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Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

Merce Cunningham died at his home in New York City on July 26, 2009, at the age of 90. He was one of the most important modern dance choreographers of the 20th century. Born near Seattle in 1919, his career spanned the postwar era: He made his first dance in 1944 and directed his own troupe, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, for over 50 years from 1953 until his death last week. He created over 200 dances for his company, many of which are now performed by companies worldwide; he also mounted works on the New York City Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. Over the years, Cunningham worked with an impressive range of contemporary artists and composers, from John Cage and David Tudor to Radiohead and (most recently) Sonic Youth; from Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol to Frank Stella.

“Merce” (as he was fondly known to his public) lived and worked for so long and cast such a wide net over culture and art that it is hard to recall a world without him, or even to appreciate just how radically he changed our ideas about dance. Before Merce, American modern dance was dominated by the intense and inward creativity of Martha Graham. Her dances were morally serious and psychologically powerful; she was interested in narrative and mythology, and in unearthing the inner depths of human consciousness in movement. Graham technique was physically involuted: weighted, barefoot, and focused on deep muscular contractions of the pelvis and torso. Cunningham danced with Graham in the 1930s but soon broke away: His dances were cerebral and abstract, rigorously formal designs with no story and no ‘meaning’ other than the dance itself. The movement was never confessional or impassioned but appeared instead organic and detached, an act of nature.

How Cunningham made dances was at least as important as what they looked like. In the 1950s, working with John Cage (his lifelong companion) and others, Cunningham developed ideas and methods of making dances that incorporated chance, dice, cards, and the I Ching--methods that he would continue to use right up to his death. At one performance at BAM several years ago, for example, Cunningham appeared before the audience with a pair of dice and cheerfully announced that the “roll of the dice” would determine which music was used with which dance and which set, light, and costume designs. This on-the-spot ordering was possible because the choreography, score, and designs had all been created separately, in isolation; they would now be combined for the first time, before our eyes. The performance would thus be determined by chance, not by human (or choreographic) will. Cunningham went further still: He also liked to experiment within a given dance, using chance methods to decide, for instance, how a step should be done or which arm to raise.

None of this was meant to reproduce randomness or chaos on stage. On the contrary, Cunningham believed in an underlying natural and universal order. He was fascinated with nature, plants, and wildlife, a theme to which he returned over and again in his dances. Above all, however, he used chance to break conventional patterns and assumptions--to pry himself and his dancers away from old habits of thinking and moving and to open new possibilities. These possibilities, he seemed to feel, would have their own logic--like nature itself, they would “make” their own sense. But--and this was the key--Cunningham also helped them along: Before his dances ever got to the theater, he crafted them meticulously. Puzzles fit together in only one way; Cunningham’s dances, not to mention his steps, could fit together in many different ways. The structure of each dance was so deeply flexible--so organic--that the parts could join at many points. Chance was not random: it was designed.

The results could be extraordinary and strangely beautiful. Cunningham’s best dances have always made me think of seashells buffeted by the waves and tossed ashore with perfectly patterned shapes and colors. Indeed, his dances never appeared fragmented or disordered but were instead seamless and whole, possessed of an uncanny and appealing mix of artifice and spontaneity. At times they could also be maddeningly cold and alienating, but the dancers could always be counted on to break through: Not with effusiveness or emotion, but with sheer physical skill and an almost Puritan commitment--to Merce, to his project, and to art.

Indeed, the dancers were the moral core of his ballets. If a performance seemed to be pulling apart, with music, sets, lighting all veering off in their own disparate, seemingly unrelated and unpredictable directions, the dancers’ clean, clear movements and sure technical control provided a center--the dances at least cohered. Cunningham was himself a great dancer (known for his fantastic leaps) and even when he stopped performing regularly--when he was 70!--he did not lose his touch: His dances were technically extremely difficult but his methods pushed his dancers constantly to rediscover their own movements in real time, giving their performances a striking immediacy and freshness--and a kind of ironic truth. For behind the dice lay a fundamental certainty and Merce’s own extraordinary artistic skill.

It is tempting to see Cunningham as part of a disenchanted postwar, post-Dada movement in art fascinated with dissolution, found-objects, and a kind of restless innovation. This would not be wrong. But Cunningham was also very much a modernist, interested in unities, order, and control. His dances were expansive enough to span this almost impossible gap, and the tension, physical effort, and ingenuity it took to do so was one of the most impressive and appealing aspects of his art.

For the last 30 years, Merce Cunningham was the North Star, the fixed point around which all other modern dancers oriented themselves; yet he himself hated fixity and never stopped moving and changing and thinking. Now, in another unpredictable but inevitable act of nature, our North Star has fallen from the sky. The stars must realign.

 Jennifer Homans is The New Republic’s dance critic.