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Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham had a long and distinguished career as a dancer and choreographer. By the time he was 20, he was a professional dancer, soloing at the Martha Graham Dance Company. He transformed modern dance into an avant-garde exploration of what it means to be human. Throughout his career he embraced the spirit of collaboration, working with artists, musicians and designers to create pieces of work that were transformative. One of his longtime collaborators was the acclaimed experimental composer John Cage.

Cunningham began his own company, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in 1953. It was here that his exploration of the avant-garde went into full swing. His pieces bucked conventions. They were often performed without a narrative. His collaboration with John Cage also resulted in a dramatic re-envisioning of the relationship between music and dance. Though Cage and Cunningham combined music and choreography for the performances, they believed that the two things should be composed separately and exist independent of one another.

Cunningham may go down in history as one of the first old-school modern dance choreographers to embrace the digital age. He grew up dancing and designing choreography before technology became intertwined with modern life. However, Cunningham recognized the evolution of computers as part of the human experience. In the latter half of his career, he began choreographing using DanceForms, a teaching software program he helped design. Still in use, it allows users to experience 3-D animation of dance moves. In 1998, he collaborated with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to choreograph a virtual dance composition called Hand-Drawn Spaces. This installation used motion-captured animated dancers to perform complex moves and techniques across three computer screens. The National Endowment for the Arts labeled it a “master work” and provided funding to keep the installation afloat [source: OpenEndedGroup]. Not one to miss out on ways to reach a larger audience, Cunningham even had his own Web-cast, known as “Mondays with Merce.”

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