Merce Cunningham, 1919-2009


Merce Cunningham, one of the world’s best-known choreographers, died this weekend at the age of 90. From the beginnings of his career he was involved with forward-looking collaborators (Martha Graham, John Cage), and persisted in experiments, sometimes based on chance, with the limits of the form throughout his career. (A dancer recalled his frustration in 1970 upon being required to “sit down on the floor and mine playing jacks.”) He created site-specific “events” such as the multi-stage program his Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed in February at Dia, where he also appeared in video installations. (He was also an early adopter of computer-assisted dance notation.) Cunningham eschewed the merely commercial — as a Graham dancer he refused to perform on Broadway — yet rose both within and outside his profession to become one of the few choreographers non-balletomanes could name off the tops of their heads.

Earlier this year he had the foresight to establish a Living Legacy Plan calling for a world tour by the Company followed by its dissolution, with a year’s pay for the dancers. (Terry Teachout described this as “the decision of a wise parent, one who loves his children, trusts them to do the right thing — and knows that, sooner or later, they’ll have to fend for themselves.”)