The Kennedy Center

Merce Cunningham


Merce Cunningham
b. 1919 Centralia, Washington – d. 2009 New York, NY

Merce Cunningham gave up a prominent place in the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1945 to produce abstract dances which he composed with the accent on movement itself. His dance experimentation and controversial ideas intrigued most, infuriated some, and enchanted many. He has also been hailed as a "giant of modern dance" and as "a liberating force not only for the entire generation of modern-dance choreographers since the 1960s, but also for the dance world at large. . . an indisputable symbolic reference point of the avant-garde in all the arts," having set a trend towards exploration of random chance and indeterminacy in choreography.

In high school, he studied piano and learned his first dance steps from a teacher who was a one-time vaudeville performer who occasionally opened her student recitals by swinging Indian clubs or walking across the stage on her hands.

After a year at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., he returned west and studied at the Cornish School of Fine and Applied Arts in Seattle. He gained experience performing in front of audiences at amateur shows, local vaudeville houses, and an occasional night club in Oregon and California.

In 1938, Cunningham joined the Lester Horton Dance Theatre, a repertory company in California, and in the following year, while studying at the school of modern dance at Bennington College in Vermont, he was seen by Martha Graham, one of the pioneers of modern dance. She invited him to join her company.

Cunningham was soon performing as a soloist and partner in her dance group. He began unveiling his virtuosity in the modern dance technique in roles he created himself. Included were the Acrobat in Every Soul Is a Circus, March in Letter to the World and the Revivalist in Appalachian Spring.

Encouraged by Martha Graham's policy of presenting the choreography of her principal dancers, he wrote Mysterious Adventure for a solo dancer, which he performed in 1945. It was with this work that he introduced a new effect in choreography--cessation of movement.

After leaving the Graham company that year, he ventured into new forms of his own and began his long-term collaboration with John Cage. Five years later he presented his first New York season. In 1952, he established his own company while continuing his choreographic experimentation which has been described variously as decadent, inspired, sinister, and progressive.

He has choreographed more than 150 works for his own company, presenting them on numerous international tours and, more recently, in annual seasons in New York. He also created works for the New York City Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet and has seen his dances included in the repertoire of the American Ballet Theatre, the Boston Ballet, Stockholm's Cullberg Ballet, and London's Ballet Rambert. Cunningham also choreographed Breakers which was commissioned in 1994 by the Kennedy Center Ballet Commissioning Project for the Boston Ballet.

Cunningham has received numerous awards since receiving the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in 1985. In 1990 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Three years later he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance. For his 75th birthday in 1994, New York City's Mayor declared April 16, 1994 to be "Merce Cunningham Day."

Merce continues to explore new links between dance and the modern world. He has helped to develop a "dance computer" called Life Form which he uses in classes for movement education and dance choreography.
Image for Merce Cunningham


  • Pond Way (1998)
  • Fluid Canvas (2002)
  • Sounddance (1975)
  • How To Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965)