Merce Cunningham

By: Karinne Keithley Syers
April 16, 2014


Facing all fronts and occupying serial centers, MERCE CUNNINGHAM (1919–2009) stands at the pivot point of 20th-century performance; along with partner and collaborator John Cage, he initiated the critical freedoms taken up in postmodern dance. A visitor to Black Mountain’s mythological convening, his influence spreads into art, poetry, and music. Unlike the personality- and camp-orientation of the modern dance he came from (as a soloist with Martha Graham from 1939-45), Merce never claimed any students as his own, though his generous and inclusive spirit, taking all comers and all possible actions into dancing, surely inflected Bob Dunn’s composition workshop out of which the Judson Dance Theater emerged. Movement is protagonist; dance’s meaning is action. He makes a non-representative choreography freed of compulsory relation to music. Dance, music, and set occupy the stage space as co-presences, making room for mutual surprise. His movement technique goes after the strength and lightness needed to articulate the body in the fullest possible range of actions, premised on the idea that we don’t yet know how we might choose to move.

Cunningham built dances using chance operations to determine numbers (of people, facings, timings), always looking to bypass habit’s judgments. He was the first to abandon the necessity of facing the audience. Anti-individualist, this forward-thinking naturalist can be credited as a hero of the anatomical and somatic explorers of the later 20th century’s non-expressivist movement research. He wasn’t interested in drama, unless we were “willing to grant that every breath is a crisis,” which takes all the crisis away because it’s happening everywhere all the time. There is a center, a life, an event, in anything we will give attention to. In his later years the benevolent genie performed solos within his dances, slip-hobbling out on the outsides of his feet (bunions) and waving his arms around for while, then hobbling off. It’s all dance.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Kool DJ Herc, Tristan Tzara, Kingsley Amis, George “The Animal” Steele.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).


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