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Spotlight Saturday: Merce Cunningham

This week's Spotlight Saturday features American choreographer Merce Cunningham, known for his exceptional influence on American modern dance.

Cunningham was born Mercier Philip Cunningham on April 16 1919 in Centralia, Washington D.C. He began studying dance aged 12. After high school, he attended the Cornish School of Fine and Applied Arts in Seattle, Washington for two years. In 1938, he studied at Mills College with dancer and choreographer Lester Horton, and in 1939 moved to Bennington College, where he was noticed by dancer Martha Graham, and invited to join her company.

Originally a soloist for Graham's dance company, Cunningham was encouraged to begin choreographing by Graham herself in 1943. His early works include Root of an Unfocus (1944) and Mysterious Adventure (1945). As he began to get more involved in a relationship with the composer John Cage, Cunningham decided to leave Graham's company in 1945 and work professionally with Cage. They collaborated on annual recitals in New York City as well as stand alone works, including The Seasons (1947) and Inlets (1978). Cunningham formed his own company in 1952.

Both Cage and Cunningham were fascinated by the potential of random phenomena to determine structure; Cunningham was in particular determined to create what he deemed to be pure movement without the possibility of emotional interpretation. Thus Cunningham created 'choreography by chance', in which isolated movements are given sequence by such random methods as the flipping of a coin. Works created by this method include Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951) and Suite by Chance (1952), in which even the patterns of the movements were determined by chance. Suite by Chance was also the first work of modern dance to be performed to an electronic score, a commission from American experimental composer Christian Wolff. Symphonie pour un homme seul (1952), later called Collage, was performed to a score of the same name by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and was the first performance in America of musique concret, that is, music created from tape-recorded environmental sounds.

Cunningham's dances are, by nature, abstract, and are characterised by abrupt changes in changes or contrasts of movement. Many have associated his work with the motifs of art movements such as Surrealism, Dadaism, and Existentialism. In 1974, Cunningham suddenly changed direction, abandoning his company's 20 year old repertory in favour of excerpts from both old and new works, sometimes performed simultaneously, which he called Events. He then created choreography specifically for viewing on video tape, including Blue Studio: Five Segments (1976). His later works include Locale (1979), Duets (1980), Fielding Sixes (1980), Channels/Inserts (1981), and Quartets (1983).

Arthritis began to seriously interrupt his dancing ability in the early 1990s, forcing him to turn to an animated computer program called DanceForms in order to explore more choreographic opportunities. He ceased stage performances after the death of Cage in 1992, but continued to lead his company until shortly before his own death. He had received the Kennedy Center Honours in 1985, and this was followed in 2005 when he received the Japan Art Association's Praemium Imperiale for theatre/film. The Brooklyn Academy of Art premiered his last work, Nearly Ninety, in 2009 to mark his 90th birthday. He died several months later, on July 26, 2009, in New York City, aged 90.

Here's his Variations V (1966), performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company:

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Bob Fosse.

- Selene

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