Merce Cunningham

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Seattle, Washington
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Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington and received his first formal dance and theater training at the Cornish School (now the Cornish College of the Arts) in Seattle, Washington. In his early twenties, Cunningham enrolled in a summer session at Mills College in San Francisco. Here, he caught the attention of Ethal Butler, who was teaching in place of renowned modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. Butler phoned Graham, and told her to “grab this man before anybody else does… He was spectacular.”

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New York, New York
<p>Image: Merce Cunningham and John Cage in 1965. © Jack Mitchell</p>

After six years of dancing in Martha Graham’s company in New York, Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage, whom Cunningham had met at while at Cornish School where Cage was teaching, presented Cunningham’s first solo concert in 1944. After the successful performance at Humphrey-Weidman Studio Theatre, Cunningham wrote, “I date my beginning from this concert.” Merce Cunningham and John Cage became frequent collaborators and life partners.

Image: Merce Cunningham and John Cage in 1965. © Jack Mitchell

Asheville, North Carolina: BMC
<p>Image: Hazel Larsen Archer, "Merce Cunningham Dancing", c. 1952-53. Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.</p>

Merce Cunningham first visited Black Mountain College in the summer of 1948 with John Cage. In the summer of 1953, Cunningham was invited to be an artist-in-residence during the summer session at Black Mountain College. Refusing salary, Cunningham returned to Black Mountain with dancers from New York City, had the school house and feed them, and subsequently formed Merce Cunningham and Dance Company (later called The Merce Cunningham Dance Company), which took a unique and influential approach to dance.

Image: Hazel Larsen Archer, "Merce Cunningham Dancing", c. 1952-53. Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.

Paris, France
<p>Image: © OpenStreetMap contributors</p>

In the summer of 1964, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company began its first world tour with a group of sixteen, including nine dancers accompanied by musicians John Cage and David Tudor, and artist Robert Rauschenberg, all three of whom had been at Black Mountain College with Cunningham. The tour made stops in Venice, Italy, Vienna, Austria, London, England, Stockholm, Sweden, and Berlin, Germany to name a few. That same year, the Cunningham Dance Foundation was established to advance Cunningham’s work and administer the company. In years to come, the Foundation also provided affordable studio space for young artists and professional training for dancers in what became known as the Cunningham Technique ®.

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Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis had a strong relationship with Merce Cunningham, and shortly after the end of Cunningham’s enormously influential career, the Walker Art Center acquired and exhibited a collection of costumes, décor, and objects owned by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham-Robert Rauschenberg. The exhibition, which was on view in 2011, coincided with the end of the Cunningham Dance Foundation Farewell Legacy Tour, launched a year after Cunningham’s death in 2009.

Video: Merce Cunningham's Working Process Produced by Twin Cities Public Television in 1981, Cunningham sits down in this segment to discuss his methodology and how a vocabulary of movement fuels his way of thinking.