Home Magazine Merce Cunningham: the creator of abstract dancing

We do love centenaries and intellectuals and artists birthdays. In this 2020 in the arts field we are going to watch and participate to movies and exhibitions as celebrations of characters as Raffaello for his 500 years after his death; Amedeo Modigliani, Gio’ Pomodoro, or Federico Fellini for their centenary. This also involves Merce Cunningham’s birthday in 1919: at the end of 2019, in fact, a beautiful documentary was produced to depict this peculiar, sensitive and talented choreographer and dancer. And it will be screened in movie theatres in Europe and USA, from February 2020. 

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“I don’t describe it. I do it”. These few words are by Merce Cunningham. And they could be used as a good and simple representation of how his personality was. An intellectual that used his body to show human behaviors and attitudes as a new way to approach life. If a photographer and director such Larry Clark started his career “just” because he always had his camera with him – to witnesses his friends’ hard and dramatic everyday life -, so Merce Cunningham (Washington, 1919 – New York, 2009) could have said that he had to witness human feelings through body movement and gestures. As Pina Bausch did in a different way and approach, Cunningham invented abstract dance movements that literally made a new certain kind of ballet, sound and choreography history. He was able to spread his practice by performing his choreographies and theories into other areas, like contemporary art. He started to dance at 12 years old. 


Merce Cunningham, costume, portrait. 


Merce Cunningham teaching lesson. 


At his 20 he was invited by Martha Graham to join her dance group. Martha Graham, the most popular dancer and choreographer of that historical period, picked him among Bennington College’s students in 1939. Merce started his own choreographies is 1943 and, a year later, he met another extraordinary music and performance pioneer such as John Cage, who was more focused on sound and its experimentation. This duo then started to develop projects together and, from 1945, after Cunningham left Graham’s company, the two artists collaborated for various shows that today could be still defined as contemporary. Today, in fact, is so common to participate and see body performances inside museums, institution or as public art. The art system, from New York’s High Line to an institution such as the Palais de Tokyo, to OGR in Turin (Tino Sehgal ongoing performance in 2018 is a perfect example) is showing a lot how body movements and artists’ choreographies could represent a good way to show different perspectives. The museum became a stage as a place for experimentation, but also for feelings and to destroy all kind of stereotypes.

CUNNINGHAM the movie, directed by Alla Kovgan, traces Merce's artistic evolution over three decades of risk and discovery from his early years as a struggling dancer in postwar New York to his emergence as one of the world's most visionary choreographers. During his career, really well narrated by images and archive’s materials, Merce worked and met musicians as John Cage, of course, or Erik Satie and Radiohead, visual artists Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, architect Benedetta Tagliabue, Comme des Garcons fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, and over one hundred of the world’s leading dancers, Cunningham created a new dance technique and celebrated movement as manifestation of being human and of being alive. As Cunnigham would maybe express, it will be an “ecstasy” to watch what our body can create.  

Cover image: Merce Cunningham, ballet choreography.


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