Merce Cunningham, 90, Modern Dance Master

BY Arts Desk  July 27, 2009 at 1:52 PM EST

Merce Cunningham, from an interview on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Merce Cunningham, a dancer and choreographer who is regarded among the most important and innovative American artists of the 20th century, died Sunday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.

Cunningham not only changed the aesthetic and artistic practice of modern dance; his influence reached music, film and visual art, too.

Mercier Phillip Cunningham was born in 1919 in Centralia, Wash. He studied dance and theater at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. In the early 1940s, he was a soloist dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company before establishing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953.

He counted Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns among his collaborators. His partnership (both creative and romantic) with John Cage led to revolutionary artworks based on the role of chance and randomness in performance. Dances were often determined by “chance operations” (a term first coined by Marcel Duchamp).

“On the simplest possible level, it opens up things I wouldn’t have thought of…” Cunningham explained in a 1999 interview with NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth, “Chance does this for anybody. You can toss the coin about something in your daily life. And you do what it says, and you find out something you hadn’t thought of before.

His company would rehearse specific steps or routines, which would be combined according to a literal roll of a die or toss of a coin. He rewrote the traditional relationship of music and dance: his dancers did not dance to the music, though both were being performed simultaneously.

“It’s [a] political move. It’s saying that one person isn’t better than somebody else…the two arts occupy a length of time, say two minutes, five minutes, 30 minutes, whatever. And the composer cuts it up in one way, and the dancer can cut it up in another, and they do it at the same time,” he said.

A modernist to the core, he employed technology in many different aspects of his work: in actual performance (giving audience members pre-programmed iPods to listen and shuffle through for his 2006 “eyespace”), in composition (developing software in the 1980s that would put dance steps together), and for documentation (using cameras to capture performances since the 1960s).

Though he had become frail, suffering from arthritis, he celebrated his 90th birthday in April by premiering an evening-length dance performance called ‘Nearly Ninety’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The interdisciplinary performance included music by Sonic Youth and John Paul Jones. In recent years, he had also collaborated with bands such as Radiohead and Sigur Ros.

In June, his company announced a legacy plan for its future — the establishment of the Merce Cunningham Trust to keep his repertoire of over 200 dances alive through documentation and continued performance.

“Narrative dance has never interested me regardless,” Cunningham told Farnsworth, “because I think that movement by itself is so fascinating and that one can experience it directly….you do find out things, not only about dancing, but about people.”

Tonight on the NewsHour, we’ll have more on Merce Cunningham. For now, here’s the 1999 NewsHour interview:

You can also check out photos and video on his site, including an excerpt from ‘A Lifetime of Dance,’, special ‘Mondays with Merce’ dispatches, and the company’s Flickr photostream.