Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009) was an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of the American avant-garde for more than fifty years. Throughout much of his life, Cunningham was considered one of the greatest creative forces in American dance. Cunningham is also notable for his constant collaborations with artists of other disciplines, including musicians John Cage and David Tudor, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Nauman, designer Romeo Gigli, and architect Benedetta Tagliabue. Works that he produced with these artists had a profound impact on avant-garde art beyond the world of dance.
I had the fortunate experience of working with Merce on (3) film projects, “Changing Steps” (dance work created @ Sundance, with Robert Redford narrating), “Cage/Cunningham” (theatrical documentary on the life and work of Merce and composer John Cage), and “Beach Bird’s for Camera” (35mm theatrical dance work), which premiered @ Lincoln Center in 1992. Elliot Caplan was the director on all of these projects.
Both Cunningham and Cage made extensive use of chance procedures, which meant that not only musical forms but narrative and other conventional elements of dance composition, such as cause and effect, climax and anticlimax, were also abandoned. Cunningham is not interested in telling stories or exploring psychological relationships: the subject matter of his dances is the dance itself.
His pioneering work in video and film, collaborating with filmmakers Charles Atlas and later Elliot Caplan, enlarged the possibilities of choreography for the camera. Cunningham himself is an imaginative visual artist, whose drawings of animals, birds, and insects have been collected in a book, Other Animals (2002).