This paper “The Creative Innovation and Vast Influence of Merce Cunningham” will explore how Merce Cunningham was so innovative and influential in the world of dance. Cunningham’s dance innovations never ceased to amaze the audience. …
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If I was one who did not know his background, I would just see him as an old, shriveled, slow-speaking senior citizen dispensing wisdom on dance and life from his wheelchair and regaling his glory days when he had his share of the limelight as the star of the show. Yet, upon listening to his words, one can be enamored by his passion for the arts, notwithstanding his age and disability. In his advanced age, when most of his contemporaries are long dead or shoved in nursing homes rendering them useless to society, Cunningham remained vigilant in his post as guard of the dance, issuing instructions for his company of dancers as he envisions the dance in his still brilliant mind. He may sit immobile in his wheelchair, but his spirit and ideas joined the nubile movements of his dancers on the floor. That vision alone encapsulates how innovative and influential he was in the world of dance. This paper will explore how he came to be such. Travelling back in time to his origins as a young dancer, Merce Cunningham started training in all-round theatrical dance at the tender age of twelve under the supervision of Mrs. J.W. Barrett. He went on to further his studies at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington and became a mentee of the eminent dance diva, Martha Graham. This grand dame had a great influence on the young Cunningham, as she prodded him to pursue professional dancing and choreography as a career. In 1944, he first collaborated with long-time art and life partner, John Cage in a dance concert where he choreographed his dances as the dance soloist to the original music composed and performed by John Cage. The resulting performance was something new for everyone to see and it elicited a gamut of reactions from all sectors. The resounding critique was made by Edwin Denby who noted that he had ‘never seen a first recital that combined such taste, such technical finish, such originality of dance material, and so sure a manner of presentation’ (Greskovic, 1999, p. 72). Indeed, Cunningham has lived up to that compliment all throughout his dance career. In 1953, Cunningham had his own company of 5 dancers, including himself. He preferred to maintain a small group that even in 1994, there were only 17 including the choreographer. His fortunate dancer-trainees eventually went on to develop their own careers as dancer-choreographers and made names for themselves. Some of these were Paul Taylor, Remy Charlip, Viola Farber, Margaret Jenkins, Douglas Dunn, Gus Solomons, Jr., Karole Armitage and Ulysses Dove (Greskovic, 1999). The prominence these mentees of Cunningham gained was a reflection of his great influence in their dance philosophies. Cunningham’s dance innovations never ceased to amaze the audience. Asked if he was out to shock people with his dances, he claimed he was not, but was out to bring poetry in their lives. He brought a twist to ballet, which was so much part of the modern dance innovations but somehow put an edge to the classic dance. He combined what he learned from ballet such as the pronounced use of the legs, with the strong emphasis on the upper body in modern dance methods. Greskovic (1999) identifies one of Cunningham’s technical advancement in relation to ballet’s five positions of the feet that he referred to as the Five Positions of the Back – upright, curve, arch, twist and tilt. A meticulous artist, Cunningham did not stop at designing details of his choreography but also dabbled with the music that accompanied the dance. The unconventional sound elements used may be disturbing to the audience simply because it is unfamiliar and therefore, uncomfortable.
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