Merce Cunningham might be the only American artist to have remained avant-garde, even cool, for almost a century. This extraordinarily inventive choreographer, who died late last month at 90, possessed a vision that bridged expressionist modern dance and classical ballet. His career has been celebrated with honorary degrees and awards, including the National Medal of Arts and France's Legion of Honor; he created a self-sufficient modern dance language that changed the course of dance history. Without Merce Cunningham there would be no Paul Taylor, no Trisha Brown, no Mark Morris.
Born in Centralia, Washington, he began his dance studies in tap, enrolling at the Cornish School in Seattle, where he began modern dance training with Bonnie Bird, a onetime Martha Graham dancer. At age 20 Cunningham came to New York to dance with the Martha Graham Dance Company, where he was a talented performer known for his unusually high jump. He stayed with Graham for five years, and then began to work on his own; by 1944 he had produced an evening of solos that won the admiration of dance's preeminent critic, Edwin Denby.
Integral to Cunningham's development was his relationship with the composer John Cage. Cunningham first met Cage at Cornish where, in 1938, he served as Bonnie Bird's musical director. The two reconnected in New York, and Cage encouraged the shy, younger Cunningham to choreograph. Cunningham and Cage, who died in 1992, became one of the most celebrated artistic--and personal--partnerships in theater history.
Together they formulated a creative method based on "chance operations" and a philosophy of the independence of the theater arts: Choreography, music, and set pieces were created separately and joined just hours before a premiere. Cunningham made his dances in silence; sequences were ordered according to the role of the dice, or the flip of a coin. Dancers learned the timing of the choreography with the aid of a stopwatch.
In 1953 he formed his Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The painter Robert Rauschenberg--and later, Jasper Johns--joined the Cunningham-Cage creative team. A 1964 world tour brought the company international acclaim. Recognition abroad was always easier than respect at home: To this day the French remain the Cunningham Dance Company's most ardent fans.
Merce Cunningham's choreography is radically formal. The movement is the basic ballet vocabulary expanded to incorporate the modern dance articulation of the torso. A Cunningham extension of the leg á la seconde might see the torso tilt away from, or towards, the raised leg; an arabesque can extend through the upper body, taking the back parallel to the floor. The torso can be arched, straight, or curved well forward. The port de bras can be square or rounded; jumps can have either a modern weightiness or balletic ballon.
This is ballet made gyroscopic.
"Chance operations" inspired Cunningham because they freed him from mental habit. Still, there is much of his personality in the overall design. Cunningham's dances are dense with witty phrasing and references to both ballet and pedestrian movements. How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965) remixes the universal lightheartedly, and the tightly counterpointed duets of Ocean (1994) are reminiscent of August Bournonville, the 19th-century Danish ballet master. There are moments of great beauty, but the music is challenging and the work is not for everyone.
Innovation, technology, and collaboration were the bedrock of Merce Cunningham's career. He did not shy away from computer technology. He created a motion-capture program, DanceForms, which served as a choreographic aid, and which became a set element in Biped (1999), his finest late work. The score for eyespace (2004) was installed on iPod Shuffles. Nearly Ninety (2009), his last work, was a collaboration with the architect Benedetta Tagliabue and musicians John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth, the rock band.
Cunningham was incessantly in motion. He performed with his company until 1989 and was its prolific choreographer, creating over 200 works. He employed chance operations to mix repertory into new dances, which he called "Events." Some of his works were adopted by the major ballet companies, and he completed several commissions for the Paris Opera Ballet. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company plans to close after a two-year world tour, and the organization will evolve into an administrative trust.
Above all, students from around the world flocked to his penthouse studio in the Westbeth Building. In his later years he was cherished for his charmingly eccentric routine: After a breakfast of oatmeal and a physical therapy session, he would listen to a recorded bird call or two. He went to the studio and sketched before beginning the day's choreographic work. On Mondays he taught company class, which was streamed live on the company's website, merce.org. Anyone could tune in to see Merce Cunningham in his wheelchair, teaching youngsters how to move.
Natalie Axton is a writer in New York.