Choreographer Merce Cunningham: An Unconventional Life

Merce Cunningham was considered one of the finest dancers and choreographers of all time. His work defied convention, abandoning narrative in favor of pure movement; using music as a separate but equal partner and creating a performance space free from the proscenium. Merce Cunningham died last Sunday at the age of 90. Karen Michel did several interviews with Cunningham over the years and sat in on one of his last rehearsals. She has this remembrance.

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Merce Cunningham is considered one of the finest dancers and choreographers of all time. He made his performers dance outside the box. He favored pure movement over narrative, made music a separate but equal partner, and brought down the barrier between the show and the audience. Merce Cunningham died last Sunday at the age of 90.

Karen Michel did several interviews with Merce Cunningham over the years and sat in on one of his last rehearsals. She has this remembrance.

Ms. ELLA BAFF (Executive Director, Jacob's Pillow Dance Center): Merce will be in the pantheon of the gods.

KAREN MICHEL: In her dozen years as the executive director of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Center, Ella Baff has seen a bazillion or so dancers and choreographers. Among them, Merce Cunningham was exceptional.

Ms. BAFF: There's certain people in music, in painting, in science, in history, who stake a claim on ideas and change the experience forever. And this is absolutely true for Merce.

MICHEL: Merce Cunningham wasn't about easy.

Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Dancer-Choreographer): However hard or difficult it is, for me making dancing, making movement, even though I can't do it myself, is the most nourishing thing in life that I know of.

(Soundbite of clapping)

MICHEL: Sitting in his wheelchair at stage left in his sparse studios in Manhattan's West Village, Cunningham watched his dancers intently just a week before his death. His perpetual corona of white curly hair topped a deeply lined face and piercing eyes. He paid particular attention to the RUGs, the Repertory Understudy Group, the next generation of Cunningham dancers.

Julie Cunningham, no relation, was one of them once. She's been a member of the company for the past five years. She says the choreographer oversaw class several times a week, but other than that, nothing about working with Cunningham was routine.

Ms. JULIE CUNNINGHAM (Dancer): Even in the last few works that I have been in the company and he's created, he's always changing direction and opening up new possibilities.

MICHEL: It was the possibilities of movement that consumed Merce Cunningham and pushed him to challenge dance's narrative and music-bound traditions. In 1994, he told me that it's up to audiences to connect what they see and what they hear.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, there isn't a story in the conventional sense. Each person could receive this in his or her own way, and not receive it in some way that I've decided for them ahead of time.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: At the same time, I work with movement, physical movement, to make a dance and I have with it a piece of music. But not in the sense of one supporting the other like the music supporting the dance, or the dance somehow illustrating the music in any sense that way.

MICHEL: In Cunningham's dances, everything came together just before, if not at, the first performance. How they came together is by chance. It was a method he developed with his life-long professional and personal partner, John Cage. Everything - choreography, music, and d├ęcor - were all created separately. The order of a work was determined by the toss of a coin or throwing the I Ching.

Dave Covey is a lighting designer who worked with Cunningham in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Professor DAVE COVEY (Ohio State University): He'd never come out and look at what I was doing, until we were at the Paris opera where we were premiering Pond Way. And we were ready to do the run with the lights and he said, Wait, I must get up and see what David did. And I just freaked out. I was like, oh no. So we ran the piece and then he just looked at me and he applauded three times, nodded his head and went backstage.

So that's how we worked together. He did his thing and I did mine. No questions asked. It's just a huge amount of trust, which is beautiful.

MICHEL: It's not something that always pleased audiences. In the beginning, in the 1940s and '50s, people walked out and critics refused to cover the company. Even after he became an accepted lion of modern dance, Cunningham still relished provoking audiences, says Jacob's Pillow executive director Ella Baff.

Ms. BAFF: One time I asked Merce if he was bothered by the fact that, particularly early on, some people walked out of his performances. They didn't like it. They didn't understand it at all. It was very controversial. And he paused for a moment. He's very thoughtful, not only brilliant but a very thoughtful person. And he said, Well, I guess I started to be bothered when they didn't walk out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHEL: Late in Merce Cunningham's life, he turned to the computer to help him choreograph. But recently he abandoned it to return to the body, to the material that he knew so well. From an early age, Cunningham was an extraordinary dancer. His long line, the arch of his back, and his athleticism characterized his dancing. He moved through space, parted it in a way few dancers ever have.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I do remember doing the sailor's hornpipe, and I must've been eight years old. I'm sure it was quite a simple version, and it was quite clear to me even then that this is what I wanted to do. And I've been devoted ever since.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHEL: Before Merce Cunningham's death, his company announced that it would disband two years after he passed on. The work, though, will continue. There are meticulous notes and tapes of the work, dance capsules, the company calls them.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I'm part of the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHEL: Merce Cunningham, August 16th, 1919 to July 26th, 2009.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

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