Cunningham is especially known for his collaborations with American artists, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, who created sets and costumes that were integral parts of his productions. One of the most prolific of dance-makers, he created nearly 200 works for his company, appearing in all of them until he reached the age of 70 and dancing in many new works thereafter. During his later years Cunningham was widely considered the world's greatest living choreographer. His later dances include Locale and Duets (both 1980); Fabrications (1987); Trackers (1991), the first work he created with the aid of a computer; Crwdspcr (1994); Installations (1996); Scenario (1997); Biped (1999), which uses motion-capture technology; Way Station (2001); Split Sides (2003), with music by the experimental rock bands Radiohead and Sigur Ros; Xover (2007); and Nearly Ninety (2009).
See his Changes: Notes on Choreography (1968) and The Dancer and Dance (1985); C. Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (2007); biography by D. Vaughan (1997); studies by J. Klosty (1975, repr. 1986), R. Kostelanetz, ed. (1992), G. Celant, ed. (1999), and R. Copeland (2004); C. Atlas, dir, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance (documentary film, 2002).
Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1953. Since that time Cunningham has choreographed nearly 200 works for his company. In 1973 he choreographed Un jour ou deux for the Ballet of the Paris Opéra, with music by Cage and set design by Jasper Johns. (A revised version was presented there in 1986.) The Ballet of the Paris Opéra also performed a revival of his Points in Space in 1990. His work has also been presented by New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, White Oak Dance Project, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Zurich Ballet, and Rambert Dance Company (London), among others.
Cunningham has worked extensively in film and video, first in collaboration with Charles Atlas and later with Elliot Caplan. In 1999 the collaboration with Atlas was resumed with the production of the documentary Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance. In 2004-2005 they collaborated again on a new piece presented in two versions, Views on Camera and Views on Video. This work was funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; subsequent projects created under this grant included films of Split Sides (2003) and Ocean (1994, revived 2005).
Cunningham's interest in contemporary technology has led him to work with the computer program DanceForms, which he has used in making all his dances since Trackers (1991). In 1997 he began work in motion capture with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar of Riverbed Media to develop the decor for BIPED, with music by Gavin Bryars, first performed in 1999 at Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley. Another major work, Interscape, first given in 2000, reunited Cunningham with his early collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, who designed both décor and costumes for the dance, which has music by Cage.
In August 2001 Cunningham returned to the stage in the first theatrical presentations of Cage's An Alphabet, at the Edinburgh Festival, with subsequent engagements in Berlin, Champaign-Urbana, Berkeley, and Perth, in Western Australia. In the revival of How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965), first performed in the 2002 Lincoln Center Festival at the New York State Theater, Merce Cunningham, together with David Vaughan, read the accompanying stories by John Cage.
In the 2002–03 season the Merce Cunningham Dance Company celebrated its 50th anniversary, beginning with performances at the 2002 Lincoln Center Festival in New York City and ending in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in October 2003, including the debut of a new work Split Sides, featuring music by the rock bands Radiohead and Sigur Rós. In the summer of 2005 the Company again appeared in the Lincoln Center Festival, presenting a revival of the 1994 work Ocean. Cunningham’s work eyeSpace was presented at the Joyce Theater in New York in October 2006.
In October 2005 Cunningham received the Praemium Imperiale in Tokyo. Other honors and awards include: the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2000); the Handel Medallion from the Mayor of New York City (1999); the Bagley Wright Fund Established Artists Award, Seattle (1998); the Nellie Cornish Arts Achievement Award from his alma mater, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle (1996); the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale (1995); and the Wexner Prize of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Columbus (with John Cage, posthumously, 1993). Cunningham was also a recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1990 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1985, in which year he also received a Laurence Olivier Award in London and a MacArthur Fellowship. In France, he was made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1982 and first Chevalier (1989) and then Officier (2004) of the Légion d'Honneur.
Cunningham has collaborated on two books about his work: Changes: Notes on Choreography, with Frances Starr (Something Else Press, New York, 1968), and The Dancer and the Dance, interviews with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (Marion Boyars, New York and London, 1985). The latter, originally published in French, has also been translated into German and Italian. Merce Cunningham/Dancing in Space and Time, a collection of critical essays edited by Richard Kostelanetz (second edition), was published in 1998 by the Da Capo Press. Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, chronicle and commentary by David Vaughan, archivist of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, was published in 1997 by Aperture and in French translation by Editions Plume. A digital supplement (CD-ROM) entitled Merce Cunningham: Fifty Forward was produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation in 2005. Aperture published a book of Cunningham’s drawings and journals, under the title Other Animals, in the spring of 2002.
A major exhibition about Cunningham and his collaborations, curated by Germano Celant, was first seen at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1999, and subsequently at the Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 1999; the Museum moderner Kunst Stifftung Ludwig, Vienna, 2000; and the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, 2000. A trio of exhibitions devoted to John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham, curated by Ron Bishop, were shown in the spring of 2002 at the Gallery of Fine Art, Edison College, Fort Myers, Florida. Merce Cunningham: Dancing on the Cutting Edge, an exhibition of recent design for MCDC, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, in January 2007. The major exhibition Invention: Merce Cunningham & Collaborators at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts closed on October 13, 2007.
"Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cunningham and Cage" was a book recently written by one of Merce Cunningham's leading dancers, Carolyn Brown. It celebrates the intimate worlds of art, music, dance, and theater that is Merce Cunningham’s unique hallmark.
Although considered an abrogation of artistic responsibility by some, Cunningham was thrilled by a process that arrives at works that could never have been created through traditional collaboration. This does not mean, however, that Cunningham holds every piece created in this fashion is a masterpiece. Those dances that do not "work" are quickly dropped from repertory, while those that do are celebrated as serendipitous discoveries.
Another of Cunningham's innovations was the development of what might be called "non-representative" dance which simply emphasizes movement: in Cunningham's choreography, dancers do not necessarily represent any historical figure, emotional situation, or idea.
Although well into his eighties and no longer able to dance, Cunningham continues to choreograph with the aid of computer software, working with musical groups including Sigur Rós and Radiohead to create soundtracks for his projects.
Cunningham was on the development team for the dance software originally called Lifeforms, now called Danceforms; the software allows the user to choreograph on a computer.