The Kennedy Center Celebrates a Modern Dance Icon

The Kennedy Center
Sep 4 · 5 min read

Joining a global centennial celebration, the Kennedy Center hosts Merce Cunningham at 100, marking the legacy of the esteemed 20th-century choreographer and Kennedy Center Honoree.

As part of the festivities, Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers (CNDC-Angers) will perform two of Cunningham’s masterworks: Beach Birds and Biped. In addition, there will be music performances, a panel, free film screenings, and more.

But why are we celebrating Merce Cunningham? Who was he, and how did he influence the dance world?


Merce Cunningham

Cunningham’s 70-year career was defined by discovery as he challenged dance norms by using music, dance, and the visual arts in new and unexpected ways. As a result, his works do not look or sound like any average dance performance. Cunningham strayed from traditional storytelling formats, used chance (flipping coins, rolling dice, etc.) as a creative tool, and experimented with music and dance as separate entities that happened to share the same time and space. These unconventional methods are why Cunningham is considered hugely influential in the development of American modern dance. He never stopped innovating and ultimately encouraged future generations to think differently about choreography and dance.

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.“

Beginning his early career in New York City, Cunningham performed with the Martha Graham Dance Company as a pupil of Martha Graham herself — the acclaimed choreographer often called the mother of modern dance. Cunningham eventually left to create the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953. His company performed for 58 years before its final performances in December 2011, as Cunningham wished that the company disband after his death.

Cunningham’s technique looks a bit like ballet — with the same turned out position of the legs, quick footwork, and strong spine — but also differs in many ways.

  • Cunningham dancers utilize their torsos — bending sideways, forward and backward — and hold balances for long periods.
  • They often must be able to do two or three things at the same time, executing different rhythms and movements in the legs, torso, and arms simultaneously.
  • There are frequent changes of direction, and no rhythm from the music to count on. Cunningham’s work is both a physical and mental challenge.

Biped (1999)

“The dance gives me the feeling of switching channels on the TV…the action varies from slow formal sections to rapid broken-up sequences where it is difficult to see all the complexity.”

What are you seeing?

Along with collaborating artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, Cunningham used Motion Capture technology to produce the animated human sketches and abstract shapes that are projected on a gauzy curtain in front of the dancers. The lighting, designed by Aaron Copp, divides the stage into squares that light on and off in a seemingly random sequence. The otherwise dark backdrop allows both the digital images and the dancers to fade in and out throughout the performance. The dancers’ metallic body suits, crafted by Suzanne Gallo, contribute to the otherworldly atmosphere of the piece.

What are you hearing?

Gavin Bryars composed Biped’s music of the same name, creating a haunting electronic soundscape that is partly recorded and partly performed live with acoustic instruments. The densely layered music includes the constant hum of drones and a blend of other instruments and sounds that fade in and out.

Beach Birds (1991)

“It is all based on individual physical phrasing. The dancers don’t have to be exactly together. They can dance like a flock of birds, when they suddenly take off.”

What are you seeing?

Eleven dancers wear identical white leotards and tights with black gloves, resembling seagulls on a beach. While gradual changes in lighting occur throughout the performance without connection to the dance structure, they have been interpreted as a representation of dawn to dusk on a beach.

What are you hearing?

John Cage’s “Four3” is the music of Beach Birds, offering a more fluid rhythm than other Cunningham works, which allows sections to vary in length depending on the performance. The mesmerizing piano part intermingling with sounds of rainsticks and periods of silence add to a beach-like ambience.


The Technology Behind the Works

For both Biped and Beach Birds, Cunningham used a software program called Life Forms (now called DanceForms). The software allowed him to animate computerized figures in a three-dimensional space. After experimenting with choreographic ideas on-screen, he would work with his company to test the movement in real life. While the sequences sometimes proved impossible to execute, Cunningham’s process resulted in surprising, new movement decisions that continually pushed himself and his dancers out of their comfort zones.


Explore the Merce Cunningham Trust website to learn more about Merce Cunningham, his works, and the centennial celebration.

The Kennedy Center

The nation’s performing arts center.

The Kennedy Center

Written by

The nation’s performing arts center.

The Kennedy Center

The nation’s performing arts center.

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