Merce Cunningham, the man who changed dance
Merce Cunningham, the Centralia-born dancer who became one of the prime movers of the 20th-century art world, launched his career from the...
Seattle Times staff
More Merce: See a video tribute to Merce Cunningham at www.merce.org.
Merce Cunningham, the Centralia-born dancer who became one of the prime movers of the 20th-century art world, launched his career from the studios of Seattle's Cornish College.
"He had come to Cornish with plans to be an actor," college President Sergei Tschernisch said. "But he had a Russian acting teacher he didn't get along with. When he went to [founder] Nellie [Cornish] for advice, she told him, 'You might try seeing what they're doing up on the third floor — it's called modern dance.' And the rest was history."
Mr. Cunningham, who died Sunday at the age of 90, was acknowledged widely as one of the three most influential American dance makers of the 20th century, alongside George Balanchine and Martha Graham — choreographers whose work he both amplified and rejected. His contribution: the radical notion that movement could be presented on stage divorced from characterization, representation or music.
Mr. Cunningham's collaborators included many titans of modern art, notably John Cage (his partner in life and work for more than 50 years), Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Together, they influenced generations of contemporary artists, from choreographers Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp to avant-garde stage director Robert Wilson to performance artist Laurie Anderson.
A star at Cornish
Born Mercier Philip Cunningham, he was the son of Clifford D. Cunningham and Mayme Joach, a Centralia couple with no theater background. Clifford Cunningham practiced law (acting as prosecutor in the historic 1919 Centralia Massacre case), as would Merce's brothers Dorwin (D.J.) and Jack.
Mr. Cunningham first asked for dance lessons at age 10, studying tap and ballroom dance with ex-vaudevillian Maude Barrett and her daughter Marjorie. His parents begrudgingly accepted his choice early on, according to biographer David Vaughan ("Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years").
"Listen," he heard his father tell his worried mother, "if that fellow didn't have that dance game he'd have been a crook."
In 1937, he entered the Cornish School, now Cornish College of the Arts. Within the year, his buoyant jumps and refined technique made him a star performer. The following year he met Cage, an accompanist for noted dance instructor Bonnie Bird; Cage first introduced Mr. Cunningham to the idea of measuring time and space.
This was Mr. Cunningham's "revelation," he later said: that "you had to think about [composition], not just have some feeling about what you were going to do next."
At California's Mills College in the summer of 1939, Doris Humphrey and Graham — both pioneering modern dancers — sought out Mr. Cunningham for their companies. He chose Graham's, in New York, and earned distinction as a "noble and touching" dancer in premiere roles in "El Penitente," "Letter to the World" and more. In the summer of 1953, with Cage, he formed his full company during a residency at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
Drawing on ideas from modern artists and Eastern philosophers, Mr. Cunningham used "chance procedures" — say, a roll of the dice — to establish the order of steps and the placement of dancers on stage.
Emerging in an age of narrative, mythic modern dance, his detached and dislocated concerts took time to catch on. His breakthrough came in 1958, after an exultant international tour, and he never stopped. He created more than 200 dances after that, many in tandem with electronic-music composers from David Tudor to Takehisa Kosugi.
Technology was an abiding interest. Mr. Cunningham was a trailblazing proponent of film and 3-D software as choreographic tools. Seattle audiences saw the results of his early experiments with motion-capture technology in 2001 when the ravishing "Biped" toured to Meany Theater.
Before that performance, at age 82, Mr. Cunningham told The Seattle Times, "What remains interesting to me is to use what possibilities I have now and go on to discover new ones."
Among the many prominent dancers who trained or performed with Cunningham were a slew of future choreographers, from Trisha Brown (also a Washington native) to Paul Taylor to Ulysses Dove, whose works are a favorite of Pacific Northwest Ballet's artistic director Peter Boal.
Mr. Cunningham and his company recently announced a plan for preservation of the choreographer's works after his death. After a two-year, international farewell tour, the company will be dissolved, and the Merce Cunningham Trust will be established to oversee licensing of his works to other dance companies.
Mr. Cunningham's personality was said to be sphinxlike. Work was his life, and solace: He went back to the studio the day after Cage's death in 1992. Over time, his ties to the Northwest remained strong.
"Merce was the best man — dressed in tuxedo and black canvas high-tops — at my parents' wedding," nephew Michael Cunningham said. "Merce very much enjoyed the landscapes of Seattle. He loved the green, of course. He drew — not just animals, but plants." Cunningham had a show of drawings at Margarete Roeder Gallery in New York just two years ago.
"Anything with movement, he caught it. His eye would flick as soon as he saw something. Who knows where it went in his databank? He was always collecting. You could tell."
Niece Jill Cunningham, of Seattle, also remembers her uncle's energetic curiosity. He was the odd man out in a family of lawyers, she said: "It goes way back. He's always been a little different. He was always fun, always thinking of the next thing. In his 80s, he started working with computers. He was always ahead of things and always so dedicated to his company and to the dance."
She and siblings Jody and Grady went to Mr. Cunningham's 90th-birthday gala in April at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he debuted his most recent work, "Nearly Ninety."
"That was really great," she said. "He came out in his wheelchair and told the audience how thrilled he was that his nieces and nephew from Seattle had come."
The wheelchair that confined the dancer toward the end of his life did not dampen his adventurousness.
"On my last visit in New York," nephew Michael said, "he recommended a show at the Guggenheim" — an exhibition that showcased the work of Cage, Rauschenberg and Johns. "He was recommending things to see, even though he was in the wheelchair. It certainly didn't limit him, because his mind wasn't limited at all."
One of Michael's fondest memories of his uncle is of a time when he and his brothers and cousins were children, all gathered at their grandparents' house in Centralia. "Cage, Merce and a few dancers turned up in a VW bus; they had some performances lined up. We were playing pickup sticks with the dancers, while Merce and Cage were talking with the grown-ups. Then they went off for Chinese — the only Chinese food in Centralia — and we all had to go home."
Mr. Cunningham died of natural causes at his home in Manhattan. In addition to Michael, Jill, Grady and Jody, Merce Cunningham is survived by brother Jack M. Cunningham, of Centralia, and nephews Peter and Dan, both of Seattle, and Pat, of Bothell — plus eight grandnieces and grandnephews.
Freelance writer Jean Lenihan contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
NEW - 7:04 PM
Toy-maker shifts gears into sculpting career
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.