Merce Cunningham, Giant in World of Dance, Dies at 90

Obituaries   Merce Cunningham, Giant in World of Dance, Dies at 90
Merce Cunningham, the American choreographer who was one of the most important and influential forces in the dance world during the 20th century, died July 26 at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.
Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham Photo by Joe Tabacca

Mr. Cunningham was not only considered one of the greatest of the world's choreographers, he was also ranked a superior dancer in his own right. He appeared in every performance given by his company until the late 1980s. During his career, Mr. Cunningham choreographed more than 200 dances and over 800 "Events," which were site-specific choreographic works.

Dancers who trained with Mr. Cunningham and went on to form their own companies include Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Karole Armitage, Foofwa d'Immobilité and Jonah Bokaer. Mr. Cunningham formed Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at Black Mountain College in 1953. The troupe performed on Broadway only once, in 1977, at the Minskoff Theatre.

The original Cunningham company included dancers Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Paul Taylor and Remy Charlip, and musicians John Cage and David Tudor. Cage was Mr. Cunningham's life partner from the 1940s until Cage's death in 1992. They collaborated often and influenced each other's works. They both contended that the music and dance and design of a piece should be created independently of one another. They turned their backs on such conventional attributes of dance as narrative, insisting that dance's subject was dance alone, and nothing more. Artist Robert Rauschenberg was another frequent collaborator.

Important works of Mr. Cunningham's included Summerspace (1958), How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965); RainForest (1968), Sounddance (1975), Points in Space (1986-1987) and Ocean (1994).

He described Ocean this way in a November 2008 to Bloomberg news: "It's like being in a bath of sound, because it comes from every source around you. In doing it, you find out something else about dance, something that you never thought of before. I always look forward to seeing what that will be." Mr. Cunningham has earned some of the highest honors bestowed in the arts, including the National Medal of Arts and the MacArthur Fellowship. He also received Japan's Praemium Imperiale, the British Laurence Olivier Award, and was named Officier of the Legion d'Honneur in France.

Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, WA, in 1919. His father was a lawyer. He first went to dance school when he was ten years old. He attended the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts) in Seattle from 1937-1939. During this time, Martha Graham saw Mr. Cunningham dance and invited him to join her company. He was a soloist with Graham for six years.

Merce Cunningham rehearses with his dance group in 1957
Merce Cunningham rehearses with his dance group in 1957 Photo by Charles Rotkin/Corbis
Today’s Most Popular News: