Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), Avant-Garde Dancer Choreographer, RIP

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Merce Cunningham, Dance Visionary, Dies
by Alastair Macaulay
The New York Times
July 27, 2009

cunn500-200Mr. Cunningham often spoke and wrote movingly about the nature of dance and would laugh about its maddening impermanence. "You have to love dancing to stick to it," he 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."

Merce Cunningham, the revolutionary American choreographer, died Sunday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.

His death was announced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation.

Over a career of nearly seven decades, Mr. Cunningham went on posing "But" and "What if?" questions, making people rethink the essence of dance and choreography. He went on doing so almost to the last.

Until 1989, when he reached 70, he appeared in every single performance given by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In 1999, at 80, though frail and holding onto a barre, he danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center. In April he observed his 90th birthday with the 90-minute "Nearly Ninety" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Even when it became known that he was fading, and friends began coming to bid farewell to him in recent days, he told one colleague that he was still creating dances in his head.

Mr. Cunningham ranks among the foremost figures of artistic modernism and among the few who have transformed the nature and status of dance theater, visionaries like Isadora Duncan, Serge Diaghilev, Martha Graham and George Balanchine.

In his works, independence was central: dancers were often alone even in duets or ensembles, and music and design would act as environments, sometimes hostile ones. His movement - startling in its mixture of staccato and legato elements, and unusually intense in its use of torso, legs and feet - abounded in non sequiturs.

In his final years, while still known as avant-garde, he was almost routinely hailed as the world's greatest living choreographer. Mr. Cunningham had also been a nonpareil dancer. The British ballet teacher Richard Glasstone maintains that the three greatest dancers he ever saw were Fred Astaire, Margot Fonteyn and Mr. Cunningham. He was American modern dance's equivalent of Nijinsky: the long neck, the animal intensity, the amazing leap. In old age, when he could no longer jump, and when his feet were gnarled with arthritis, he remained a rivetingly dramatic performer, capable of many moods. Read the rest of this article here.

Video links:

  • The Legacy of Merce Cunningham, An Appraisal by Alistair Macaulay, The New York Times
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