Master + Work

Merce Cunningham and BIPED

Meet the master artist through one of his most important works

The Master

The Last Dance…What’s Next?


Even though the Merce Cunningham Dance Company no longer exists, there is a way for audiences to continue seeing some of Cunningham’s works.

The Merce Cunningham Trust will have a library of “Dance Capsules” or digital packages of information that will help to preserve some of Cunningham’s choreography. The capsules will contain video of the dance in performance, and information on the lighting, music/sound, costumes and décor (or set), as well as notes on how the work was created. Other dance companies can use these capsules to re-create the dance with their own performers.

Have you ever met someone who isn’t afraid to be different? Someone who doesn’t care about being popular, but more about doing things they find interesting? Merce Cunningham was that kind of person. He was a dancer and choreographer that made dances that were often difficult to watch.

For example, the movement could seem detached and unemotional, the music distracting or downright irritating. There were times when people walked out of the theater because they didn’t enjoy or understand Cunningham’s works. Even so, he is considered one of the great American choreographers of all time. Why? Because he never stopped trying new things. Throughout his 70-year career, he continued learning and innovating. Ultimately, he changed the way many people thought about choreography and dance.

Merce Cunningham grew up in Centrailia, Washington, and began dancing at age 20. After moving to New York City, he spent six years performing with the Martha Graham Dance Company. He remained with Graham until he started his own troupe, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in 1953. The company had their last performances in December of 2011, as it was Cunningham’s wish that the company be disbanded two years after his death. They performed and toured for 58 years (with different dancers, of course!).

What to look for: Cunningham’s Style

Cunningham technique looks a bit like ballet—with the same turned out position of the legs, quick footwork, and strong spine—but also differs in many ways.

  • Cunningham dancers utilize their torsos, bending sideways, forward and backward, and hold balances for long periods.
  • They often must be able to do two or three things at the same time, executing different rhythms and movements in the legs, torso, and arms simultaneously.
  • There are frequent changes of direction, and no rhythm from the music to count on. Cunningham’s work is both a physical and mental challenge.

Merce Cunningham Dancers

The Work

To read a Master + Work article about Martha Graham, click here. To read about innovators in modern dance, including Cunningham in "Rebellious Streak," click here.

BIPED (1999)
Music by Gavin Byars

“It’s when dancing gets awkward that it starts to get interesting.” —Merce Cunningham

Cunningham’s use of technology is one way in which he redefined dance. His masterwork BIPED demonstrates the evolution of Cunningham’s experiments with advancing technology. Many consider BIPED, created in 1999 when Cunningham turned 80 years old, to be the culmination of his use of computers to generate movement ideas.



Life Forms

Cunningham began choreographing on the computer in 1989 using a program called Life Forms created at Simon Frasier University, British Columbia, Canada. The Life Forms software portrayed outlines of the human figure in a three-dimensional space. The computerized figures had movable joints, and could be made to do all kinds of movements, including spins, jumps, leaps, reaches, and bends.

Cunningham used the program to experiment with choreographic ideas outside the studio. Once he had created a movement phrase with computer figures, he tried it out on his company to see how it worked. Often the sequences of movement were impossible for his dancers to execute, but they would lead to movement choices that he hadn’t expected or done before. That was what captivated Cunningham—pushing himself and his dancers outside of what was comfortable or habitual.

Cunningham was involved in the development team that redesigned and re-launched the Life Forms program, renamed Dance Forms. Every work Cunningham made after 1991, including BIPED, utilized movement generated on Dance Forms.

Motion Capture

Ever the innovator, Cunningham was drawn to further advances in technology. He collaborated with artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser to create the décor for BIPED utilizing Motion Capture technology.

Motion Capture records human movement in a digital format, and is often used in animation to make the motions of cartoon characters more realistic. With sensors on their bodies, the Cunningham dancers performed phrases from BIPED recorded using Motion Capture. Eshkar and Kaiser then animated virtual figures—embodied in chalk-like sketches of human bodies—using the recorded movement phrases. The Motion Capture technology allowed the digital figures to perform the same dance phrases as the actual company members.

