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Renowned Choreographer Merce Cunningham Dies at 90

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009 11:40 AM

Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde choreographer whose unorthodox approaches and discoveries throughout a six-decade career made him one of the most important artists of the 20th century, influencing filmmakers and directors as well as choreographers worldwide, died Sunday night, the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation said. He was 90.

No cause of death was reported.

With his Merce Cunningham Dance Company, founded in New York in 1953, Mr. Cunningham collaborated with composer John Cage (with whom he also had a romantic partnership) and painters Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and other major figures in the modern art world. He created a body of work that looks like none other -- plotless, spacious and often leisurely paced works, characterized by the clarity, calm and coolness of the dancing. He also developed an elegant and rigorous dance technique based on ballet's pulled-up stretchiness, the weightedness he absorbed from Martha Graham, with whom he danced before striking out on his own, and his own ways of twisting, folding and releasing the body.

But his achievement is not limited to style, subject matter, quantity of works (nearly 200) or even the extraordinary longevity of his world-renowned troupe in a field known for spotty funding and wavering public support. Mr. Cunningham also invented radical working methods that exploded the mold and produced new ways of moving.

Simply put, Mr. Cunningham expanded what is possible in dance.

From his earliest works to his last, Mr. Cunningham flouted convention, embracing the unknown and the unpredictable. For example, in "eyeSpace" (2006), the audience was loaned pre-loaded iPods and encouraged to shuffle the specially commissioned musical selections at will.

Even toward the end of his life, when he was physically frail, crippled by arthritis, and his cloud of white hair had thinned to a mist, Mr. Cunningham was a fierce modernist. His commitment to contemporary music led him in his last years to creative partnerships with the wildly popular British art-rock band Radiohead and the minimalist Icelandic band Sigur Ros, both of whom performed live at the premiere of "Split Sides" in 2003.

Where other choreographers looked to music and their own imagination for inspiration, Mr. Cunningham favored the creative strategies of a physicist, a Vegas high roller and a techno-whiz.

He split the atomic unity of music and dance. No longer were the steps dependent on a beat; in Mr. Cunningham's works, the dancing and the music were utterly independent of each other, existing side by side "in space and time," that is, performed in the same spot for a set number of minutes, but coming together essentially as strangers. He also introduced "chance operations," rolling dice to determine the sequence of dance sections. To make this work, he had to refine and extend his dance technique, coming up with ways to link movements that wouldn't ordinarily be possible side by side. The unnaturalness that resulted was a hallmark of his style, and only the most highly trained and capable dancers could make it look serene and effortless. Cunningham dancers were esteemed as among the best in the world of professional dance.

In some of Mr. Cunningham's works, even decisions about the ordering of sets, costumes and lighting were made by rolling dice or flipping a coin. This was the case in "Split Sides" (2003), a two-part production for which two sets of everything (lighting designs, costumes, etc.) were created and which came first was determined with great fanfare through dice-rolling in front of the audience just before the curtain went up.

Mr. Cunningham also brought cutting-edge technology into dance, in the 1960s pioneering the use of the camera to capture dance in multimedia collages. In the late 1980s he helped develop a software program, originally called LifeForms, that generates movements and step combinations. He began using it in the creation of his dances in 1991.

Of his use of the camera, Cunningham said at a 1996 festival of his films in Paris, "It interested me at once because it's something that is particular to our time." This line of thinking led him to use contemporary music almost exclusively, as well as to post Web casts of rehearsals from his studio. Beginning this year, his company's Web site featured "Mondays with Merce," including interviews with Mr. Cunningham.

Age did not slow Mr. Cunningham's drive for innovation. He explored motion-capture technology in "Biped," which he created in 1999 at the age of 80.

LifeForms, one of his dancers once said, "reconstituted" Mr. Cunningham's notions of the body's coordination. It further complicated Mr. Cunningham's choreography, allowing him to see new possibilities for the independent movement of the torso, head, arms and legs. Typically, however, Mr. Cunningham did not publicly reveal what method he used in creating his choreography, whether it was the computer or a toss of a coin or the I Ching, another of his favored strategies.

