Merce Cunningham was one of the most innovate and influential modern dancers and choreographers of the twentieth century. Immersed in an artistic milieu that included John Cage, David Tudor, and Robert Rauschenberg, he formed the eponymous Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Black Mountain College in 1953. Along with Cage—his collaborator and life partner—Cunningham proposed a number of radical innovations in the fields of music and dance. Controversially, Cage and Cunningham concluded that although dance and music may occur simultaneously, they ought to remain independent entities; performers in Cunningham's company often did not hear their accompaniment until the first performance of a piece. Forgoing conventional narratives and metaphors, Cunningham believed that dance should refer to movement itself.
A virtuosic dancer, Cunningham performed in every performance given by his company until he was 70 years old. At 80, he danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the New York State Theater. Late in life, he took up drawing. Although he was a formalist in his dance works, Cunningham's strange and humorous figurative drawings depicted birds and woodland creatures. Cunningham has been awarded some of the highest honors in the arts, including the National Medal of Arts, The MacArthur Fellowship, Japan's Praemium Imperiale, and a British Laurence Olivier Award. He was named Officier of the French Légion d'honneur in 2004.