ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Merce Cunningham was without question the most important choreographer in modern dance. He once said that dancing is not for unsteady souls, and he steadily rocked the world of modern dance for more than six decades. Merce Cunningham died last night at his home in New York City at the age of 90. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.
NEDA ULABY: 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.
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As he told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1985, their collaborations did not at first attract a large following.
Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Choreographer): We had things thrown at us and people leaving.
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ULABY: 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.
Mr. 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. 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.
ULABY: 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, is happy to show off an early film.
Mr. NORTEN OWEN (Director of Preservation, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival): This was Merce doing a piece called "Banjo," which was done in 1955 here at the Pillow. It was 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 line 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.
ULABY: Cunningham's work was still rooted in classicism, the glamour of noble poses, says Joan Acocella. She's The New Yorker magazine's dance critic.
Ms. JOAN ACOCELLA (Dance Critic, The New Yorker): He was described as a faun-like dancer. F-A-U-N. Scurrying, quick — above all, quick. And he's often described as an animal, which is a compliment.
ULABY: Together with John Cage, his personal and professional partner, — Merce 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.
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: 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.
ULABY: In 1964, Merce Cunningham went on an international tour that cemented his reputation as one of America's most important midcentury 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 says that didn't keep him off stage.
Ms. ACOCELLA: He had terrible arthritis. He couldn't really move his feet anymore, so he used his arms. 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.
ULABY: Merce Cunningham once said that dance was movement, movement of any kind, and it is as accurate and impermanent as breathing. NPR's Renee Montagne asked Cunningham three years ago if that meant his last breath would be a dance.
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes or I can call it dancing.
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Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Even if nobody else does.
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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