Cunningham, Merce (1919-2009)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 6/08/2009
  • Essay 9042
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Merce Cunningham was an American choreographer and was, before his death in July 2009, probably the most famous living choreographer in the world. His work in the field of contemporary dance spanned more than half a century, during which time he and his Merce Cunningham Dance Company toured the globe, challenging and entrancing millions of viewers.  His most prominent artistic associate was composer John Cage (1912-1992), with whom he shared his domestic life and with whom he collaborated for decades. He is noted for having continually expanded the boundaries of contemporary dance, including developing experimental methods of making dances using the element of chance, and developing innovative computer software for creating and teaching choreography. At age 90, Merce Cunningham continued to create dance, inspiring generations of other dancers and choreographers.

A Centralia Childhood

Mercier Philip Cunningham was born in Centralia on April 16, 1919. His father, Clifford D. Cunningham (1883-1963), was a lawyer. Cunningham remembered many years later asking his father why he chose to work in a small town. His father replied that he wanted to practice all kinds of law. The case for which C. D. Cunningham is best remembered is the trial of members of the radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, for their participation in an event known as the Centralia Massacre.  Cunningham was special prosecutor in the trial.  Merce Cunningham was a baby when these events occurred.

His mother, Mayme Joach Cunningham (1887-1976), whom Cunningham later described as possessing “an enormous energy and quite independent spirit” (Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance) periodically departed Centralia to travel the world, leaving her husband content to garden and mind his small-town legal practice.  Cunningham grew up in Centralia, nurtured within that small community, and increasingly celebrated within it as he grew and shone on first the local, and then much larger, stage.

Beginning with Maude Barrett

Cunningham’s introduction into the world of dance came through a neighbor and fellow church-member, Maude Barrett. Barrett, a retired vaudevillian and circus performer, operated Barrett’s School of the Dance in Centralia, and she became young Merce’s first dance teacher.  Cunningham, who would become a legendary, defining figure in the field of modern dance, began his training in what might be called the dance discipline farthest removed from the avant-garde: tap.  Barrett paired the teenaged Merce with her daughter Marjorie Barrett, set them hoofing, and facilitated their performances at local fraternal organizations such as the Elks Club and the American Legion.  The team soon added exhibition ballroom dancing to their routine, and traveled the state.

Cunningham later credited Maude Barrett with fundamentally shaping his conception of dance as a charged, living art:  "It was a kind of theater energy and devotion she radiated.  This was a devotion to dancing as an instantaneous and agreeable act of life. 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 that Mrs. 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" (Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, p. 15).

Cunningham attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for a year, then returned to Centralia.  In 1937, he began studying at the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts) in Seattle.  Founded by Nellie Cornish (1876-1956) in 1914, and by Cunningham’s time located in a creamy stucco building at the corner of Harvard Avenue N (now E) and Roy Street E, the Cornish School was an important, nurturing laboratory for the developing fields of modern dance and music. 

The Cornish School

Cornish students during Merce Cunningham’s era were exposed to all aspects of the arts: drama, dance, music, painting, design, art and music history, etc.  Classes were taught by professionals within the various fields.  Cunningham began primarily associated with the drama department, but quickly gravitated to dance -- modern dance, where (he recounted in the 2000 documentary, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance) Nellie Cornish placed him with the comment, “that’s now what’s being done.”

Cunningham's teacher was Bonnie Bird (1915-1995), then head of the dance department at Cornish.  Bird had herself studied at Cornish under Martha Graham (1894-1991), and had been Graham's assistant.

If Nellie Cornish set Cunningham’s subsequent destiny in motion with a flick of her fountain pen across his course schedule, another seemingly casual moment at Cornish School was to deepen and extend that destiny. Composer John Cage, whose name and music would later be inseparably linked with Merce Cunningham, worked as an accompanist to Cornish dance classes beginning in autumn 1938 and sometimes taught the composition class. In this capacity, Cage and Cunningham first met. 

Cage created his first piece for prepared piano for Cornish graduate Syvilla Fort's (1917-1975) solo concert premiere of her dance Bacchanal on April 28, 1940, at Seattle Repertory Playhouse.  (Various sources give the date of this concert as 1938, 1939, and 1940, and site of concert is usually given as Cornish Theatre, but The Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The Northwest Enterprise confirm the April 28, 1940, date and Seattle Repertory Playhouse.)  In a prepared piano, one of Cage's signature innovations, objects placed on a grand piano's strings or dampers alter the sound the instrument can produce. 

