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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Merce  Cunningham

Merce Cunningham 1919to –2009

American dancer and choreographer, and one of the most influential figures of modern dance. Born in Washington, he began dancing at a young age, eventually choosing it over acting. At the age of 20 he was discovered by Martha Graham, and performed for six years as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York City. It was during this time that he met the composer John Cage, who would become his creative and romantic partner for the next 50 years. When Cage received a copy of the I Ching, a Chinese divination text that relies on random numbers, it became an important inspiration in both of their work. As director of The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, formed in 1953, Cunningham would often employ random chance to determine the order of certain movements. Even more controversial was his belief that music and dance did not have to relate to each other. Cage and Cunningham were constant collaborators, but they would work on their contributions separately, only combining the dance with the music during performances. Cunningham also collaborated with a host of other artists, from Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to Radiohead and Sigur Rós. He continued to dance until his 70s, and choreographed new work up until his death, including a piece to celebrate his 90th birthday. He was also a fan of new technology, working with software and motion capture, and creating his own web series. Throughout his career he choreographed hundreds of distinctive works, and had a lasting and profound influence on dance.

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