All of these means, he said, enabled him to move the performance beyond his own self-expression.

"Some people seem to think that it is inhuman and mechanistic to toss pennies in creating a dance instead of chewing the nails or beating the head against a wall or thumbing through old notebooks for ideas," Mr. Cunningham said. "But the feeling I have when I compose in this way is that I am in touch with a natural resource far greater than my own personal inventiveness could ever be, much more universally human than the particular habits of my own practice."

On his groundbreaking severing of dance's reliance on music, Cunningham had this to say after a 2006 performance at the Kennedy Center: "We happen to use the same amount of time but we cut it up differently. . . . I'd rather that we solve [the use of time] in some unknown way."

Mr. Cunningham's works changed what a performance could be, questioning nearly every aspect. Typically, his dances had no central focus -- groups or soloists might perform simultaneously in various spots around the stage, facing the wings or the backdrop as often as the audience. There was frequently neither structure nor climax, but rather, a mix of impulses and dynamics, much as a Jackson Pollock canvas captured dripped paint rather than ordered brushstrokes. Yet the dancers did not improvise. Mr. Cunningham was known to work out his choreography meticulously in sections that could run seamlessly together whatever their order. To get that seamlessness, chance operations were used in advance of the performance, and the dancers rehearsed the result to a silent counting system in their heads.

While Mr. Cunningham made his greatest mark as a choreographer, it was as a dancer that he first won acclaim. Mercier Philip Cunningham was born April 16, 1919, in Centralia, Wash. He began dancing as a child, learning tap and vaudeville-style routines at a local school. He attended George Washington University for one year, dropping out to resume dance and theater studies in Seattle, where he first met John Cage, whose composition classes he attended.

Mr. Cunningham was an unusually gifted dancer, slim and tall with a long neck that added to his striking physical grace. He had a high, light jump, and once airborne, he seemed to float. Carolyn Brown, a founding member of his company and his frequent dance partner, described his dancing as "a strange, disturbing mixture of Greek god, panther and madman."

In 1939, after watching him in a series of classes she taught in Oakland, Calif., Martha Graham took him into her company.

Mr. Cunningham was only the second man to join Ms. Graham's company; she created roles for him in "El Penitente," "Letter to the World" and "Appalachian Spring," her most famous work, in which Cunningham originated the role of the Preacher. While dancing for Ms. Graham, Mr. Cunningham also took ballet lessons at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet.

Between these two footings -- Graham's grounded, muscular technique and Balanchine's neoclassic style of ballet with its streamlined, aerial quality -- Mr. Cunningham's own technique would later emerge as a bridge. He would eventually create works for such companies as New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Boston Ballet, and other ballet companies have performed existing Cunningham works (as did Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project).

This cross-discipline effort started as early as 1947, when Mr. Cunningham created "The Seasons," with music by Cage, for Ballet Society, a precursor to Balanchine's New York City Ballet. City Ballet performed "The Seasons" in its inaugural season, with Mr. Cunningham as a guest dancer. He would occasionally use Balanchine dancers in other works, and taught at the School of American Ballet until 1951.

By 1941, the preeminent dance critic Edwin Denby had singled out Mr. Cunningham as "one of the finest dancers in America." But Mr. Cunningham's focus had already begun to shift to dance-making. A year later, he presented his own choreography at Bennington College in Vermont, with music by Cage, launching a series of collaborations that grew into a lifelong artistic and romantic partnership. It was with a 1944 piece called "Root of an Unfocus" that their revolution began: the idea that music and dance needn't be entwined but could exist separately, with nothing in common besides duration. Mr. Cunningham left Graham's troupe the next year.

Mr. Cunningham used chance operations for the first time in a 1951 piece, "Sixteen Dances for Soloist and a Company of Three," in which the sections were ordered by a coin toss, as well as the duration of each section, the dance phrases and their directions in space. This became an ongoing method of composition.

