With the entertainment world shaken to the core by the sudden plethora of celebrity deaths this July, one late entry is particularly devastating to the world of dance. Merce Cunningham was the crown prince of modern American dance, a choreographer whose pedigree ran back to Ted Shawn, the legendary dance pioneer who founded the Jacob's Pillow Festival during the Depression, through Shawn's protÃ©gÃ© Martha Graham, and finally to his own company, which Cunningham founded at Black Mountain College in 1953. As a dancer, Cunningham was tall, thin, and strong as an ox, but light as a feather in leaps and could seemingly turn innumerable tight spins without growing dizzy or breaking out of the pattern abruptly. At the most, Cunningham's Dance Company never employed more than 14 dancers, and a spot in the ensemble was a hard won prize, as Cunningham's standards for agility and perfection -- even in the face of critics who accused his choreography of constituting chaos -- were at the premium level.
Once established, Cunningham sought to completely renovate dance even from the standpoint of the innovations Martha Graham brought to it. Cunningham introduced sweeping changes in terms of settings, backgrounds, lighting, multi-media, music, and movement. Some critics were horrified by his radical readjustments of the form, but with time it was clear that dance itself was reinvigorated through Cunningham's efforts. There's hardly a modern dance company now that isn't in debt to Cunningham in some way. Inspired by abstract expressionism, the music and philosophy of his close friend and frequent collaborator John Cage, Cunningham sought to raise dance out of its moorings and into the experience of life itself. At several self-styled events, Cunningham staged random, collaged extrapolations from his pre-existing choreography, often in public spaces or in his New York apartment, with a large wall was devoted to windows from which one could see the city skyline. Cunningham was a model of adaptability: once on a tour to Idaho, Cunningham and Cage were barred from presenting the planned work owing to a silly misunderstanding of its title. Instead they improvised a performance with a tape recorder minus tape, a chair, and a table.
In terms of sheer resourcefulness, Cunningham's collaboration with Cage was legendary. In Cage's Variations V (1968) the movement of the dancers actuated the electronics that provided the accompaniment through the use of electric eyes penetrating the performance area. As Cunningham rode a bicycle through the stage area the equipment went into overdrive. When Erik Satie's publisher, Salabert, refused to let Cage use the four-hand arrangement he'd made of Satie's Socrate -- as task that had taken Cage 20 years -- as an accompaniment for a Cunningham dance, Cage pulled another composition -- Cheap Imitation (1969) -- out of the arrangement by way of a chance process. Cheap Imitation ended up serving as the gateway into Cage's late style and served to redefine Cage, even to himself. Cunningham also used I Ching methods, at one point, to help expand the language of his choreography. Even given the lengthy silences in Cage's music, in Cunningham's choreography there was movement -- it is a kind of music, and the Cunningham Company is well trained to throw down and dance without music, if need be.
Merce Cunningham never allowed himself to go stale and was constantly turning up the earth that he had already neatly sown for himself, whereas by comparison Martha Graham created her key repertory pieces in the 1930s and '40s and stuck with them from that time on. Both Graham and Cunningham's former classmate Agnes de Mille were among Cunningham's most vocal detractors. However, he never lost sight of his roots, and the Cunningham Dance Company performed at the Jacob's Pillow Festival annually in what became an eagerly anticipated tradition. The Company has never been a "big money" type of concern, and it is hopeful that they can continue, but the living link to the era of Denishawn and to the most radical era in American modern dance -- Cunningham himself -- is gone. Thankfully, he and the Cunningham Company were filmed numerous times, and the legacy exists for those who want to go the extra distance to find it. Cunningham's last production was Nearly Ninety, a collaboration with Sonic Youth, composer Takehisa Kosugi, and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, given at the Brooklyn-based BAM Festival in April of this year.
For more about Merce Cunningham, check out www.merce.org