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Revered Choreographer Merce Cunningham Dies

July 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Regarded among the most innovative American artists of the 20th century, Merce Cunningham died Sunday in his New York home.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight, the passing of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Jeffrey Brown takes a look at his life and legacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over a career that spanned more than six decades, Merce Cunningham was a giant on the American cultural scene, helping make dance into a major contemporary art form.

He was born in Centralia, Washington, in 1919 and took his first dance lessons in his youth. But when he enrolled in what is now called the Cornish College of Arts in Seattle, his first interest, he told Elizabeth Farnsworth in a 1999 NewsHour interview, was theater.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM, dancer-choreographer: I went principally to be in the theater about being an actor, but there was dancing, and I took it. And Ms. Cornish said, when she was making out my schedule, 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.”

JEFFREY BROWN: He would soon enough become known as an extraordinary dancer, joining the company of dance pioneer Martha Graham in 1939. He began to present his own choreography soon after and finally formed his own company in 1953.

From the start, says his long-time colleague and biographer David Vaughan, Cunningham was most interested in movement itself.

DAVID VAUGHAN, Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Dance movement, of course, itself, but Merce would always be observing the movement of people, animals, birds, whatever it was. I mean, he would get ideas from movement from things like that.

In fact, he once made a solo for himself after observing the animals in the zoo at San Diego. And each movement in that dance was taken from something he had seen an animal do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cunningham collaborated closely with composer John Cage, who also became his personal companion. The two, working with painter Robert Rauschenberg and other visual artists, produced more than 50 pieces where the music, dance and set were often created separately and then put together for performance.

Cunningham was also famously interested in using chants, the roll of dice or flip of a coin as a tool for composition.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: On the simplest possible level, it opens up things I wouldn’t have thought of. It opens up — and chance does this for anybody. You can toss a coin about something in your daily life, and you do what it says, and you find out something you haven’t thought of before.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH, former NewsHour correspondent: And were you also rejecting — were you trying to avoid cliches that can occur in narrative dance? Is that part of what you were doing, I mean, a dance that tells a story?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes. Yes. Well, narrative dance has never interested me regardless, because I think that movement by itself is so fascinating and that one can experience it directly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cunningham also embraced technology, using computers to break down motions and find new ways for dancers to move, as in the 1999 work, “BIPED,” that used digitally produced figures projected on a scrim in front of the stage.

DAVID VAUGHAN: I think his legacy is as an example to other choreographers. I don’t think he was interested in being an influence, but he always felt that you should do what you needed to do for yourself and not have to follow somebody else’s ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cunningham stopped dancing regularly only in his ’70s, but he never stopped working, rehearsing with his dancers, traveling with the company, and producing new works nearly every year. He was 80 when he talked to the NewsHour.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: I get up every morning, and I try to stand up straight, and then I try to bend over. And from that, I try to begin. That’s not easy; it’s very hard.

But most of all, I think it’s simply that, about dancing, it’s been what I do all my life, and it’s what interests me. It remains just as fascinating now as when I began, because I’m constantly finding something I don’t know about, so that I try to find some way to deal with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last month preparing for this day, the Merce Cunningham Company announced that, whenever its leader died, the group would embark on a two-year tour and then disband. A trust will control licensing for future performances of his work by other groups.

Cunningham himself was last on stage in April for the debut of a piece called “Nearly Ninety” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He died at age 90 last night at his New York home.