John Cage and I became interested in the use of chance in the 50's. I think one of the very primary things that happened then was the publication of the "I Ching," the Chinese book of changes, from which you can cast your fortune: the hexagrams.—Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance, 2000
Cage took it to work in his way of making compositions then; and he used the idea of 64—the number of the hexagrams —to say that you had 64, for example, sounds; then you could cast, by chance, to find which sound first appeared, cast again, to say which sound came second, cast again, so that it's done by, in that sense, chance operations. Instead of finding out what you think should follow—say a particular sound—what did the I Ching suggest? Well, I took this also for dance.
I was working on a title called, “Untitled Solo,” and I had made—using the chance operations—a series of movements written on scraps of paper for the legs and the arms, the head, all different. And it was done not to the music but with the music of Christian Wolff.
Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, the second of three sons. Both his brothers followed their Father, Clifford D. Cunningham, into the legal profession. Cunningham first experienced dance while living in Centralia. He took tap class from a local Teacher, Mrs. Maude Barrett, whose Energy and spirit taught him to love dance. Her emphasis on precise musical timing and rhythm provided him a clear understanding of musicality that he implemented in his later dance pieces. He attended the Cornish School in Seattle, headed by Nellie Cornish, from 1937 to 1939 to study acting, but found drama's reliance on text and miming too limiting and concrete. Cunningham preferred the ambiguous nature of dance, which gave him an outlet for exploration of movement. During this time, Martha Graham saw Cunningham dance and invited him to join her company. In 1939, Cunningham moved to New York and danced as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company for six years. He presented his first solo concert in New York in April 1944 with Composer John Cage, who became his life partner and frequent collaborator until Cage's death in 1992.
In Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951) Cunningham used Indeterminacy for the first time in this piece and the changing element for each show was the sequence of the sections.
In Suite by Chance (1953) it was his first work made entirely through chance procedures. Charts were created listing elements such as space, time, and positions. A coin was then tossed to determine each of these elements.
Suite for Five (1956–1958)
Music: John Cage, Music for Piano
Costumes: Robert Rauschenberg
Lighting: Beverly Emmons
1959 & 1954
Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York NY
Music: Conlon Nancarrow (from Rhythm Studies for Player Piano)
Costumes, Lighting: Robert Rauschenberg
In Story (1963) Cunningham experimented with the variable of costumes and sets. Before each performance Dancers were to choose an outfit from a pile of second hand clothes picked out by the designer, Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg was also responsible for creating a new set every show with items he could find in the theatre.
Medal of the Society for the Advancement of Dancing in Sweden, Stockholm
Gold Medal for Choreographic Invention at the Fourth International Festival of Dance, Paris
Music: David Tudor
Décor: Andy Warhol (Silver Clouds)
Costumes: Jasper Johns (uncredited)
Lighting: Richard Nelson
Canfield (1969) This piece was created by using playing cards. Each movement was assigned a playing card and chosen randomly.
Second Hand (1970)
Music: John Cage, (Cheap Imitation)
Décor & Costumes: Jasper Johns
Lighting: Richard Nelson (1970) Christine Shallenberg (2008)
From 1971 until its dissolution in 2012, the company was based in the Westbeth Artists Community in West Village; for a time Cunningham himself lived a block away at 107 Bank Street, with John Cage.
Music: David Tudor, Toneburst & Untitled (1975/1994)
Décor, Lighting, Costumes: Mark Lancaster
The Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award, Durham NC
Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France
The Mayor of New York’s Award of Honor for Arts and Culture, New York NY
Inducted as an Honorary Member into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York NY
Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas TX
Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, France
Inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY
Dance and Performance Award for Best Performance by a Visiting Artist, London, England
Medal of Honor from the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, Spain
(With John Cage, posthumously) the Wexner Prize of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Columbus OH
New York Dance and Performance Award (“Bessie”), New York NY
Tiffany Award from the International Society of Performing Arts Administrators, New York NY
Music: David Tudor,Soundings: Ocean Diary and Andrew Culver, Ocean 1–95
Décor, Lighting, Costumes: Marsha Skinner
Honorary degree from Wesleyan University, Middletown CT
Carina Ari Award (Grand Prix Video Danse with Elliot Caplan), Stockholm, Sweden
Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale, Italy
Nellie Cornish Arts Achievement Award from his alma mater, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle WA
Barnard College Medal of Distinction, New York NY
Grand Prix of the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, France
Bagley Wright Fund Established Artists Award, Seattle WA
Premio Internazionale “Gino Tani,” Rome
Handel Medallion from the Mayor of New York City NY
Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Lifetime Achievement, San Francisco CA
Fellow of the Academy of Performing Arts, Hong Kong
The key to the City of Montpellier, France
Coat of Arms of the City of Mulhouse, France
La Grande Médaille de la Ville de Paris (echelon vermeil) from the Mayor of Paris
Career Transition for Dancers Award, New York NY
Herald Archangel Award, Glasgow, Scotland
Village Award, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, New York
Honorary degree from Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia
Edward MacDowell Medal in interdisciplinary art, the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough NH
Officier of the Légion d'Honneur, France
Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN
Praemium Imperiale, Tokyo
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle WA
Nelson A. Rockefeller Award, Purchase College School of the Arts, State University of New York
Montgomery Fellow (Arts and Literature), Dartmouth College, Hanover NH
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award
Skowhegan Medal for Performance
The Legacy Plan includes a comprehensive documentation and preservation program, which will ensure that pieces from his repertory can be studied, performed and enjoyed by Future generations with knowledge of how they originally came to life. By other provisions of the plan, the Merce Cunningham Trust, established by Cunningham to serve as the custodian for his works, takes control of his dances for licensing purposes; Cunningham associates prepared detailed records of the dances so they could be licensed and given authentic productions by other companies. In addition, to ensure the authenticity of the presentation of his oeuvre once Cunningham was no longer able to lead his Company, the plan outlined a final international tour for the Company, and, ultimately, the closure of the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the transfer of all assets to the Merce Cunningham Trust. From Merce's death at age 90 through the Board's last meeting in 2012, the Legacy Plan implemented his wish that the Company complete a worldwide legacy tour and then close. December 31, 2011 was the final performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
The final meeting of the Board of Directors for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was held March 15, 2012, in Cunningham's studio at the top of the Westbeth building in the West Village.
There have been numerous exhibitions dedicated to Cunningham’s work. In addition, he is a visual Artist represented by Margarete Roeder Gallery.