OBITUARY: Merce Cunningham, who revolutionized dance, dead at age 90
Jul 28, 2009, 10:23 GMT
New York - Merce Cunningham, one of the most important dancers and choreographers of modern dance theatre, has died at age 90, his dance company said Monday.
Cunningham's pioneering works, infused with the range of 20th century cultural, musical and artistic influences from Dadaism to post modern, are found in the repertoires of every important ballet and dance theatre of the world. Even into the first decade of the 21st century, Cunningham was experimenting with new media and dance.
In 2005, he was awarded Japan's prestigious Praemium Imperiale, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize of art. Other awards included France's Officier of the Legion dHonneur and Britain's Laurence Olivier Award.
Cunningham, whose life partner was composer and collaborator John Cage until his death in 1992, died peacefully Sunday at his Manhattan home, his New York-based dance foundation said. The dancer celebrated his 90th birthday on April 16, but his boundless creativity and fantasy overcame arthritis and old age as he served as artistic director of his own dance company until the very end.
Cunningham stood alongside George Balanchine, the Russian immigrant choreographer, and Martha Graham as the most influential personalities in the shaping of modern ballet and dance in the US.
Cunningham was born in 1919 in the small town of Centralia in the US state of Washington. His two brothers followed their father into the field of law. But when Merce showed a strong interest in dance, his parents sent him at age 10 to dance school, where he learned tap and classic ballroom dance styles.
When Graham saw Cunningham dancing in the late 1930s, she invited him to join her company. In 1953, he founded his own company which included Cage, who was becoming the master of random composition, and the artist Robert Rauschenberg, his stage manager who would become one of the world's leading pop artists.
Later art collaborators were Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.
For Cunningham, dancing was about dance and human movement, not about storytelling, and this philosophy led the way in developing modern dance as an art form separate from ballet. His dancers were most always soloists even if there was more than one on the stage, and his choreography reflected the isolation and individuality of modern life.
In his choreography, there was little unity of music and dance, often no perspective, no identifiable logic, rather only organic movement. He said his works had nothing to do with 'thinking' or images or ideas, rather only with the body.
As one of his inspirations, Cunningham named Albert Einstein and his idea of relativity - that there are 'no fixed points in space.'
You have to love dancing to stick to it,' Cunningham once wrote. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.'
Recognition came first from abroad during the 1960s, with enthusiastic reception in Europe, where he was compared to Vaslav Nijinsky and Serge Diaghilev, The New York Times wrote Monday.
In 1999, at 80, Cunningham danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov while he hung on to the exercise bar. Despite advancing arthritis in his feet, in his last year of life, Cunningham created a series of free webcasts called Mondays With Merce, which showed him teaching advanced technique class and conducting rehearsals.