Studio 360

In the Footsteps of Merce Cunningham

For over a half-century, Merce Cunningham’s work was marked by his consistent embrace of innovation, expanding the frontiers of contemporary dance.

Merce Cunningham performing in 1972.
Merce Cunningham performs in 1972. Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

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This month, the dance world is celebrating what would’ve been Merce Cunningham’s 100th birthday. For over a half-century, the American dancer and choreographer embraced innovation and expanded the frontiers of contemporary art, performing arts, visual arts, and music.

Merce Cunningham dancers are famous for seeming to defy the laws of physics and gravity, leaping high into the air and then suddenly switching direction.

“I always feel that my legs are like needles of a sewing machine when I’m doing Cunningham. They have to be very sharp and very articulate, and I feel that the torso has to be free on top of that,” says Daniel Roberts, who was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. “There’s a strain that comes along with doing the work and the technique and there’s a clarity about the work in general, the use of space, and the articulation of the torso and the limbs that I’ve never experienced before in any other dance form.”

Cunningham’s legacy goes beyond dance and was seeded in his frequent collaborations with artists in other disciplines, such as musicians John Cage, Brian Eno, and Radiohead; artists Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein; and costume designer Rei Kawakubo, among others.

These stories were produced by Trey Kay and Kerrie Hillman.

(Originally aired June 9, 2001, and April 27, 2002.)

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