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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.

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.