Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington, USA, in 1919. At the age of 11 he learned tap dancing from Maud Barrett. After graduating from school, he went to Seattle and initially took acting classes at Cornish College of the Arts, but soon switched to dance lessons with Bonnie Bird, a student of Martha Graham. In 1940 he studied classical dance at the School of American Ballet in New York. John Cage was hired as a pianist and accompanist and later became Cunningham's working and living partner. While still a student in New York, Cunningham became a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company, for which John Cage and David Tudor composed music. Beginning in 1942, he began to create his own choreography based on John Cage's music, although the two artists developed independently. The sets for Cunningham were often designed by Robert Rauschenberg. In 1953 he founded the Merce Cunningham Company, with which he performed in traditional and unconventional venues, including public spaces. As a dancer, Cunningham was one of the most important pioneers of contemporary dance. In 2005 he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale. Merce Cunningham died in 2009 in Manhattan, New York City, USA.