How Did Two Unexpected Acceptances Force Merce Cunningham to Devise a Brand New Dance Routine?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to dancing and dancers and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the dancing urban legends featured so far.

DANCING URBAN LEGEND: Unexpected acceptances by two major rock bands led to Merce Cunningham developing a brand new dance routine.

Mercier “Merce” Cunninghamn (pronounced like terse) just passed on a few years ago, at the age of 90. He died as one of the most prominent dance figures of the 20th Century.

Cunningham began working with Martha Graham (one of the early leaders in the modern dance movement) during the 1930s, and by 1944 he was doing his own shows.

He soon began working with John Cage, the avant garde musician (I discussed Cage in this installment of Music Urban Legends Revealed).

The pair would become partners both on the stage and off, working (and living) together for nearly 40 years until Cage passed away in the early 1990s.

Cunningham continued working (in fact, he was doing podcasts about dance just five years ago, at the age of 89!) and his dance studio continued to be one of the most well respected modern dance studios out there.

However, as Cunningham got older, a problem was to get people still interested in going to see the dances that Cunningham was choreographing – also, more specifically to get a NEW crowd interested as Cunningham’s Dance Company reached its FIFTIETH year of existence in 2002.

So Trevor Carlson, the general manager of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, came up with a novel idea for the Company’s 50th season – instead of having Cunningham’s dances alongside the music of Cage – the avant garde, post-modern style of music (Cage’s most famous piece of music was four minutes and thirty three seconds of ambient crowd noise), Carlson would ask a major contemporary rock ‘n’ roll band to work alongside Cunningham!

Carlson sent off requests to two separate hip bands…


and Sigur Rós…

Carlson’s plan was that if he sent out two invitations, PERHAPS one of them would say yes.

However, surprisingly (to Carlson, at least), while neither group had ever actually seen a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, they both agreed to do the show!

So now, just like a sitcom character, Carlson had basically TWO dates for the same event!

This being Merce Cunningham, though, weird situations were not a problem…

Each band were given 20 minutes to record music. Surprisingly enough, both groups must have thought that this was their opportunity to do Cage-esque music, as that was what they basically came up with.

However, the split band situation led Cunningham to devise a special performance!

Cunningham had long been experimenting with the idea of chance, in terms of approaching the choregraphy of a show. For instance, he will let chance (via coin flipping or dice rolling) determine the order of dances, how long the dances last, etc.

So given two ostensibly equal bands, Cunningham actually used the situation to come up with a routine!

He decided to take chance on step further – on top of the two bands, Cunningham designed two lighting designs, two backdrops and two sets of costumes!! He then went to announce to the audience before the show that all of the show would be determined by chance – when all was said and done, there were 32 possible variations on what the show possibly COULD have been. He was able to interchange the music because he designed the dances independently from the music (as it turned out, Cunningham had no idea who either of the bands were before Carlson told him about the promotion).

One grouping of the sets, costumes, song, etc. was released on DVD, titled Split Sides…

It’s always cool to see someone actually make the best out of a possibly awkward situation (unlike sitcoms, where the show’s protagonist would surely pretend that both bands were the only bands performing for the show and come up with elaborate ruses to keep each band from finding out about the other band. Like Cunningham would wear a blue suit with one band and a grey suit with the other and keep switching until he accidentally ends up wearing a blue jacket with grey pants and everything realizes he’s two-timing the bands)!

The legend is…


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