Becoming a Modern Dancer

The summer after his first year at Cornish, Cunningham attended a summer institute at Mills College in Oakland, California, also assisting Bonnie Bird who was on the faculty. The Mills program was called Bennington School of the Dance since it was a sort of summer migration of Bennington College faculty from Vermont to California. 

During his second year at Cornish, Cunningham performed steadily at the school and throughout Washington.  By December 1939 he was part of John Cage's first percussive orchestra.  His first choreography was created during Bonnie Bird's composition classes, which dealt with modern forms. 

Cunningham, along with Bonnie Bird and other Cornish dancers, returned to Mills College in Oakland in summer 1939.  At Mills, he met many of the most important modern dancers of the era: Doris Humphrey (1895-1958), Charles Wideman (1901-1975), Hanya Holm (1893-1992), and (most crucially for Cunningham’s destiny) Martha Graham. 

Always on the lookout for new talent, especially young male dancers, Graham told Cunningham that if he came to New York she would put him in a dance piece.  Cunningham, he later remembered, immediately answered, “I’ll be there.” His mother accepted the idea gradually, his father more readily -- or more resignedly --  and Cunningham moved to New York City in September 1939. Within three months he was appearing with the Martha Graham Company at the St. James Theatre on Broadway.

Seattle dance fans saw Cunningham perform with Graham at the Music Hall on March 5, 1940, an engagement sponsored by Cornish School. The Seattle Times noted Merce's mother's presence in the audience.

Shortly after his departure for New York, The Seattle Public Library began collecting clippings documenting his career for their Dance Scrapbook. The first of these, designated as appearing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on April 27, 1941, notes Cunningham's casting in Graham's Letter to the World, also noting that his picture appeared in the April 1941 issue of Harper's Bazaar.

Cunningham danced as a soloist with Graham from 1939 to 1945. Arguable, during this period in the history of contemporary dance, there was no place more central.  Graham made a number of roles in some of her most important works during this time on (that is, using) Cunningham.  Throughout this time, Cunningham also created and performed his own work.

Merce Cunningham and John Cage

John Cage moved to New York in 1942, and on April 15, 1944, he and Cunningham presented a program of six solos choreographed by Cunningham, each with music composed by Cage. Cage’s music was a framework within which Cunningham’s movement existed, the two coming together at certain points but not in a traditional “to-the-music” way.  After 1950 both men became interested in the idea of chance, exploring it and incorporating experiments with chance operation (by methods such as those utilized when consulting the I Ching, the Chinese book of changes) into their work.

John Cage's music defied classification, always pushing the artistic boundaries and challenging his audiences.  Although the artistic relationship between Cage and Cunningham was not exclusive, from the time that their collaboration ensued their creative reputations were inextricably linked. 

Eventually Cage and Cunningham devised a scheme whereby Cage did not see the choreography and Cunningham and his dancers did not hear the music until the actual performance. Cunningham later told New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins, "Movement has its own life ... it doesn't need something else with it.  When John and I first though of separating the dance and the music, it was very difficult, because people had this idea about the music supporting the dance rhythmically. I can remember so clearly -- in one piece I had made some kind of very big movement, and there was no sound at all, but right after it came this incredible sound on the prepared piano, and I understood that these two separate things could make something that could not have happened any other way" ("A Troupe Turns Fifty").

Coming Home to Dance

Over the years, Merce Cunningham returned repeatedly to his home state, both for personal and for professional visits.

On April 12, 1951, Cunningham premiered Variation, a solo work that he had designed, with music by Morton Feldman, at the University of Washington's Meany Hall. Cage was the accompanist.  As had become usual, local papers tracked his visits. An undated (probably 1951) clipping in The Seattle Public Library's Dance Scrapbook informed,

"Merce Cunningham did a quick turn around his European tour for us during his brief summer stopover in Seattle.  The modern dancer has been visiting his parents in Centralia, Morris Graves in Seattle, old friends at Cornish School, and turning up at our own Buddhist Temple as a back-row spectator at the Japanese talent show" (Dancers A-E Scrapbook).

The Merce Cunningham Company

In 1953, Cage and Cunningham taught a summer session at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, taking with them a handful of dancers who had been training and performing with Cunningham in New York City.  By the end of the summer, Cunningham’s company had coalesced.  Painter Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) joined Cage (the Cunningham Company’s musical director) and Cunningham as costume, set, and lighting designer.  The company took to the road, touring the country in a Volkswagen microbus, Cunningham at the wheel. 

