A household name? In the world of modern dance, yes. Outside that world, probably not.
Cunningham, born in 1919, formed a dance company in 1953. With music director, composer John Cage, he turned dance on its head. In an entirely new way of envisioning dance, movement was separated from music. Choreography, sets, and music were developed independently of one another and brought together after completion.
Pure movement was Cunningham’s passion. Audience members who expected to witness a story, with traditional elements of conflict, climax and resolution, were frustrated. Successful observers, however, checked preconcieved notions at the door, including assumptions about dance music. Beginning with Cage, Cunningham collaborated with more than fifty exploratory composers of the late 20th century.
It’s October 2007. I can still hear the voice of one of his dancers as she aborted her on-stage warm-ups in Chicago to take a phone call from wheelchair-bound Cunningham in New York. Though no longer able to dance or even travel with his company, Cunningham phoned them before every performance. From my view from the orchestra pit at Chicago’s Harris Theater, I am grateful for my first and only opportunity to experience these provocative works of movement and sound.
When Cunningham died in 2009 at age ninety, he left a plan for his dance company. The dancers would continue to perform his work on a “Legacy Tour,” with their final performance in New York City, December 31, 2011. If you were there, good for you. If not, it’s too late to see Cunningham’s choreography performed by the company he trained. The new ended with the last day of 2011.
Though the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs no more, it’s not too late to read about, listen to, and view recorded dances and interviews. The library houses a treasury of material for those curious about Merce Cunningham’s work.
Music for Merce, 1952-2009, a ten CD set published by New World Records, is available to check out, and also to listen to at the Main Library on the streaming music database, DRAM, the Database of Amercian Recorded Music.
Cage/Cunningham, a documentary film by Eliot Kaplan, captures a heartfelt portrait of the fifty-year collaboration between composer John Cage and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Merce My Way: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Photographs, by Mikhail Baryshnikov, features still photographs snapped by a famous fellow-dancer that capture dress rehearsal movement by Cunningham and Company.
Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, chronicle and commentary by David Vaughan, is the most comprehensive book of Cunningham’s life and work through the mid-1990s in the library’s collection.
Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham, by Carolyn Brown, offers a dancer’s perspective of the Cunningham Dance Company’s formative years in a revealing memoir by one of its original members.