NEW YORK (AP) - Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde dancer and
choreographer who revolutionized modern dance by creating works of
pure movement divorced from storytelling and even from their
musical accompaniment, has died at age 90, a spokeswoman said
Cunningham died on Sunday at his Manhattan home of natural
causes, said Leah Sandals, spokeswoman for the Merce Cunningham
Dance Company. Sandals would not specify the exact cause of death.
"Merce saw beauty in the ordinary, which is what made him
extraordinary," said Trevor Carlson, executive director of the
Cunningham Dance Foundation. "He did not allow convention to lead
him, but was a true artist, honest and forthcoming in everything he
In a career that spanned more than 60 years and some 150 works,
Cunningham wiped out storytelling in dance, tossed coins or dice to
determine steps, and shattered such unwritten rules as having
dancers usually face the audience.
The New York Times wrote in 1982, "As playful as he has often
seemed, Cunningham has always been one of America's most serious
artists ... one of the few true revolutionaries in the history of
He worked closely with composer John Cage, his longtime partner
who died in 1992, and with visual artists such as Robert
Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. But, he said, "I am and always have
been fascinated by dancing, and I can just as well do a dance
without the visual thing."
Unlike his onetime mentor, Martha Graham, he did not intend his
dances to expression emotion or act out a drama.
Other choreographers have made plotless dances but Cunningham
did his even without music. The audience got both dance and music,
but the steps weren't done to the music's beat, and sometimes the
dancers were hearing the music for the first time on stage.
"I'd rather find out something than repeat what I know," he
once said. "I prefer adventure to something that's fixed."
Cunningham also used chance - tossing pennies or whatever - to
determine such things as which of several sets of steps would
follow another series of steps. Once the toss determined the steps,
however, the dancers had to follow them precisely.
"In coming to a new piece, I still try to find ways to use
chance," he said. "It is to try to open my eyes to something I
don't know about rather than me simply repeating something that I
already have dealt with."
He called chance "a present mode of freeing my imagination from
its own cliches."
Though he had to use a wheelchair in later years, he remained an
active artist. As he turned 90 in April 2009, he premiered a long
piece called "Nearly Ninety," set to new music from Led
Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, the rock band Sonic Youth, and Japanese
composer Takehisa Kosugi.
He also set up a new organization, the Merce Cunningham Trust,
to maintain his legacy into the future. Under the plan, his dance
company would have a final, two-year tour and then shut down. Its
assets would be transferred to the trust, which would hold
licensing rights and perserve Cunningham's choreography in digital
form for future artists, students, scholars and audiences.
"My idea has always been to explore human physical movement,"
Cunningham said in June 2009. "I would like the Trust to continue
doing this, because dancing is a process that never stops, and
should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh."
Among the honors that came his way over a long career were the
Kennedy Center Honors, 1985, and the National Medal of Arts, 1990.
"I think the things in my earlier work that were shocking, like
shifting abruptly, no longer are shocking," he once said.
Said The New York Times: "Cunningham has altered the audience's
very perception of what constitutes a dance performance and
explored previously inconceivable methods of putting movement
Such works, combined with far-out music, could be tough sledding
for audiences used to more traditional dances.
A critic for Britain's Financial Times, after watching the
premiere of Cunningham's "Ocean" in Brussels in 1994, wrote:
"How slowly time passes when the avant-garde is having fun." But
Time magazine said, "The public and dance critics alike were
seduced by 'Ocean's' magical marine universe."
The 90-minute work featured 15 dancers performing on a round
stage, with the audience seated around them. Cunningham used a
computer to keep track of how the work would look from many
"I told the dancers, 'You have to put yourself on a
merry-go-round and keep turning round and round because no single
moment is fixed in any particular direction,"' he said.
Cunningham took the lead among choreographers in using the
computer, just as he was one of the first to use video in the often
conservative dance world.
The computer-animated figure is not bound by the laws of human
"I don't think it is going to revolutionize anything about
dancing," he said, "but it can enlarge what you see" by fixing
something in midmovement.
Among his other creations - more than 150 in all:
"Sounddance," 1975; "RainForest," 1968; "Septet," 1953;
"Exchange," 1978; "Trackers," 1991; "Pictures," 1984;
"Fabrications," 1987; "Cargo X," 1989; and "Biped," 1999.
His dances may have been nontraditional, but the intricate
choreography wasn't easy to do, and his dancers were all highly
trained. Cunningham himself continued to dance with his company
well into his 70s.
He said there is always something new to do in choreography,
"if your eyes and ears are open and you have wit enough to see and
hear and imagine."
"Over the history of art, something unfamiliar becomes part of
society and everybody accepts it. Obviously, the artist goes on.
You try to see what the next problem or question to ask is.
"That's what an artist does; you find another question."
In 2003, Cunningham's company wound up its 50th anniversary
season with the world premiere of "Split Sides" at the Brooklyn
Academy of Music. In classic Cunningham fashion, the order of the
music and other elements of the performance was determined by
rolling the dice.
The acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor made his dance debut
with Cunningham's company in the 1950s before becoming a star with
Martha Graham and founding his own troupe.
Merce (pronounced Murss) Cunningham was born in Centralia,
Wash., the son of a lawyer. He studied tap and ballroom dancing as
a child, then attended the Cornish School, an arts school, in
Seattle after high school. In a 1999 Public Broadcasting Service
interview, he recalled that he wanted to be an actor and took dance
just to help him act better.
He recalled that the school director "said when she was making
out my schedule, she said, 'Well, of course, you will do the modern
dance.' And I didn't know one from the other. So I said, 'All
right.' ... It's chance. And in the end, I think for me it was very
He met Cage in 1938, and the composer became his longtime
companion as well as frequent collaborator.
The following year, he met Graham at a summer dance session at
Mills College. She invited him to join her company, and created
many leading roles for him. He left the company in 1945 to begin
his turn from psychological dances toward "pure movement."
The foundation did not provide information Monday on
Cunningham's survivors and funeral arrangements were incomplete.
The foundation said it was receiving visitors at the Manhattan
studio all day on Monday.
On the Net:Merce Cunningham Dance Company: http://www.merce.org
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