Merce Cunningham
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NEW YORK (AP) - Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde dancer and choreographer who revolutionized modern dance by creating works of pure movement divorced from storytelling and even from their musical accompaniment, has died at age 90, a spokeswoman said Monday.

Cunningham died on Sunday at his Manhattan home of natural causes, said Leah Sandals, spokeswoman for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Sandals would not specify the exact cause of death.

"Merce saw beauty in the ordinary, which is what made him extraordinary," said Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Cunningham Dance Foundation. "He did not allow convention to lead him, but was a true artist, honest and forthcoming in everything he did."

In a career that spanned more than 60 years and some 150 works, Cunningham wiped out storytelling in dance, tossed coins or dice to determine steps, and shattered such unwritten rules as having dancers usually face the audience.

The New Yo rk Times wrote in 1982, "As playful as he has often seemed, Cunningham has always been one of America's most serious artists ... one of the few true revolutionaries in the history of dance."

He worked closely with composer John Cage, his longtime partner who died in 1992, and with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. But, he said, "I am and always have been fascinated by dancing, and I can just as well do a dance without the visual thing."

Unlike his onetime mentor, Martha Graham, he did not intend his dances to expression emotion or act out a drama.

Other choreographers have made plotless dances but Cunningham did his even without music. The audience got both dance and music, but the steps weren't done to the music's beat, and sometimes the dancers were hearing the music for the first time on stage.

"I'd rather find out something than repeat what I know," he once said. "I prefer adventure to something that's fixed."

Cunn i ngham also used chance - tossing pennies or whatever - to determine such things as which of several sets of steps would follow another series of steps. Once the toss determined the steps, however, the dancers had to follow them precisely.

"In coming to a new piece, I still try to find ways to use chance," he said. "It is to try to open my eyes to something I don't know about rather than me simply repeating something that I already have dealt with."

He called chance "a present mode of freeing my imagination from its own cliches."

Though he had to use a wheelchair in later years, he remained an active artist. As he turned 90 in April 2009, he premiered a long piece called "Nearly Ninety," set to new music from Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, the rock band Sonic Youth, and Japanese composer Takehisa Kosugi.

He also set up a new organization, the Merce Cunningham Trust, to maintain his legacy into the future. Under the plan, his dance company would have a final, two-year tour and then shut down. Its assets would be transferred to the trust, which would hold licensing rights and perserve Cunningham's choreography in digital form for future artists, students, scholars and audiences.

"My idea has always been to explore human physical movement," Cunningham said in June 2009. "I would like the Trust to continue doing this, because dancing is a process that never stops, and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh."

Among the honors that came his way over a long career were the Kennedy Center Honors, 1985, and the National Medal of Arts, 1990.

"I think the things in my earlier work that were shocking, like shifting abruptly, no longer are shocking," he once said.

Said The New York Times: "Cunningham has altered the audience's very perception of what constitutes a dance performance and explored previously inconceivable methods of putting movement together."

Such works, combined with far-out musi c , could be tough sledding for audiences used to more traditional dances.

A critic for Britain's Financial Times, after watching the premiere of Cunningham's "Ocean" in Brussels in 1994, wrote: "How slowly time passes when the avant-garde is having fun." But Time magazine said, "The public and dance critics alike were seduced by 'Ocean's' magical marine universe."

The 90-minute work featured 15 dancers performing on a round stage, with the audience seated around them. Cunningham used a computer to keep track of how the work would look from many different angles.

"I told the dancers, 'You have to put yourself on a merry-go-round and keep turning round and round because no single moment is fixed in any particular direction,'" he said.

Cunningham took the lead among choreographers in using the computer, just as he was one of the first to use video in the often conservative dance world.

The computer-animated figure is not bound by the laws of human d e xterity.

"I don't think it is going to revolutionize anything about dancing," he said, "but it can enlarge what you see" by fixing something in midmovement.

Among his other creations - more than 150 in all: "Sounddance," 1975; "RainForest," 1968; "Septet," 1953; "Exchange," 1978; "Trackers," 1991; "Pictures," 1984; "Fabrications," 1987; "Cargo X," 1989; and "Biped," 1999.

His dances may have been nontraditional, but the intricate choreography wasn't easy to do, and his dancers were all highly trained. Cunningham himself continued to dance with his company well into his 70s.

He said there is always something new to do in choreography, "if your eyes and ears are open and you have wit enough to see and hear and imagine."

"Over the history of art, something unfamiliar becomes part of society and everybody accepts it. Obviously, the artist goes on. You try to see what the next problem or question to ask is.

"That's what an artist does; you find another question."

