Merce Cunningham, 1919-2009


Merce Cunningham, who died on Sunday evening, July 26, remained a master of timing up to the very end. That afternoon, his company had given the final performance of its week at Jacob’s Pillow. The dancers would not have to go onstage mourning their loss.

His dances rarely end. They just stop. The curtain comes down, and the dancers are still dancing. His magnificently creative life didn’t wind down gradually either. He celebrated his 90th birthday onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 16 by presenting a new 90-minute dance titled Nearly Ninety. He told friends who visited him in recent weeks that he was constantly choreographing in his mind. The opening night performance at Jacob’s Pillow on Wednesday, July 22, was conveyed to him via streaming video, and he sat at his computer and watched it all. Afterward, he sent a message to the dancers, praising, in particular, their performance of his 2006 eyeSpace (for which spectators can hear half of Mikel Rouse’s electronic score, variously shuffled, on iPods).

The video he was watching also showed his stunning 1975 Sounddance, with Robert Swinston, longtime company dancer and Cunningham’s assistant, performing the role that Cunningham choreographed for himself. When Swinston burst through the opening in Mark Lancaster’s heavily draped gold curtains, to the shattering burst of David Tudor’s score, I remembered Merce at 56 and how alive he was in this dance. Wary, alert, he flashed about the space—weaving among the dancers as they gradually accumulated onstage, supporting this one, grasping that one’s hand, helping to lift another. Sounddance has a real ending. Swinston as Cunningham, the ringmaster of this golden circus spinning in a creative cyclotron, is the last to leave the stage. Still dancing, he backs toward the drapes at the rear, almost as if pulled there, before he suddenly turns, dashes out of sight, and is gone.

Cunningham once typed in his notes that dancing “is not for unsteady souls.” His soul was supremely steady, but primed to embrace risk and make new discoveries. He woke up our eyes to see dancing for itself—as complex, fleeting, and often irrational as life.

I will write at more length when I’ve accustomed myself to his absence.