Choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham was hailed Monday as a revolutionary artist who remade the very definition of dance.
Cunningham – who was still working as he marked his 90th birthday just 3 1/2 months ago – died on Sunday at his Manhattan home, said Leah Sandals, spokeswoman for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. She said he died of natural causes but declined to elaborate.
The onetime Martha Graham dancer was credited with remaking modern dance by creating works of pure movement divorced from storytelling and even from musical accompaniment.
I d rather find out something than repeat what I know, he once said. I prefer adventure to something that s fixed.
In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Cunningham determined steps by chance – saying it freed his imagination – and shattered unwritten rules such as the need for dancers to face the audience and keep time with the music.
Reacting to his death, the great New York City Ballet dancer Jacques d Amboise said Monday that Cunningham made everybody rethink what is dance: Is it just movement to time? Does it have to be synchronized? Can it be improvised? Can it be spontaneous? He played with all these ideas.
Dancer Judith Jamison called him a true giant and groundbreaker . (who) shifted dancer s horizons and audience perceptions throughout the world.
Cunningham 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.
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.
While Cunningham used chance – tossing pennies or whatever – during the creative process, his dancers had to follow the finished work precisely.
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.
Among his 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.
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.
Though he had to use a wheelchair in later years, he premiered a long piece called Nearly Ninety as he reached that age milestone in April. It was set to new music from Led Zeppelin s John Paul Jones, the rock band Sonic Youth, and Japanese composer Takehisa Kosugi.
He also had recently set up a new organization, the Merce Cunningham Trust, and planned that his dance company would have a final, two-year tour and then shut down. Meanwhile, the Cunningham Trust would preserve his choreography for future artists, scholars and audiences
My idea has always been to explore human physical movement, Cunningham said in June. 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 said in 1986.
The New York Times, wrote, 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 music, could be tough going 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 – he was a pioneer in its use in choreography – 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.
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.
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.
In coming to a new piece, I still try to find ways to use chance, he told The Associated Press in 1986. 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.
The acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor made his dance debut with Cunningham s company in the 1950s before becoming a star with Graham and founding his own troupe.
In his 1987 memoir, Private Domain, Taylor recalled how Cunningham s style was challenging to learn, with intricate footwork and coordinations that were tricky in the way that simultaneous head patting and stomach rubbing is. … Although genial and gentlemanly, it was easy to see that (Cunningham) was a private person.
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.
The school director was making out his schedule, and she said, Well, of course, you will do the modern dance. And I didn t know 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 recalled his time with Graham in a 1996 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: She was beautiful to see. Her presence in the theater was so incredible. … She wasn t just playing to the audience but to other people on stage. She was powerful.
He recalled it wasn t easy supporting himself as a beginning dancer in New York, but somehow you managed. You just did it because you wanted to do it. You were doing something that interested you.
He left the company in 1945 to begin his turn from psychological dances toward pure movement.
The Cunningham foundation said funeral arrangements were incomplete.