cunningham Trust. Accessed 19.11.2021. https://indd.adobe.com/view/ce7601ab-6161-463b-b081-479d12c0e164.
Vaughan, David. 2012b. “Introduction.” In Merce Cunningham: 65 Years. New York: Cunningham Trust. Accessed 19.11.2021. https://indd.adobe.com/view/8a75d653-328b-4d9a-8bec-58c72d7def20.
Vaughan, David. 2012c. “The Final Years, 1995–2011.” In Merce Cunningham: 65 Years. New York: Cunningham Trust. Accessed 1.1.2022. https://indd.adobe.com/view/14a644a2-7af9-485b-8b67-68378484df17.
Riikka Laakso works in the field of dance as a writer, lecturer and dramaturg. She holds a PhD in performing arts from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (2016) and teaches theatre analysis and dance history at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona. Laakso has collaborated with Zodiak – Centre for New Dance, the Theatre Academy, Helsinki and choreographer Sanna Kekäläinen, and is responsible for the dramaturgy of works by choreographer Marina Mascarelli.