Merce Cunningham's BIPED

Merce Cunningham's BIPED

BIPED is the first Cunningham work in which these virtual figures share the stage with the company. They are projected on a gauzy curtain in front of the stage, floating in front of and above the dancers. The dancers move through a dark world populated by the projected figures, floating digital beams of light and luminescent circles. At times, the virtual figures and décor fade or disappear, while the dancers do the same, emerging from blackness at the back of the stage, later engulfed by it again, and then disappearing from sight.

The digital décor for BIPED, the haunting electronic acoustic music by Gavin Byars, and the shiny, metallic body suits by Suzanne Gallo, all combine to create an otherworldly, almost underwater atmosphere for Cunningham’s movement. Since Cunningham didn’t ascribe meaning to his works, it is up to the audience to interpret this masterwork. What does it say to you? Do you see images of death and transcendence, like Alistair McCauley of the New York Times has suggested?

All of Cunningham’s work is open to individual interpretation. While it may prove puzzling, it is sure to promote thought and discussion. Cunningham inspired other artists and made people think about possibilities for performing dance. Contemporary dance owes a great deal to the endless innovation of Merce Cunningham.

Below is a discussion of BIPED from YouTube led by a New York Times dance critic, entitled “Alistair Macauley on BIPED.”

Learn More

From the beginning, Cunningham made choices to push dance in new directions. It is helpful to see some of Cunningham’s choreography to understand how he redefined concert dance. You may want to:

  • Watch the excerpts from Cunningham’s BIPED and Ocean. After viewing them, take note of the following elements of Cunningham’s approach:
    • Dance itself is the subject of the dance: Cunningham reacted against the very personal and psychological choreography of Martha Graham. For Martha Graham, movement was full of meaning; for Cunningham, it was simply movement. He felt movement should be appreciated for what it was, rather than what it communicated. Dance itself became the subject of his dances.
    • Lack of central character and story: There is no main character or lead dancer in Cunningham’s work— every dancer is equally important. Likewise, there is no expression of obvious emotion. Dancers may be on stage together and even partner one another. Moments of tenderness or intensity can occur, but they come from the movement itself and not from any imposed storyline.
    • Leave it to chance: Cunningham experimented with organizing movement by chance. In some of his works, audience members would be asked to throw a coin to determine the order of different sections. Over time, Cunningham’s use of chance intensified, helping him try combinations of movement he wouldn’t have thought of on his own.
    • Use of space: Most concert dance is created so that performers face the audience. Cunningham felt all facings should be considered equally valid, and made choreography that explored different directions in space, sometimes determined by chance.
    • Elements all independent and equal: Often the dance, music and décor for a Cunningham performance only came together in dress rehearsal or in front of an audience. Cunningham created the movement, but not with a certain piece of music in mind. He did not dictate what the music or décor should be, leaving that to other artists with whom he collaborated. Often the only thing the dance and music had in common was that they began and ended at the same time. This was a radical departure, since dance and music are often tied together very closely.
  • Visit the Merce Cunningham web site (www.merce.org). There you can find personal information about Cunningham, as well as a chronology of his works. Check out the “Mondays With Merce” which are a series of webcasts that include interviews with Cunningham as well as with former dancers, and show the company at work in their studio. You can also read more about Cunningham’s unique legacy plan for his works.

  • View the YouTube interview with Cunningham and John Cage, the composer who most influenced him: “Chance Conversations: An Interview with Merce Cunningham and John Cage.”



Kirsten Bodensteiner

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Tiffany Bryant
Assistant Manager, Audience Enrichment

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources


Banes, Sally. Terpsichore In Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Dance Beat by Deborah Jowitt, The Guardian, The LA Times, The New York Times

Mazo, Joseph H. Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. New Jersey: Princeton Book Company, 1977. 

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