In 2003, Cunningham's company wound up its 50th anniversary season with the world premiere of "Split Sides" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In classic Cunningham fashion, the order of the music and other elements of the performance was determined by rolling the dice.

The acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor made his dance debut with Cunningham's company in the 1950s before becoming a star with Martha Graham and founding his own troupe.

Merce (pronounced Murss) Cunningham was born in Centralia, Wash., the son of a lawyer. He studied tap and ballroom dancing as a child, then attended the Cornish School, an arts school, in Seattle after high school. In a 1999 Public Broadcasting Service interview, he recalled that he wanted to be an actor and took dance just to help him act better.

He recalled that the school director "said when she was making out my schedule, she said, 'Well, of course, you will do the modern dance.' And I didn't kno w one from the other. So I said, 'All right.' ... It's chance. And in the end, I think for me it was very good chance."

He met Cage in 1938, and the composer became his longtime companion as well as frequent collaborator.

The following year, he met Graham at a summer dance session at Mills College. She invited him to join her company, and created many leading roles for him. He left the company in 1945 to begin his turn from psychological dances toward "pure movement."

The foundation did not provide information Monday on Cunningham's survivors and funeral arrangements were incomplete. The foundation said it was receiving visitors at the Manhattan studio all day on Monday.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press
Published in Star-Gazette on Jul. 27, 2009.
Memories & Condolences
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26 entries
April 3, 2010
For Merce...the avant-garde dancer and choreographer who revolutionized modern dance by creating works of pure movement divorced from storytelling and even from their musical accompaniment.


Do not weep for me when I no longer dwell among the wonders of the earth; for my larger self is free, and my soul rejoices on the other side of pain...on the other side of darkness.

Do not weep for me, for I am a ray of sunshine that touches your skin, a tropical breeze upon your face, the hush of joy within your heart and the innocence of babes in mothers arms.

I am the hope in a darkened night. And, in your hour of need, I will be there to comfort you. I will share your tears, your joys, your fears, your disappointments and your triumphs.

Do not weep for me, for I am cradled
in the arms of God. I walk with the angels, and hear the music beyond the stars.

Do not weep for me, for I am within you;
I am peace, love, I am a soft wind that caresses the flowers. I am the calm that follows a raging storm. I am an autumns leaf that floats among the garden of God, and I am pure white snow that softly falls upon your hand.

Do not weep for me, for I shall never die, as long as you remember me...
with a smile and a sigh.

© Joe Fazio
~ /Joe Fazio,
Beverly Hills, California
August 11, 2009
barbara sanders
August 9, 2009
Thank you Merce, for giving the world so many beautiful examples through your work- on how to move through space and time with grace, agility, fearlessness, and humor. Thank you also for embracing new media in the art of dance. You will forever be an inspiration. My condolences to your loved ones.
Carrie Lee Schwartz
August 3, 2009
What a wonderful dancer and amazing man. I saw him perform in Tokyo several years ago. Amazing. Just marvelous.
Tasheo Bukkake
July 31, 2009
Sadly, I learn of Merce Cunningham's passing. He was a multi-talented genius who made great contributions to numerous art forms, which will long be remembered. Never having met him, I learned of his talents through a dear friend, Jane Moak Yockel, who touted his numerous abilities. His legacy lives on. Our prayers are with his family and friends.
Donald Pero
July 31, 2009
Sadly, I learn Of Merce Cunningham's passing. He was a multi-talented genious who made great contributions to numerous art forms, which will long be remembered. Never having met him, I learned of his talents through a dear friend, Jane Moak Yockel, who touted his numerous abilities. His legacy lives on. Our prayers are with his family and friends.
Donald Pero
July 31, 2009
I'm so sorry to hear of Cunningham's passing. Death is a hard thing to deal with,so my prayers are for his family at this bereaved time. Because of sin, death spread to all men. But God gives life, their is hope for Merce to be resurrected through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Wanda Henry
July 31, 2009
July 31, 2009
One of the most joyous experiences in my life was as a young teenager working with you, Merce, and John Cage at the Connecticut College Dance Festival. I was a ballet dancer at that point but you changed my perception of music and movement. I remember being in the air on the downbeats. Everything was new for me and I was dazzled by your creativity. I will love you and John forever.
Dana Kyle DeMartino
July 31, 2009
May the family have comfort in knowing that God promise that he will wipe out every tear from our eyes,and death will be no more,neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.The former things have passed away.
July 30, 2009
I had the pleasure or might I say honour to attend a lecture given by Mr. Cunningham and Mr.Cage at the University of New York at Buffalo.He had been such an inspiration to me as a dancer,choreographer and poet which I committed my life to after graduation.I later studied at his school in West Bethune St.,NYC.He has joined Martha for the eternal
Linda May Nicola
July 30, 2009
Mr. Cunningham, We never met, but you changed my life as you were changing dance. I cherish your work and your great vision. Thank you. We will miss you. Love and prayers to the entire family of dancers you touched.
Margo Ruark
July 29, 2009
Dance is all the better because of you. Dance throughout eternity.
April Legail Todd, a dancer
Gail Lilly Todd, mother of a dancer
Gail Lilly Todd
July 29, 2009
Rest in peace....
Rachel G
July 29, 2009
God, filled with Motherly Compassion,
grant a full and perfect rest
under the wings of Your sheltering Sh'khinah/ Presence
Susan Shoopman
July 29, 2009
Rest in peace while you can dance on the clouds.
Henryk Zaleski
July 29, 2009
Merce was a true innovator in in his field, one of Centralia's most influential leaders. His creative contribution will live on. My prayers are with the family.

