Famed Choreographer Cunningham Dies At 90

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Merce Cunningham celebrated his 90th birthday in April, and was choreographing and leading his company until the end. Cunningham was called by many "the greatest living choreographer." He was also an acclaimed dancer and performed in all of his company's programs up to the age of 70.


Maybe the man who's trying to choreograph the economy could learn a little bit from the life we will remember next. Merce Cunningham demanded the impossible from his dancers and his audience.

Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Choreographer): Also everybody step further than you think you can do, just make it bigger. One and two.

INSKEEP: The choreographer died this past weekend at age 90, one of the last of a generation of avant garde American artists.


Our colleague, Renee Montagne, interviewed Merce Cunningham a few years ago while he was still teaching.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I'm sitting down and I have a bar, like a dance bar, you know, in front of me, and then I indicate the tempo and try to show the steps. Then the pianist plays tunes that I remember from when I could play the piano years ago, and I - in the mean time I'm tapping my feet so I'm doing tap dancing.

INSKEEP: Merce Cunningham began his career in the 1930s dancing with Martha Graham's company. Before long, he broke away to create his own dance company and a new kind of dance with his personal and professional partner, composer John Cage. The two experimented with the art form, even letting chance dictate the dancer's steps.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, if you had three movements, a run, a jump, and a fall, you would think, well, you run, you jump up, and then you fall. But what if you toss a coin and it comes up you have to do the fall first and then the jump, and then the run? It breaks down what anybody has, and dancers in particular have muscular memories of how things should go. But instead of saying that's impossible, you try it out.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Well, I'm going to quote you something that you've said that I hope is an accurate quote, but here it goes. I think of dance as being movement, any kind of movement.


MONTAGNE: And that it is as accurate and impermanent as breathing.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I think it is.

MONTAGNE: So does that mean that you will be dancing, in effect, right to that last breath?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, probably.

MONTAGNE: As long as you live, you'll be dancing.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, or I - or I can call it dancing, even if nobody else does.

WERTHEIMER: Merce Cunningham, a dancer to his last breath.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: And go, and one.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Choreographer-Dancer Merce Cunningham Dies

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Choreographer Merce Cunningham in 1967. i

Merce Cunningham as a guest on Gateway on Oct. 12, 1967. CBS Photo Archive hide caption

toggle caption CBS Photo Archive
Choreographer Merce Cunningham in 1967.

Merce Cunningham as a guest on Gateway on Oct. 12, 1967.

CBS Photo Archive

Merce Cunningham once said that "dancing is not for unsteady souls." Cunningham was a steady presence in modern dance for more than six decades. By most accounts he was the most important modern dance choreographer of the late 20th century. Cunningham died Sunday night of natural causes at his home in New York City. He was 90 years old.

NPR Interview

Merce Cunningham refused to move to the beat — literally and figuratively. He was already an acclaimed dancer by the mid 1940s — a lead in Martha Graham's celebrated company — when he left to create his own way with avant garde composer John Cage. Their collaborations did not at first attract a large following.

"We had things thrown at us and people leaving," he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1985.

Their work questioned rhythm, challenged the nature of narrative and the connection between music and movement. Cunningham and Cage were both bored by the conventional wisdom that dance should illustrate music. So they let chance dictate the flow, using a coin toss or the I Ching to determine composition and choreography.

The Life And Dance Of Merce Cunningham

"If you had three movements — a run, a jump and a fall, you would think, well, you run; you jump up; and then you fall," Cunningham told Fresh Air. But what if you toss the coin and it comes up you have to do the fall first and then the jump and then the run. It breaks down what dancers, in particular, have muscular memories of how things should go. But instead of saying, 'That's impossible,' you try it out."

Cunningham On Video

Dances on film, and thoughts on dance, via UbuWeb:

A Conventional Start

Cunningham did not always operate that way. Some of his dances are archived at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, where Norten Owen, director of preservation, was happy to show off an early film.

"This was Merce doing a piece called, 'Banjo,' which was done in 1955 here at the Pillow," Owen said as he rolled the film. "It was (19th century American composer Louis Moreau) Gottschalk music, a jaunty kind of piano. And there's Merce's entrance. And look at that jump that he comes in with. And it's kind of a funny kind of crazy legs sort of jump, an unconventional kind of jump - it's not a grande jetee or anything. But it is, you see the elevation in it."

Cunningham's work was still rooted in classicism, the glamour of noble poses, says Joan Acocella. She's the dance critic for The New Yorker magazine.

"He was described as faun-like dancer. F-A-U-N," Acocella clarifies. "Scurrying, quick — above all quick. And he's often described as an animal, which is a compliment."

Cunningham, Cage, And The N.Y. Art World

Together with Cage — his personal and professional partner — Cunningham became a central figure in a New York art scene that included Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and most importantly Robert Rauschenberg, who built sets and hung lights for Cunningham's performances. The choreographer told NPR last year about one of Rauschenberg's sets, made entirely of found objects.

"Sticks of wood he found in the street; pieces of newspaper; some plastic. There were some comic strips on it. There were ribbons hanging. And you could go through it; or around it; or even underneath it. I thought it was beautiful," Cunningham said.

In 1964, Cunningham went on an international tour that cemented his reputation as one of America's most important mid century artists. People stopped throwing things at him. He won two Guggenheim Fellowships. Cunningham often said he wanted his dancers to do the impossible, but as he aged, quite naturally, the dancer found he was unable to accomplish demanding steps. Joan Acocella said that didn't keep him off stage.

"He had terrible arthritis. He couldn't really move his feet anymore, so he used his arms," Acocella remembered. "Many people were actually very glad still to see him and to see this great presence. And other people objected that he shouldn't be out there waving his arms."

Cunningham once said that dance was movement, movement of any kind, and it is as accurate and impermanent as breathing. NPR's Renee Montange asked Cunningham three years ago if that meant his last breath would be a dance.

"Yes or I can call it dancing," Cunningham laughed. "Even if no one else does."



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from