The company's first tour, in November 1955 took them to California, Oregon, and Washington.  In her memoir Chance and Circumstance, longtime Cunningham company member Carolyn Brown recalled that the tour group spent Thanksgiving with Merce Cunningham's family in Centralia, staying as his father's guests at the Lewis-Clark Hotel. The dancers mingled with Merce's parents and his brothers' families in the Cunningham home, which she called "old-fashioned and comfortable, with dark woodwork and large, overstuffed chairs" (p. 137).  The company performed in Bellingham and in Seattle.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer review of the company's 1955 Meany Hall performance demonstrates how challenged many viewers were when confronted with movement outside the lyrical tradition: "Modern dance may strike many as merely a lot of leaping about in a senseless manner but as Cunningham and his dancers showed, it requires just as much as does classical ballet, a tremendous amount of technique and concentration -- more so than classical dancing in some ways since, in several of the dances Cunningham choreographed, the music is no help whatsoever" ("Dancers Go Modern ..." in Dance A-E Scrapbook).

When Cunningham came home to visit friends and family, he often also offered a quick master class for local dancers.  On July 6, 1957, for example, he taught in Martha Nishitani's studio in Seattle's University District.  Joan Skinner, a former Cunningham dancer who joined the dance faculty at the University of Washington, facilitated master classes at Hutchinson Hall.

In its early years, Cunningham's company struggled financially.  It took years to achieve financial stability, but Cunningham's determination and the extreme dedication of the company members kept them in business, and in the public eye.  The troupe endured at least a decade during which audiences found their work, at best, perplexing.  It took the shifting social mores of the 1960s, and the resultant interest in experimentation, for Cunningham's (and Cage's) work to finally achieve public acceptance.

In 1964 they toured Europe and Asia. Not until the company reached London did audiences begin to understand and respond positively to the work. Positive press followed, and Cunningham, for more than a decade operating ahead of his time, received increasing critical praise.

Cunningham described dancers within his work: “The dancers are not pretending to be other than themselves. They are, in a way, realizing their identities through the act of dancing. They are, rather than being someone, doing something" (Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance).

Baffling Seattle Audiences

In February 1966 the company performed in Seattle, Bellingham, and Cheney as part of a Pacific Northwest tour. Local audiences still struggled with the work.  In a review of the February 7, 1966, performance at the Seattle Center Playhouse, Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic David Wagoner wrote, "It soon became apparent, in the midst of dizzying light effects and the raucous static of electronic devices, why few people remain neutral in their feeling for this avant-garde group ... . They are not only breaking fresh ground, but breaking fresh eardrums" ("Avant-Garde Group Milks Pop-Art Cow," A-E Scrapbook). 

John Hinterberger of The Seattle Times was harsher:

"The Merce Cunningham Dance Company demonstrated before a full house at the Center Playhouse last night that eight people can baffle, confuse, and annoy 800 others and -- as long as the 800 paid for the privilege -- get away alive" ("Merce Cunningham Dancers Jump At Noises In Dark").

In September 1973 Cunningham participated in Seattle's Bumbershoot festival, giving a master class at the Madrona Dance Center and a demonstration at the Opera House.

Teaching Seattle Audiences

Cunningham's company had a three-week residency at what was by then called the Cornish Institute in Seattle, from August 22 to September 11, 1977.  On September 10, 1977, Cunningham's Inlets received its world première at Meany Hall.  Danced by his company, the piece was designed by Morris Graves (1910-2001). The music was  by John Cage. 

The residency included classes and workshops, exhibits in art galleries, and other smaller performances in Seattle and Tacoma.

From April 22 to May 2, 1996, Cunningham and his company had a Seattle residency funded by the University of Washington World Dance Series.   Events included master classes at Spectrum Dance Theater; a panel discussion at the Seattle Art Museum about Cunningham's collaborations with visual artists; a performance of John Cage's music at Cornish College of the Arts, followed by a discussion with Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham Dance Company archivist David Vaughan, and John Cage Trust director Laura Kuhn; a conversation between Cunningham, Vaughan, and Pacific Northwest Ballet co-artistic director Francia Russell at Pacific Northwest Ballet's Phelps Center on training the dancer; events at 911 Media Arts Center; and a performance at Meany Hall sponsored by the University of Washington School of Music.

On May 2, 1996, Cunningham's company premiered Installations, with music by Trimpin and a video installation by Elliot Caplan, at Meany Hall. The general public had been given the opportunity to observe a company class and rehearsal that afternoon. 

A Life of Creating 

In April 1983, Cunningham was named one of 20 featured "Creative Thinkers" in a major exhibit at the Pacific Science Center.  He visited Seattle to lecture on modern directions in choreography and dance form at Pacific Science Center's Eames Theater. 

