Monday, July 27, 2009

Merce Cunningham, Extraordinary Dancer and Legendary Choreographer, Dies at 90

While you have probably already seen the headlines, ML has deemed the news-worthy life and death of Merce Cunningham also ML-worthy (and enough to make an ex-dancer squeeze back into her slippers). If you don't love dance, have never studied it, or have simply never been exposed to it, here are a few key facts about the form and about the man who revolutionized it.

  • Modern dance was more or less invented by Martha Graham in the mid-twenties. She's up there with the great modernists. Graham was to dance "what Picasso was to painting, Frank Lloyd Wright was to architecture, and Stravinsky to music."

Andy Warhol's "Martha Graham; Letter to the World (the Kick)"
  • Cunningham joined Graham's company in the '40s, but continued also to study classical ballet, even though the two forms were at vicious odds with one another.
  • His simply professed appreciation for both modern and ballet led to what made the Cunningham school of dance so unique and to what would change dance forever.
  • Cunningham took the best from both worlds: he preserved ballet's turn-out and intense footwork and fused it with modern's fierce focus on the back and torso.
  • As this video explains, Cunningham also rejected elements from both, namely, the rigid dependency that ballet always had on music (its "musicality") and also the equally restrictive association between modern dance and "meaning."
  • Cunningham's artistic partner and famously, his lover, was John Cage, the brilliant composer, philosopher, and music theorist. Together, they developed an "autonomy" of the arts. Choreography and the music that would accompany it were composed separately, for the first time.
(John Cage)
  • Cunningham risked rejection from his teachers as well as audience alienation. Eventually, the result was a stunning and happy union of tradition and the avant-garde. But in its earliest stages, Cunningham's choreography, liberated in an unprecedented way from the confines of a musical score, sent audiences out of the theater.
  • Often, dancers would not have heard the music, seen the sets, or even tried on their costumes until opening night. This freed the performance to comprise what Cunningham called an "Event." To a dancer this might have been terrifying; for the larger world of dance, it was artistic genius.
  • Cunningham won a National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur "genius" fellowship.
  • Cunningham danced in every single one of his company's performances until he was 70.
  • At 80, he danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov (who played "Petrovsky" in Season Six of Sex and the City).
  • Though arthritic and confined to a wheelchair, he continued to choreograph through his 90th year of life.
  • While John Cage primarily provided the music for (against?) his movement, Cunningham also worked with Earle Brown, Brian Eno, and in 2009, Sonic Youth. Watch the video here.
  • For anyone who has studied dance, there are OPEN CLASSES at the Cunningham Dance Company studio in Manhattan. Anyone up for some scary, sweaty fun? My back tingles just thinking about it.

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