Sam Gronseth, Paradise, CA
Sam Gronseth
July 28, 2009
I am so sad to hear the news about Merce, a gentle lion who
was always soft spoken as a teacher, and his zen outlook on composition classes taught us so much. His tireless continuation
in dance gives inspiration to all dancers and choreographers.
I consider him family and feel the great loss to the family of dance
as well as for those relatives he leaves behind.

May his beautiful spirit continue to guide us through the next
generations of dancers.

Linda Diamond
Diamond Dance Views Sat. ll Am to noon
Linda Diamond
July 28, 2009
There is no sorrow that God in heaven cannot heal. May your memories bring you comfort and joy.
July 28, 2009
Oh Lord, Have Merce

Dear Lord, we offer this man
this famous dancer, Merce Cunningham
May you enjoy him
as much as us earthlings did

Though many of us didn't know him,
some of us knew who he was
And although it was expected
his death has caused quite a buzz

So I say to you, oh lord
within the contents of this verse
Will You, oh Lord,
Please, Have Merce?
Joshua Brooks
July 28, 2009
Merce Cunningham was so wonderfully sweet when he asked me, "My and wherever did you come from, my dear?" I wanted to say Mars, but I was honest and told my true hometown of Hershey, PA as I was honored to be around a revolutionary not just in Dance, but in Electronic music compositions as well. He and John Cage are my heroes. Us humble dancers will cherish your influence for years to come...thank you for your spirit and dancing, Merce and all the love to your family and fellow dancers throughout your lifetime.
Kristin Ligocki
Kristin Ligocki
July 28, 2009
Great dancer.
I've seen him in action, a long time ago.
Charles Lai
July 28, 2009
My sincerely condolences to the family. My mother spoke of Mr. Cunningham at various times, when his name was in the news. My mother went to school with him in Centralia.
Barbara Biggs
July 27, 2009
May God bless you and your family in this time of sorrow.
July 27, 2009
Merce was one of the greatest in the field of dance and movement exploration. He broke boundaries, established new definitions and open a new world of artistic expression for others of follow. How wonderful to have a life devoted to a single love - art ! How incredible to become noted for your contributions in today's modern dance world stage. His memory of dance works lives on and his life is celebrated!

Pat, from Utah
July 27, 2009
July 27, 2009
I met Merce Cunningham during his visit to CCSU in late 1989 or early 1990(?) for a dance-video workshop. It's a cliche, but it really was an experience I will never forget. At that time I was a video / art student. I remember thinking he was very lithe and so patient with those of us with zero dance experience.

His filmmaker, Elliot Caplan, was there to help us learn about the video space of the performance. This was a time when the hardware and software for computer animation was still very crude, but Merce was such a forward thinking artist, he knew these tools would become staples in choreography.

I didn't really know who Merce Cunningham was until I had this opportunity to work with him. This was well before the internet, google and wikipedia, so I had to go to the library to research him. When I found his connections to John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Black Mountain College--it opened up a whole new way of looking at art history, a personal narrative. This led to a renewed interest and love for art and history I still have today. I also learned about the I Ching and chance operations which led to further reading and research.

I last saw Merce in New York 2000 or 2001, I was late getting to the performance of a John Cage memorial and he was on his way in. He had some help, he had a hard time walking then. But he was there and I said "hello" and watched someone give up their seat for him.

You can go ahead and google to see the long reach of Merce Cunningham's contributions to and influence in dance and the arts. I will always remember him as someone who lived his life fully as an artist and teacher.

Colin Burke, Hartford CT
Colin Burke
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