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Merce Cunningham, Who Reinvented Dance, Dies at 90

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on July 27, 2009.
July 27 (Bloomberg) — Merce Cunningham, the American choreographer revered for his continual reinvention of dancing, has died. He was 90.

He died in his sleep last night in his Manhattan apartment, according to Leah Sandals, a spokeswoman for the Merce Cunningham Foundation.

A compelling dancer himself, Cunningham created a body of work that questioned the traditional premises of dancing, providing unique answers that were both baffling and beautiful.

“What interests me is movement,” Cunningham said in a 2005 interview with Bloomberg News. “Not movement that necessarily refers to something else, but is just what it is. Like when you see somebody or an animal move, you don’t have to know what it’s doing.”

Some aficionados found Cunningham’s work inscrutable. Others found it absorbing and wholly original in the worlds of modern and classical dance. Watching it could be like taking a quiet walk alone, open to the fluctuating qualities of landscape and weather. To some admirers, it was the only game in town.

Cunningham never made things easy for his audience. His dances shunned narrative and character. They were simply about dynamic human bodies moving in space. Occasionally the work assaulted the spectator. The 1964 “Winterbranch,” with its Sisyphean movement, its darkened stage from which lights shone full blast into the viewers’ eyes and its abrasive La Monte Young score had people exiting the theater in droves.

Placing the Music

Steadfastly, Cunningham kept dance, music, and decor separate entities, co-existing in time and place. He would inform the composer of the required duration and that was that. The dancers in a new work usually first heard the score that would accompany them at the dress rehearsal of the piece.

In creating a dance, Cunningham sometimes turned to the “I Ching,” the Chinese system based on rolling dice. Injecting an element of chance into his work, he said, expanded his choreographic choices that might otherwise be limited by habit. Zen philosophy, with its emphasis on the present moment, and a keen sensitivity to nature also informed his work.

Mercier Philip Cunningham was born on April 16, 1919, in Centralia, Washington, the middle son of three born to Clifford Cunningham, a lawyer, and his wife, Mayme.

While his two brothers followed their father into legal careers, Cunningham found his path through a neighbor, Maude Barrett, a retired vaudeville performer. Cunningham took classes at Barrett’s local dance school, starting with tap. With Barrett’s daughter as his partner, he performed at auditoriums and fairgrounds.

Meeting Martha Graham

After high school he attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., then returned home after his first year. In 1937 he enrolled at the Cornish School in Seattle (now Cornish College of the Arts), which prepared students for the concert stage. He planned to be an actor but kept studying dance, including a class on Martha Graham’s work, taught by a former member of her company.

It was during his second stint of summer classes at Mills College in Oakland that he met Graham, who invited him to join her company in New York.

A marvelous dancer, agile and fluent, yet with a commanding intensity, Cunningham danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1939 to 1945. His roles ranged from March in the Emily Dickinson piece, “Letter to the World,” its feather- light jumps seemingly impelled by gusts of spring wind, and the damnation-and-hellfire Revivalist in “Appalachian Spring.”

New Vision

He began choreographing — solos, mostly — in the 1940s and formed his own company in 1953, at the legendary Black Mountain College.

Unlike Graham, who invented her own rooted-to-the-earth, gut-sprung vocabulary, Cunningham borrowed mostly from his mentor’s opposite — classical ballet, which emphasizes balanced, harmonious proportions, elegant verticality and the illusion of ease. He gave the style wry new twists.

Cunningham set his early works to familiar music, particularly that of Erik Satie, but the choreographer’s most significant musical collaborator was the avant-gardist John Cage, who was also his life partner for half a century. Cage died in 1992.

Along with David Tudor, another early participant in Cunningham’s enterprise, Cage came to favor music that was created at the performance, played on electronic instruments. Cunningham also worked with outstanding visual artists whose forward-looking sensibilities overlapped his own, among them Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Mark Lancaster, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

Painted Birds

“I don’t try to tell them what to do,” Cunningham told Bloomberg TV about working with other artists. “I much prefer that they use their way of thinking and imagine, so that something would be added to this joint working that no one of the three of us — the dance, the music and the decor — could predict.”

Cunningham created a large body of drawings on his own, mostly of birds and animals. Every morning, he got up and made one. The Margarete Roeder Gallery in New York City, where the works appeared over the years, has a Cunningham exhibition on view through July 31.

Athletic and Magisterial

High points of Cunningham’s seven decades of dance-making include “Summerspace” (1958), with its dancers streaming past Rauschenberg’s pointillist backdrop in leotards that match it; the exuberantly athletic “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” (1965); “RainForest” (1968), where the dancers move like jungle creatures among Warhol’s silvery helium-lofted pillows; “Sounddance” (1975), which seems to launch its performers into a violent intergalactic world; “Points in Space” (1986-1987), which takes its title from Einstein’s declaration that there are no fixed points in space; and “Ocean” (1994), a magisterial piece that has its dancers framed by concentric rings — the spectators and, behind them, the musicians.

He described “Ocean” this way in a November 2008 interview with Bloomberg’s Muse TV: “It’s like being in a bath of sound, because it comes from every source around you. In doing it, you find out something else about dance, something that you never thought of before. I always look forward to seeing what that will be.”

Besides repertory works, Cunningham created one-time-only 90-minute “Events.” These were collages — of old dances, excerpts from his repertory and new material — in which several unrelated passages often occurred in the performance space at once, with clusters of dancers taking different points as front, accompanied by a sound score devised for the occasion.

Chance and Change

The productions underlined Cunningham’s faith in chance and change. They had a practical purpose, too, allowing his work to be seen in sites other than theaters. Events, untitled except for number (#1 was in 1964), occurred in venues ranging from the ruins of Persepolis in Iran to Cunningham’s own studio in Greenwich Village, where a wall of windows, revealing the cityscape, often as the sunlight gradually faded, became the dancers’ backdrop.

Today Cunningham’s work is considered the great link between the so-called Mid-Century Moderns (from Graham and her contemporaries to Paul Taylor) and the postmodern choreographers who emerged in the 1970s such as Twyla Tharp, rebelling against traditional theatrical conventions.

Though his company had perpetual financial strains, Cunningham was showered with awards during his long career. Among the most prestigious were New York City’s Handel Medallion, the Kennedy Center Honors, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale and the rank of Officier of the French Legion d’Honneur.

Attracted Talent

Cunningham attracted dancers of extraordinary capability for his company. Chief among them was Carolyn Brown, whose intelligent book about her two decades with the troupe, beginning with its inception, “Chance and Circumstances: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham,” was published in 2007.

Even in his last years on stage, while crippled by arthritis, Cunningham riveted an audience’s attention. In his 1999 one-time-only duet “Occasion Piece,” although severely restricted mobility, he managed to upstage Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In middle age Cunningham already looked older than his years and eventually came to resemble a cross between magician and guru. He was deeply intelligent, a loner at heart though always friendly in his behavior, witty, perceptive and forever devoted to “making it new.”

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