Cunningham broke every theatrical rule – his dancers didn’t face the audience, he didn’t tell stories, he didn’t use conventional music, and he used chance procedures, like the roll of a dice, to order the steps. Despite this, his pure-dance creations had a rigor, purity, and polish – and a technical difficulty – that match classicism step for step. He also matched its artistic collaborations, working with American artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, and the racial composer John Cage – his on- and off-stage partner – although their uncompromising approach means Cunningham is as much revered as truly popular.
Mercier Philip Cunningham was born in April 1919 at Centralia, Washington, the son of a lawyer and school teacher. His birthplace little hinted at his future innovations – it was a conventional lumber and coal-mining town – but he was lucky in having parents that encouraged his talent, and he took classes from the age of 12 with a former vaudeville performed called Mrs Barrett.
After school, Cunningham trained at the Cornish School for Performing and Visual Arts in Seattle, where he met John Cage. In 1939 he attended a summer session at the Bennington School of Dance in Oakland, California, where he caught the eye of one of its tutors, the modern dance giant Martha Graham, no less. Cunningham later joined her company, and danced the lead role in Appalachian Spring, one of her best-known works for which she commissioned Aaron Copland to compose the famous music.
Cunningham left Graham’s troupe in 1945 to pursue his own work, eventually forming his own company. As folk lore has it, its first decade was spent in the back of a VW camper van, driving thousands of miles across America to perform in out-of-the-way venues, often to an unresponsive audience.
His first tour to Europe came in 1964 where there was a mixed response – Parisians pelted him with tomatoes, but Londoners were bowled over. There was a run at Sadler’s Wells, attended by Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Frederick Ashton, who is said to have told Cunningham “You are a poet”. There was a further three-week run at the Phoenix Theatre.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Cunningham continued to innovate, using video artists, such as Charles Atlas, and in the 1990s he used a computerized choreography program called LifeForms which allowed him to animate virtual-reality dancers. This worked as both a creative aid and set décor.
Despite being crippled by arthritis, Cunningham continued to perform, or “appear” as he put it, and retained an imp-ish approach to describing his work. When asked what his dance was about, he replied “It’s about 40 minutes.”