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Cunningham, Merce (1919 – 2009) By Copeland, Roger F.

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM949-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 24 March 2018, from


One of the twentieth century’s most influential dancers and choreographers, Merce Cunningham re-defined the genre of modern dance. He began his professional career as a member of the Martha Graham Company in 1939. However, by 1953, when he founded his own company, he had repudiated many of the prevailing beliefs and practices of previous modern dance pioneers. Prior to Cunningham, most modern dance choreographers (including Graham) vehemently rejected the fundamentals of classical ballet. Cunningham, by contrast, re-incorporated ballet’s emphasis on classical shape, line, elevation and intricate footwork. He offset these balletic elements with eccentric tilts and twists of the torso, back and arms. In the early 1950s, in collaboration with the composer John Cage, Cunningham also pioneered the use of ‘chance methodologies’ as a choreographic tool. Together, Cunningham and Cage fundamentally re-conceived the relationship between movement and music which had characterised virtually all earlier genres of choreography. In Cunningham’s dances, movement, sound and décor all remained independent of one another. Yet the underlying concept of collaboration remained fundamental to Cunningham’s dances, with celebrated composers and visual artists creating sound scores and designs for the company. Over the course of a career that spanned more than 60 years, Cunningham choreographed over 200 dances including Root of an Unfocus (1944), Sixteen Dances For Soloist and Company of Three (1951) Septet (1953), Suite for Five in Space and Time (1956), Summerspace (1958), Rune (1959), Winterbranch (1964), Variations V (1965) Walkaround Time (1968), Rainforest (1968), Sounddance (1975), Torse (1976), Quartet (1982), Fabrications (1987), CRWDSPCR (l993) and BIPED (1999).

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Citing this article:

Copeland, Roger F. "Cunningham, Merce (1919 – 2009)." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 24 Mar. 2018 doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM949-1

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