Merce Cunningham 2000 Recipient

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Merce Cunningham, dancer and choreographer, was the major force behind the
evolution and innovation of modern dance for much of the last century. In his constant search for new forms of movement, he bent the rules and pushed the boundaries of dance, boldly redefining the art for both his dancers and audiences alike. Cunningham introduced the world to over 150 cutting-edge works, including “Suite by Chance”, with the first electronic modern dance score; “Beach Birds for Camera”, a film dance produced for the wide-screen; the multimedia “Variations V”; the award-winning “Pictures”; and “Interscape”, which received its triumphant world premiere at The Kennedy Center. Cunningham continued to change the language of dance and expand its vocabulary up until his death in 2009.

Born in 1919 in Centralia, Washington, Merce Cunningham began his professional dance career in Martha Graham’s dance company where he was a soloist from 1939 to 1945. During that time, he began to choreograph independently, presenting his first New York solo concert in April 1944. He continued to stage annual performances alone or with an ad hoc group of dancers until the formation of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Black Mountain College in 1953.

An artist ahead of his time, Cunningham had a highly original style that was new and provocative, but not always understood. He was the first to break free of conventional staging patterns, sending his dancers off in different directions with each group performing their movements independently of the music. The deliberate dissonance in his dances mirrored what he saw as the complexity and randomness of life. He would take that idea one step further by using chance, in the toss of a coin or the roll of dice, to decide the continuity of his dances. Cunningham also experimented with new technology. In the seventies, he developed video dances. In 1991, he began to work with “Life Forms”, a computer program he used to create his dances. In 1999, he brought dance into the digital age with “Biped”, a piece in which real and digitally manufactured virtual dancers interact he continued this work with his 2008 release of “Loops”, choreography for the lands as motion-capture data under a Creative Commons license.

Cunningham’s influence stretches beyond the boundaries of dance. Throughout his career, Cunningham invited other innovators into his world and started a cross-pollination of ideas that fused across artistic lines. Long-time friend John Cage, the late experimental musician who scored many of Cunningham’s works, was the first musical director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Other collaborators included celebrated visual artists Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, who was the company’s resident designer from1954 to 1964.

While his early works still resonate, Cunningham’s later pieces continued to break new ground. Many of his works have entered the repertories of numerous ballet and modern dance companies that continue to showcase the genius of Merce Cunningham around the world.

Selection Committee

Richard Koshalek, Chairman – Richard Koshalek is the former Director of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. He was the Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art from 1982 to 1999, where he became known as a visionary advocate of contemporary art with a keen interest in architecture and design. He has a distinguished record of participation and leadership on a long list of Arts Panels and Commissions both within and without the United States. He is frequently called upon for his special expertise in the design and construction of performance and exhibition space. He is now the President of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Art Center provides a variety of programs in the Fine Arts, but is perhaps best known for producing leaders in the world of Design. Art Center graduates designed the new VW Beetle, the Audi TT and the Nokia cell phones. Since his appointment, our Chairman has undertaken a long range plan that will bring new vitality to Art Center and consolidate its position as a leader in Art and Design.

Lloyd Richards – He was a legendary Director who staged the original production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. His name will forever be associated with the Yale Repertory Theatre and the Yale School of Drama, where he was the Artistic Director and Dean from 1979-1991. He was also widely known for his support of the playwright, August Wilson, helping to nurture many of Wilson’s major works such as Fences, Two Trains Running, and The Piano Lesson. He won the Tony Award as the Director of Fences in 1987; he received the National Medal of Arts in 1993, and was the winner of numerous other awards and honors.