Merce Cunningham, a giant of 20th-century dance, has died in New York at the age of 90. He was born in Centralia, and trained at Seattle's Cornish School of the Arts.
One of the trailblazing dancers and choreographers of the 20th century, born and raised in Centralia, Wash., and rocketed into a lifetime of avant-garde performance at Cornish Colllege in Seattle, Merce Cunningham died Sunday of natural causes in New York City at the age of 90.
In collaboration with composer John Cage, his partner in life and work for over 50 years, Cunningham forged a radical choreographic method that rejected the traditional interdependence of music and dance and used elements of chance (say, a roll of the dice) to effect design outcomes.
The list of Cunningham’s accomplishments is imposing: A visionary in art, technology and on-site performance, Cunningham hired iconic 20th-century artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to design for his dances decades before their mainstream success. He was the most devoted, high-profile proponent of film, motion capture and 3-D software as choreographic tools. The father of site-specific “events,” Cunningham worked everywhere from French opera houses to the to an abandoned rock quarry in Minnesota.
Like Martha Graham, in whose company he initially danced, Cunningham honed a highly distinctive, rigorous dance vocabulary. The Cunningham School, housed in downtown Manhattan, is an international hub for professional study and performance.
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Born Mercier Philip, Cunningham was the second son of Clifford D. Cunningham and Mayme Joach, a Roman Catholic couple with no theater background. Clifford Cunningham practiced law (acting as prosecuter on the historic Centralia Massacre case) as would Merce’s two brothers Dorwin (D.J.) and Jack. Cunningham first asked for dance lessons at age 10, studying and performing with ex-vaudevillian Mrs. Maude M. Barrett and her daughter Majorie. His parents begrudgingly accepted his choice early on.
“Listen,” he heard his father tell his worried mother, “if that fellow didn’t have that dance game he’d have been a crook.”
Cunningham planned on majoring in theater at Cornish College in 1937 (then the Cornish School), but was required to take dance as well. Within the year, his amazing elevation (ability to jump and “hang” in the air) and technique made him a star school performer. The following year he met musician John Cage, an accompanist for Bonnie Bird’s classes, who first introduced Cunningham to the idea of measuring time and space. This was Cunningham’s “revelation,” he said: that “you had to think about [composition], not just have some feeling about what you were going to do next.”
At Mills College in the summer of 1939, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham — both pioneering modern dancers — sought out Cunningham for their companies. He chose Graham, in New York, and earned distinction as a “noble and touching” dancer in premiere roles in “El Penitente,” “Letter to the World,” and more. In the summer of 1953, with Cage, he formed his full company during a residency at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
Emerging in an age of narrative, mythic modern dance, Cunningham’s detached and dislocated concerts took time to catch on. His breakthrough came in 1958, following a a exultant international tour, and he never stopped. He created more than 200 dances since then, in collaboration with electronic music composers from Morton Feldman to Takehisa Kosugi. Over 100 dancers passed through his company, including a slew of future choreographers from Viola Farber to Ulysses Dove. He has published books on choreography and a collection of his animal drawings, helped craft two biographical films, and placed his company’s complete papers with the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center.
His personality was said to be sphinx-like. Work was his life, and solace: he went back to the studio the day after Cage’s death in 1992. Many dancers speak of his work “sneaking up” on them. “The intent of his work is a mystery to me,” Mikhail Baryshnikov said, “until a certain moment when I feel emotional about his work suddenly.”
He loved both process and results. “When I’m working on a new piece,” he said, “I’m always convinced that there’s something that I’m missing, as though I can’t quite see around the corner. I know that’s there’s something else, that I’m not getting at, which I would be interested in; that this is not the only way to do it. I finally make a choice, however it’s made, by chance means or some other means, because I finally come down to being practical.”
Cunningham is survived by his younger brother Jack and a collection of nieces and nephews in Seattle.