Cunningham's embrace of new technology has been an ongoing feature of his career.  A pioneer in the use of electronic music, beginning in 1989 Cunningham helped to develop Life Forms (now called Dance Forms), a computer choreography software program.  As of 2009, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company website began offering "Mondays With Merce," a series of free webcasts featuring Cunningham teaching advanced classes and conducting rehearsals.

During his choreographic life, Cunningham created more than 200 works for his company. He has also set works on (taught dances to) many other ballet and modern dance companies around the world.


Merce Cunningham has been honored repeatedly in the course of his long career, especially in recent decades as popular taste caught up with his always avant garde aesthetic.  Among the most prestigious:

  • Inducted as an Honorary Member into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1984
  • Kennedy Center Honoree, Washington DC, 1985
  • MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 1985
  • Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, France, 1989
  • National Medal of Arts, Washington DC, 1990
  • Named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, 2000
  • Inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, New York, 1993
  • Made an Officier of the Légion d'Honneur, France, 2004
  • Praemium Imperiale, Tokyo, 2005

On a less hallowed but no less heartfelt local level, in 1996 he was honored with the Nellie Cornish Arts Achievement Award from Cornish College of the Arts, and in 1998 with the Bagley Wright Fund Established Artists Award. In 2006, Cornish awarded Cunningham with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.

The New York Times performing arts critic Alastair Macaulay wrote, "It is not unusual these days to hear Merce Cunningham called the world's greatest living choreographer. I go further: I have long thought that he is the greatest living artist since the death of Samuel Beckett, almost 20 years ago" ("Merce Cunningham, Turning 90..."). On April 16, 2009, Merce Cunningham's 90th birthday, his company premiered his latest work, "Nearly Ninety," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. 

Merce Cunningham died on Sunday night, July 26, 2009.

Sources: Charles Atlas,  Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance Video (New York: Thirteen/WNET, 2000); Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish ed. by Ellen Van Volkenburge Browne, and Edward Nordhoff Beck (Seattle: University of Washington, 1964); Merce Cunningham: Dancing In Space And Time ed. by Richard Kostelnetz  (Chicago: A Capella Books, 1992); Roger Copeland, Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance (New York: Routledge, 2004); Carolyn Brown, Chance And Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham (New York: Knopf Publishers, 2007); Merce Cunningham ed. by James Klosty (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1975); Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years with Chronicle and Commentary by David Vaughn, ed. by Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997); "About Merce," and "Complete Chronology," Merce Cunningham Dance Company website accessed May 26, 2009 (; Alastair Macaulay, "Merce Cunningham, Turning 90: Meanings Still Pour From Movement," The New York Times, April 18, 2009, p. C-1; Allan Kozinn, "John Cage, 79, A Minimalist Enchanted With Sound, Dies," Ibid., August 13, 1992, p. A-1; John Hinterberger, "Merce Cunningham Dancers Jump at Noises in Dark," Ibid., February 8, 1966, p. 14; Dancers A-E Scrapbook, The Seattle Public Library Central Branch Arts and Literature Collection, Seattle; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seven Wobblies involved in the Centralia Massacre are convicted of second-degree murder on March 13, 1920" (by Catherine Hinchliff), (accessed May 26, 2009); R. M. Campbell, "Dance Figure Bonnie Bird Dies At 80," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 12, 1995, p. B-4; "John Cage, The Avant-Garde Composer Who Liked To Shock Listeners, Dies At 79," Ibid., August 13, 1992, p. C-11; "Dancer To Give Concert Tonight," Ibid., April 28, 1940, p. 12; "Young Dancer To Give Debut Recital Tonight," The Seattle Sunday Times, April 28, 1940, p. 8; "Negro Dancer To Appear Sunday: Syvilla Fort in Solo Recital at Playhouse," University District Herald, April 26, 1940, p. 7; "Syvilla Fort Solo Concert Brilliant," The Northwest Enterprise, mis-dated April 26, 1940, actually published May 3, 1940; "Many Parties Will Precede Dance Recital," marked The Seattle Times, March 3, 1940, Reel 8, Cornish Scrapbooks, Cornish School of Allied Arts Accession 2654-002, University of Washington Special Collections, Seattle; Calvin Tomkins, "A Troupe Turns Fifty," The New Yorker, July 8, 2002; Lodi McClellan, "Avant-garde Choreographer Merce Cunningham Keeps on Moving ...," The Weekly, April 17, 1996, p. 29; Sarah Kaufman, "Renowned Choreographer Merce Cunningham Dies at 90." The Washington Post, July 27, 2009 (
Note: This essay was updated on July 27, 2009.

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