Infertile Ground for an Exquisite Talent

Hello from the History Department.

On Tues., August 27, at the Olympic Club, we’re presenting a History Pub about a hometown boy who made the big time. Merce Cunningham, born in Centralia, is considered one of the foremost innovators of modern dance and choreography. He passed just over a decade ago, in late July 2009, in New York. His life’s journey is a fascinating one, and we invite you all to the Olympic Club on the 27th to celebrate this legendary American artist.

Here’s a small glimpse of his story, in the meantime….


McMenamins’ purchase of Centralia’s historic Olympic Club, lock, stock and barrel, in the mid-1990s was brokered by a local lawyer named Jack Cunningham. Unbeknownst to us at the time (Jack never mentioned it), Cunningham’s own brother was world-renown modern dancer Merce Cunningham.

As one biography reads: “Mercier Philip Cunningham was born on April 16, 1919, at Centralia, WA, the son of Clifford Cunningham, a lawyer of Irish descent, and Mayme Joach, a schoolteacher. His birthplace was a lumber and coal-mining town – infertile ground for an exquisite talent. But neither of his parents discouraged his interest in dance.” Merce grew up taking dance lessons in Centralia from former vaudevillian Mrs. Maude Barnett.

Merce left Centralia at 18 to attend college on the East Coast, but then made his way back to the Pacific Northwest to attend what’s now the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, under the tutelage of renowned dancer Bonnie Bird (who grew up in Bothell, WA, home of the Anderson School). When legendary dancer/choreographer Martha Graham saw 20-year-old Merce dance in Seattle, she invited him to New York City to join her dance company as a soloist in 1939.

Cunningham’s unusual dance style would eventually make him one of the best, but his early days in New York weren’t easy. One review said: “Last night Merce Cunningham presented a program of his choreography, and if someone doesn’t stop him, he’s going to do it again tonight.” Ouch. Another story relates that when Cunningham and his dance troupe were on tour in Europe in the early-1960s, “audiences threw tomatoes and eggs…. Cunningham later recalled that people would leave in the middle of the performance to go out to buy more.” But the dancers persevered in their new, unusual and innovative style; Cunningham went on to be known as “a colossus” in the dance world.

Merce Cunningham became partners, both professionally and later personally, with noted avant-garde composer John Cage. Cunningham first met Cage in 1938 in Seattle, when Bonnie Bird engaged him as the accompanist for her dance classes at Cornish College. The two met up again in New York in the early 1940s, where they began a lifelong artistic collaboration.

Cunningham’s influence on the arts community was far-reaching and broad — he had crossover collaborations with artists in other many other disciplines, including musicians Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Radiohead; artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns; and poet and artist Yoko Ono, to name just a few. Among the many awards he received throughout his lifetime, Cunningham was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the Nellie Cornish Arts Achievement Award from his alma mater in Seattle, and the National Medal of Arts.

He continued to lead his self-named dance company ‘til the age of 90, when he passed away in New York on July 26, 2009. His New York Times obituary read in part: “Wit and humor abounded in his work; his conversation was full of laughter and wry anecdotes. Partly because dance was the main subject of his choreography, and partly because he often created dances requiring virtuoso skill, he did more than any other choreographer to demonstrate that dance can be classical while being in most ways far from ballet.”

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