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Revolutionary choreographer Merce Cunningham dies at 90

Cunningham challenged the conventions of how dances are made and performed, letting chance lead him to new possibilities.

July 28, 2009|Lewis Segal | Segal is a former Times staff writer.

Merce Cunningham, arguably the greatest, most pioneering and widely influential contemporary choreographer of the past half-century, has died. He was 90. A seminal artist whom fellow choreographer Bill T. Jones called "the champion in the struggle to say that dance is its own primary language, with its own agenda and criteria," Cunningham died Sunday at his home in New York of what his dance foundation said were natural causes.

Cunningham challenged nearly every assumption about how dances are made and perceived. "Dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form," he wrote in 1952. "What is seen is what it is." Evolving over the years from a fluid and even balletic modern dance style to a technique emphasizing sudden, virtuosic changes of direction, balance and body focus, Cunningham refused to interpret music, tell stories, depict characters or accept the idea of the choreographer as a kind of all-knowing god.

Instead, he used chance -- throwing dice, flipping a coin -- to help him discover possibilities beyond his imagination, insisting that the choreography, score, scenic design and costumes for a work should be created independently and come together at the final rehearsals or first performance.

"Cunningham was fresh and novel when he began making dances in 1942. He was fresh and novel when revealed his last one in April, on the occasion of his 90th birthday," Times music critic Mark Swed said Monday. "He changed dance, and, in his continual need for innovative scores, he helped change music as well. He always wanted to be one step ahead of everyone else so he could learn something new."

Refusing to accept center stage as the sole magnet of attention, Cunningham divided theatrical space into independent zones of action, believing that dance should reflect a world in which people constantly monitor many simultaneous activities. "The society is so fragmented . . . " he told The Times in 1997, "and I see no reason why it shouldn't affect the way one makes a dance."

Finally, he built a company that not only showcased his theoretical and collaborative innovations but also made them exciting, surprising and deeply persuasive.

"Every piece is so different in its dynamics and space and variety of language," former Kirov Ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov told Newsday in 1999. "No words can describe my admiration and fascination with this man."

Dancing at a young age

Mercier Philip Cunningham was born in the lumber town of Centralia, Wash., on April 16, 1919. At 8, he could perform the Sailor's Hornpipe, a solo dance that mimicked the work a sailor did on a boat. At 12, he began studying with former vaudeville and circus performer Maude Barrett.

"I started as a tap dancer," Cunningham said in a 2005 Times interview. "It was my first theater experience, and it has stayed with me all my life."

Like his father, Cunningham's brothers became lawyers, but Cunningham studied acting in the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle, soon switching his major from theater to dance. There he met composer John Cage, who was soon to be his lifelong personal and professional partner.

Further studies at Mills College in Oakland and at the Bennington School of the Dance in Vermont led to his being invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1939. For the next six years, major roles were created for him in such Graham masterworks as "El Penitente" (1939), "Letter to the World" (1940), "Deaths and Entrances" (1943) and "Appalachian Spring" (1944).

In 1944, Cunningham and Cage gave their first joint concert in New York (six solos to Cage's music), and the following year Cunningham left Graham to freelance. He formed his own company in 1953, allying himself with leading members of the American avant-garde: painters Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, among others. Robert Rauschenberg became his first resident designer, and Cage served as music director.

Although Cunningham still choreographed to music as late as 1953, he had already come to believe in creating dances without reference to, or even knowledge of, their accompaniments. From Cage, he also developed a commitment to chance procedures.

"When you work on something that you don't know about, how do you figure out what's right for that moment?" he asked rhetorically in the 2005 Times interview. "Using chance can be a way of looking at what you do in another way without depending always on your memory. It helps something else to come out that otherwise you wouldn't have known about."

His relationship with Cage deepened into what people who knew them call one of the great, if sometimes turbulent, love stories of the age -- one inseparable from the couple's revolutionary achievements as artists. "They amazed me by their air of living for art and freedom," critic Alfred Kazin wrote.

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