Merce Cunningham and John Cage, forever inseparable


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The tributes to choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died in New York at 90 Sunday evening, have been pouring in, and they are glorious.

I think we have consensus on the fact that Cunningham revolutionized modern dance and that he was the greatest living choreographer. That the world recognizes the genius, originality and importance of a beloved artist means a lot to us Merceophiles. Still, coming to Cunningham from music, I have been struck by how little has been said about Cunningham’s relationship to my art form, and by a certain grudging credit accorded Cunningham’s collaborator and greatest artistic influence, his companion and the music director of his company, John Cage.


It has been easy enough to dismiss the whole thing by noting that for Cunningham, dance and music were created apart, with the implication that in his case choreography did not need the music.

Moreover, the tone of Cunningham’s obituaries is significantly different from that of Cage’s. When he died in 1992, less than a month before his 80th birthday, Cage was widely credited for being among the most original music thinkers of all time and among the most influential and charismatic musicians of his day.

But no one dared call him the greatest composer of his time. More typical was what the British critic Andrew Porter spelled out in the lead paragraph of his Cage obituary in the Observer: “He said a lot silly things, and wrote a lot of silly music. But everyone was fond of him.” Even those who praised Cage’s music were forced to assume a defensive tone.

In fact, those “silly” things said and the “silly” music were central to Cunningham’s work and everything the choreographer stood for.

But such misunderstanding is nothing new. During their partnership, Cage was better known but Cunningham more institutionally celebrated, particularly in America. Cunningham, not Cage, was awarded the National Medal of Arts by the White House in 1990.

There were some obvious reasons for all this. The dance world is smaller than the music world. Cage and Cunningham were both hugely charismatic stage animals, but in a visual society, Cunningham’s spectacular dancing and the fabulous movement he created offered a more immediate appeal than Cage’s extraordinary ideas or extraordinarily curious music.


Even so, Cage made Cunningham possible. A teenage Cunningham first encountered Cage at the Cornish School in Seattle in 1938. Cage was the accompanist in Bonnie Bird’s dance class. Cage recognized a musical talent in Cunningham and enticed him into a percussion ensemble. Though only seven years Cunningham’s senior, Cage was already worldly and exposed the young dancer to the most progressive notions of the visual arts, literature, theater and philosophy.

Cunningham left the Cornish School in 1938 to join Martha Graham’s company in New York. Cage got to Manhattan three years later, and he convinced Cunningham to break out on his own. Cage dissolved his marriage, and he and Cunningham began a career and life together.

It was Cage’s idea that music and dance should have lives of their own. In her obituary, Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman writes that score and choreography came together “essentially as strangers.” In fact, the case was just the opposite. The only reason this approach could work is because the dancer and composer were on the same wavelength. They understood that music and dance would come together as friends. Theirs was a deep relationship based upon trust that honored independence, which is different from separation.

In the early years, Cage wrote prepared piano pieces for Cunningham and they toured performing together. When the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed in 1953, Cage became music director. He selected all the music and musicians. The composers and performers were his – and Cunningham’s – friends. The general nature of the work was always discussed. The musical style employed was well known to Cunningham. There was always a clear aesthetic at work.

Experimentation was encouraged, and because of that everything wasn’t going to work, which all the creators knew in advance. But Cunningham made room for music, and the composers created music that made room for movement. An invitation always went out to listen.

Cage’s sphere became Cunningham’s. Included were such visual artists as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns; philosophers Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan; the Zen Buddhist teacher D.T. Suzuki; the mythologist Joseph Campbell and a great many others. When Cage developed a way to make music using chance operations, he passed that on to Cunningham. Cunningham’s artistic antennae were exceptionally sensitive. He immediately found implications from all these sources for movement that no else had ever thought of.


There are some in the dance world who resent Cage’s intellectual power over Cunningham. Without Cage, the thinking goes, Cunningham could have been another Baryshnikov or another Balanchine, or both rolled into one. But he wouldn’t have been Merce, and maybe he wouldn’t have been the man who revolutionized dance.

In the New York Times obituary, Alastair Macaulay quotes Cunningham as saying, after Cage died: “On the one hand, I come home at the end of the day, and John’s not there. On the other hand, I come home and John’s not there.”

Yes, Cunningham did say that. But when I heard him say it, he did so with a gentle laugh that asked us not to feel sorry for him. And he fought to keep back the tears with his follow-up line: “I miss the conversation.”

-- Mark Swed

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