Merce Cunningham: Choreographer

kYlzrO1BaC7A6th Aug 2009

American avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham has died peacefully at home in New York at the age of 90. He was the partner of John Cage and collaborated frequently with the composer and his circle from 1944.

Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington. He declined to follow his brothers into a legal career and instead studied dance in Seattle, where he was spotted by Martha Graham in whose company he danced from 1939. He formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) in 1953 while teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. The company’s ethos reflected Cunningham’s radical approach to space, time and technology, freeing dance from music and narrative, with Cage’s experimental ideas having a profound influence.

For its early tours, the MCDC travelled in a Volkswagen camper van. Cage drove, and six dancers, two musicians and a stage manager would crowd into the back. The company made its first international tour in 1964 and subsequently performed regularly throughout Europe and the Far East as well as the USA. Cunningham continued working, appearing in every MCDC production until he was 70, and last danced at the age of 80. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday with a new work, Nearly Ninety, which was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with music by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

Merce Cunningham stated that “dancing is a process that never stops, and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh”. Cage’s use of chance procedures in composition spilt over into Cunningham’s outlook, leading him to question and abandon many conventional aspects of choreography: a consultation of the I Ching or the throw of a dice would determine the flow of movements, just as Cage used similar unpredictable techniques to construct his compositions and performances. While freeing dance from its restrictive conventions, he sought collaborations with artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol; after Cage’s death in 1992 the MCDC’s musical directors included David Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi. The company has commissioned more works from contemporary composers than any other dance group: its repertory includes works by musicians ranging from Gordon Mumma and Gavin Bryars to Sonic Youth.

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