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Obituary for Modernist Choreographer Merce Cunningham

Renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham dies at 90.

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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

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 July 26, the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation said. He was 90.

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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, he flouted convention, embracing the unknown and the unpredictable. 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 groups 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," a two-part production for which two sets of everything (lighting designs, costumes, etc.) were created, and determining which elements came first was done 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, pioneering the use of the camera in the 1960s to capture dance in multimedia collages. In the late 1980s, he helped develop software, 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 webcasts of rehearsals from his studio. Beginning in 2009, his company's Web site featured "Mondays With Merce," including interviews with the choreographer.

Age did not slow his drive for innovation. He explored motion-capture technology in "Biped," which he created in 1999 at age 80.


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