Sometimes Shocking, Never Dull

Merce Cunningham, 1919-2009

Choreographer, Embraced At Last By The Mainstream, Never Stopped Being A Provocateur

July 28, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,

Audiences never knew what they would see when they bought tickets to one of the more than 200 modern dances choreographed by pioneer Merce Cunningham.

Ticket-buyers might be handed iPods and encouraged to randomly shuffle the musical score while watching the performers. They might see animated, highly colored, spectral figures created with motion capture technology emerge from darkness and seemingly move through a three-dimensional space. Or they might watch a dance that had been put together in part using a computer software program.

The audience for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company might be stimulated, annoyed, enlightened or enraged. During a performance by the troupe at the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts earlier this month, one man booed loudly and yelled, "Thank God, it's over!"

But what the audience never was was asleep.

The artist died from natural causes Sunday night in his Manhattan home. He was 90.

"Merce was one of the foremost choreographers of the 20th century," says Andrea Snyder, president and executive director of Dance/USA, the Washington-based trade organization for modern troupes.

"He was interested in everything new, in moving the boundaries beyond what was comfortable for him, for his dancers, for the audiences, and for the art form. It's hard to imagine the dance world without him."

Though Cunningham never stopped being a provocateur, in later years he was widely been embraced both by the dance establishment and by most mainstream audience members. His troupe performed annually to large crowds at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, most recently last December.

In Cunningham's 70 years as a dancer and choreographer, he picked up a slew of honors, including a MacArthur "genius" Award, the National Medal of Arts, and France's Legion d'Honneur.

"His work will never be for everybody," says Bonnie Brooks, an associate professor and chairwoman of the dance department at Columbia College in Chicago. "But for some of us, there's nothing like it. I never go to a Cunningham concert where I'm not surprised, where I don't laugh, and where I'm not deeply moved."

Cunningham was born in Centralia, Wash., in 1919, where he studied tap and ballroom dance with a local teacher who, he said, taught him "that dance is most deeply concerned with each single instant as it comes along."

From 1939 to 1945, he was a soloist in the company of another dance innovator - Martha Graham - where he quickly became known for his almost feral intensity, his puckish wit, and mesmerizing stage presence.

But unlike Graham, Cunningham was supremely uninterested in dance as a storytelling medium, with plots and characters. He resented the tyranny that music traditionally has exercised over dance, by requiring that the movements refer back to the score.

In 1945, Cunningham broke off and performed his first concert with John Cage, the avant-garde composer who would become his professional and life partner until the latter's death in 1992. In 1953, Cunningham formed his troupe at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he was a teacher in residence.

From the very beginning, Cunningham attracted the best and the brightest across genres.

"Merce sent dance in whole new directions and broke a number of standard rules that still exist," Brooks said. "It was a quiet rebellion. He was known for programming an element of unpredictability into his dances. For instance, the dancers might not learn in what order they were performing various segments of the dance until just before they went on stage.

"For many of us, that unpredictability became a metaphor for life, for how you balance what you can control, with what you have no idea might be coming down the pike."

And for Cunningham, the evanescent nature of dance was a metaphor for physical impermanence.

"You have to love dancing to stick to it," he once said. "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 fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls."

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