Also around this time, Mr. Cunningham and Cage began summer teaching posts at Black Mountain College in Black Mountain, N.C., a meeting place for many artists of the day and a fertile laboratory for experimentation. It was here that the choreographer and composer emerged as leaders of the avant garde. It was also here that in 1953 Mr. Cunningham formed his own troupe. (Paul Taylor, later a major choreographer in his own right, was a founding member.) In its early years, the company toured in a Volkswagen bus with Cage at the wheel.

A decade later, the company embarked on a world tour that lasted six months and won the artists high recognition. Their reputation cemented, they enjoyed annual New York seasons and national and international touring thereafter. In those early years, however, their work could elicit violent reactions. With "Winterbranch" (1964), Cunningham created a succes de scandale; with its aggressively loud and abrasive score by LaMonte Young and glaring lighting by Rauschenberg, it provoked an audience uproar. Even after Mr. Cunningham won reverence as an elder statesman and tireless innovator, he continued to divide audiences, some seeing his work as pretentious or coldly cerebral, and others as surprising and revelatory.

Mr. Cunningham and Cage shared an interest in Zen Buddhism, and Mr. Cunningham found choreographic inspiration in many of its principles -- especially the belief that everything is constantly transforming. His use of chance operations, he said, was a way to get his ego out of the way and bring the randomness of life to the stage. And he rejected the idea of dance "representing" or imitating anything in life; his dances had no meaning beyond themselves. "What is seen is what is," he said.

Mr. Cunningham's collaborators included Roy Lichtenstein, Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik and Frank Stella. Warhol created large helium-filled Mylar pillows that drifted around onstage for "RainForest" (1968). Rauschenberg was the company's resident designer from 1954-1964; Johns was at one time an artistic adviser. Cage was the Cunningham company's music director until his death in 1992. Mr. Cunningham also commissioned scores from such composers as Brian Eno and Morton Feldman. He worked with filmmaker Charles Atlas on numerous dances for video, and with other filmmakers on film versions of his dances and documentaries about his creative process.

Despite the collaborative method -- or because of it -- so many of Mr. Cunningham's works are notable for their sense of wholeness, as if the elements were all part of a plan rather than created separately. In "Summerspace," for instance, the choreography suggests birds in flight or the skittering of insects on a hot, still afternoon; Rauschenberg's pointillist decor evoked sun-dappled fields; Feldman's score was delicate and meditative. The key to this method was Mr. Cunningham's solid taste in like-minded artistic partners.

In 2007, Mr. Cunningham worked for the last time with Rauschenberg, who died the next year. The resulting work, "XOVER," was dominated by a towering detail of Rauschenberg's painting "Plank," which combines a bicycle, broken barriers and a large section of sewer pipe. Together the images evoked freedom and a tunnel to somewhere else -- given the context, the afterlife, perhaps. Two scores by Cage were also used, performed live and simultaneously. This reunion of three like minds resulted in a deeply moving work, remarkable for Mr. Cunningham's soaring, large-scale choreography, with the dancers in white, calling to mind Rauschenberg's all-white paintings of the 1960s as well as angels or the openness of eternity.

As much as he treasured the notion of unpredictability, he had his predictable side. In his 80s, he still came to the studio every day, accompanied the company on every tour, watched performances from the wings and created a new piece just about every year. Even in his last years, when arthritis required him to use a wheelchair, he showed up at the studio regularly. His 2009 work, "Nearly Ninety," premiered on his 90th birthday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Also that year it was announced that the future of Mr. Cunningham's art would not be left up to chance: After his death, his company would embark on a two-year world tour and then fold.

Mr. Cunningham has collaborated on two books: "Changes: Notes on Choreography," with Frances Starr, and "The Dancer and the Dance," with Jacqueline Lesschaeve.

An animal lover, in 2002 Mr. Cunningham published "Other Animals: Drawings and Journals by Merce Cunningham."

Among his many awards, Mr. Cunningham received a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors, as well as Britain's Laurence Olivier Award and France's Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur.

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