Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde dancer and choreographer who revolutionized modern dance by creating works of pure movement divorced from storytelling and even from their musical accompaniment, has died at age 90, a spokeswoman said Monday.
Cunningham died on Sunday at his Manhattan home of natural causes, said Leah Sandals, spokeswoman for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Sandals would not specify the exact cause of death.
“Merce saw beauty in the ordinary, which is what made him extraordinary,” said Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Cunningham Dance Foundation. “He did not allow convention to lead him, but was a true artist, honest and forthcoming in everything he did.”
In a career that spanned more than 60 years and some 150 works, Cunningham wiped out storytelling in dance, tossed coins or dice to determine steps, and shattered such unwritten rules as having dancers usually face the audience.
The New York Times wrote in 1982, “As playful as he has often seemed, Cunningham has always been one of America’s most serious artists ... one of the few true revolutionaries in the history of dance.”
He worked closely with composer John Cage, his longtime partner who died in 1992, and with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. But, he said, “I am and always have been fascinated by dancing, and I can just as well do a dance without the visual thing.”
Unlike his onetime mentor, Martha Graham, he did not intend his dances to express emotion or act out a drama.
Other choreographers have made plotless dances but Cunningham did his even without music. The audience got both dance and music, but the steps weren’t done to the music’s beat, and sometimes the dancers were hearing the music for the first time on stage.
“I’d rather find out something than repeat what I know,” he once said. “I prefer adventure to something that’s fixed.”
Cunningham also used chance — tossing pennies or whatever — to determine such things as which of several sets of steps would follow another series of steps. Once the toss determined the steps, however, the dancers had to follow them precisely.
“In coming to a new piece, I still try to find ways to use chance,” he said. “It is to try to open my eyes to something I don’t know about rather than me simply repeating something that I already have dealt with.”
He called chance “a present mode of freeing my imagination from its own cliches.”
Active artist at 90
Though he had to use a wheelchair in later years, he remained an active artist. As he turned 90 in April 2009, he premiered a long piece called “Nearly Ninety,” set to new music from Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, the rock band Sonic Youth, and Japanese composer Takehisa Kosugi.
He also set up a new organization, the Merce Cunningham Trust, to maintain his legacy into the future. Under the plan, his dance company would have a final, two-year tour and then shut down. Its assets would be transferred to the trust, which would hold licensing rights and preserve Cunningham’s choreography in digital form for future artists, students, scholars and audiences.
Among the honors that came his way over a long career were the Kennedy Center Honors, 1985, and the National Medal of Arts, 1990.
“I think the things in my earlier work that were shocking, like shifting abruptly, no longer are shocking,” he once said.
Said The New York Times: “Cunningham has altered the audience’s very perception of what constitutes a dance performance and explored previously inconceivable methods of putting movement together.”
Such works, combined with far-out music, could be tough sledding for audiences used to more traditional dances.
A critic for Britain’s Financial Times, after watching the premiere of Cunningham’s “Ocean” in Brussels in 1994, wrote: “How slowly time passes when the avant-garde is having fun.” But Time magazine said, “The public and dance critics alike were seduced by ’Ocean’s’ magical marine universe.”
The 90-minute work featured 15 dancers performing on a round stage, with the audience seated around them. Cunningham used a computer to keep track of how the work would look from many different angles.
“I told the dancers, ‘You have to put yourself on a merry-go-round and keep turning round and round because no single moment is fixed in any particular direction,”’ he said.
The lead in video, computers
Cunningham took the lead among choreographers in using the computer, just as he was one of the first to use video in the often conservative dance world.
The computer-animated figure is not bound by the laws of human dexterity.
“I don’t think it is going to revolutionize anything about dancing,” he said, “but it can enlarge what you see” by fixing something in midmovement.
His dances may have been nontraditional, but the intricate choreography wasn’t easy to do, and his dancers were all highly trained. Cunningham himself continued to dance with his company well into his 70s.
He said there is always something new to do in choreography, “if your eyes and ears are open and you have wit enough to see and hear and imagine.”
“Over the history of art, something unfamiliar becomes part of society and everybody accepts it. Obviously, the artist goes on. You try to see what the next problem or question to ask is.
“That’s what an artist does; you find another question.”
In 2003, Cunningham’s company wound up its 50th anniversary season with the world premiere of “Split Sides” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In classic Cunningham fashion, the order of the music and other elements of the performance was determined by rolling the dice.
The acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor made his dance debut with Cunningham’s company in the 1950s before becoming a star with Martha Graham and founding his own troupe.
Wanted to be an actor
Merce (pronounced Murss) Cunningham was born in Centralia, Wash., the son of a lawyer. He studied tap and ballroom dancing as a child, then attended the Cornish School, an arts school, in Seattle after high school. In a 1999 Public Broadcasting Service interview, he recalled that he wanted to be an actor and took dance just to help him act better.
He recalled that the school director “said when she was making out my schedule, she said, ‘Well, of course, you will do the modern dance.’ And I didn’t know one from the other. So I said, ‘All right.’ ... It’s chance. And in the end, I think for me it was very good chance.”
He met Cage in 1938, and the composer became his longtime companion as well as frequent collaborator.
The following year, he met Graham at a summer dance session at Mills College. She invited him to join her company, and created many leading roles for him. He left the company in 1945 to begin his turn from psychological dances toward “pure movement.”
The foundation did not provide information Monday on Cunningham’s survivors and funeral arrangements were incomplete. The foundation said it was receiving visitors at the Manhattan studio all day on Monday.