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MERCE CUNNINGHAM: 1919 - 2009

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 6 AUGUST 2009 - After the death of Pina Bausch, the summer of 2009 also saw the final bow of Merce Cunningham, the other giant of twentieth century dance who died at his home in New York on Sunday, July 26th. Like the great German choreographer, Cunningham was working until the end on a new piece, Nearly Ninety, presented on his ninetieth birthday in April at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

A leading figure of the American avant-garde, Cunningham was constantly experimenting with his choreography, using computer technology early on in the 1990's to create movements on a screen before showing them to his dancers. His work was radical and strictly abstract, the choreography rarely meeting music or décor until all three joined up in performance on stage.

Together with John Cage, his life-long companion who died in 1992, he swept dance into the 21st century and paved the way for the many revolutionary movements which followed. An immense influence on many choreographers, bringing in the idea that choreography is often just a matter of chance, Cunningham's work, however, often lacked warmth. Many of his pieces were devoid of emotion; his movements were frequently difficult to follow, for the interpreter as well as his audience, his gestures complex, unrelated, seeming to be improvised on the spur of the moment although this was far from being the case. His work, highly academic, rarely flowed.


Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Photo: Jacques Moatti

The son of a lawyer, Mercier (Merce) Philip Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington on 16 April 1919. He studied ballroom and tap dancing in Centralia before taking an acting course at the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle where he met John Cage. After further studies at Mills College, California, Cunningham joined the Martha Graham Company in 1939, where he created roles in many of her works over the next six years. He simultaneously took courses at the American School of Ballet, and the first programme of his own choreography was given at Bennington College in Vermont in 1942.

These early years were marked by the beginning of his artistic collaboration with John Cage, but it wasn't until 1953 that he founded his own company, where Cage and also David Tudor were the troupe's resident musicians. But while his choreography relied neither on music nor design, he was very much attracted to videos and the cinema in the 1970's. Artistic decisions were made at the toss of a coin, often just minutes before the curtain went up on a performance to determine the order of dances, the number of interpreters as well as the last-minute choice of décor and music, most of his scores being electronic.

The man himself was much loved as a performer despite a certain stiffness in his legs with advancing years, for he frequently appeared good-humouredly in his own pieces, pieces which today are in the repertoires of many classical and contemporary dance companies around the world.

Title image: Merce Cunningham
Photo: Mark Seliger
Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Website

Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com

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