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Merce Cunningham--Where Today's Dance Began

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Photo of a young Merce Cunningham courtesy of Flickr

Pioneering dance innovator Merce Cunningham died of natural causes this past Sunday at his home in New York City. At the age of ninety and having already influenced thousands of dancers and choreographers across the globe, the impact of his artistry will continue to be felt in his absence.

The recipient of countless awards and international honors, the always forward-thinking creator only recently announced plans for his legacy to remain true to its origins. His iconoclastic dance technique, related to ballet but tilted, extended and re-imagined beyond ballet’s range, has been documented, codified and disseminated in the teachings of many of his previous company members and the many who trained at his studio in the West Village.

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His approach to dance making, however, influenced by Eastern philosophies, chance and a broad vision of the landscape for performance, will remain specifically his, in spite of the many derivative exponents of the art form. Cunningham, aligned with his professional and personal partner, composer John Cage, re-scripted the process for making work. They produced plotless dances, with all of the accompanying elements—music/sound, costume and décor—being designed and developed independently of the dance. It was at the first performance that all these contributions came together, making for an often surprising new relationship of each art form to the other.

Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919 and began his training there as a tap dancer. He soon moved to New York, where he made his way into the company of another pioneer, the indefatigable Martha Graham. And, whereas Graham opted for narrative and emotion in her choreography, Cunningham explored the unknown. His first dances—solos for himself with sound scores by Cage—were not well received, but by 1953, he formed his own company. They made their big international splash in 1964 and the rest has truly been history!

His early collaborators included people like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and Cunningham was one of the first to experiment with dance on video and dance on the computer. In the ‘90s he blazed a trail of new creative energy as he used newly created software to re-design the human body and its potentials. A few years ago, he brought his company to southern California and each audience member was loaned an audio ipod with a personalized shuffle so that each viewer heard a different score to accompany the dancing on the stage. His company members were always the most highly refined athletes and artists, able to do nearly impossible feats and demand our focused attention in performance.

Cunningham authored books about his work—both dancing and drawing—and his foundation maintains a comprehensive archive of his life work and experience.

His zest for innovation will be missed, but he will never be forgotten!

Check out these youtube vids (lots more):

Recent interview and video portrait

Early experiment with video and dance: