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Merce Cunningham

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the following email has just arrived:

On behalf of the Cunningham Dance Foundation and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, it is with great sorrow that we note the passing of Merce Cunningham, who died peacefully in his home last night of natural causes. A statement from the Foundation follows below.

The board and staff of the Cunningham Dance Foundation and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company honor the extraordinary life of our friend and mentor Merce Cunningham. Merce revolutionized the visual and performing arts – not for the sake of iconoclasm, but for the beauty and wonder that lay in exploring new possibilities. An inspiring performer and dancer into his 80s, and a visionary chorographer and dedicated teacher throughout his life, he led quietly and by example. With his partner John Cage, he opened up new ways of perceiving and experiencing the world, and his insatiable curiosity, collaborative spirit, and love of the new inspired countless artists across disciplines. Merce has left an indelible mark on our collective creativity and culture; his legacy will resonate in the dance world and beyond for generations to come.

“Merce saw beauty in the ordinary, which is what made him extraordinary. He did not allow convention to lead him, but was a true artist, honest and forthcoming in everything he did. His approach to art and life opened so many paths for others—not to follow, but to discover. The world is a lesser place without him, but without question, a better place because of him. We will miss him dearly.”

- Trevor Carlson, Executive Director, Cunningham Dance Foundation

“Merce was an artistic maverick and the gentlest of geniuses. We have lost a great man and a great artist, but we celebrate his extraordinary life, his art, and the dancers and the artists with whom he worked. To honor Merce, we plan to carry on our efforts to share and preserve his legacy, so that audiences of today and generations of tomorrow may witness the work of this legendary artist.”

– Judith R. Fishman, Chairman, Cunningham Dance Foundation

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Cunningham Dance Foundation’s Legacy Campaign for the preservation of Merce’s work. Visitors will be received in the Merce Cunningham Studio from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM.

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This is not unexpected news, but it is still so, so sad. Merce Cunningham was a giant and as influential a choreographer as we have seen.

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It's very sad to lose him - one of the few who could rightly be described as epochal. What an impressive career and life.

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I just heard it announced on WQXR radio.

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Very sad news. May he rest in peace.

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Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of this giant among modern choreographers.

I well remember his outstanding success in London more than 40 years ago when the audience was as distracting as the performances on stage.

Ashton who was in the audience said to Cunningham, "You are a poet, and I like poetic ballets."

Poetic, fun and last year, "Crises" came up as fresh as if choreographed in 2008 and not decades before.

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Like leonid, I have memories from more than 40 years ago. My first Cunningham company performance was in a large industrial loft someplace downtown, probably during the mid 60s. I seem to recall that there was a party or fund-raiser attached to the event. I wish I could remember the choreography. But I do remember the space, the energy, and the thrill of being there. In that setting, Cunningham was a magnet, drawing all eyes towards him.

Macaulay's obituary mentions the amazing coincidence of having Balanchine, Graham, Cunningham and others creating new kinds of dance right there in New York City, all at the same time. It was exciting to be an observer, even though I really hadn't a clue as to what was going on in Cunningham's work, not for a long time. But I knew (because people I trusted had told me, and because it was all so wonderful) that this dancing was an important art.

The world -- and not only that portion of it tha dances -- is smaller with his passing. Rest in Peace, Merce.

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A pioneer of modern dance gone. Merce was one I thought would never die, his uniqueness placing him on a plane of existence unknown to us mere mortals.

I first began to learn from his dancers 44 years ago. It opened up an incredible world to me. He was so vital then, constantly choreographing, and his company members, when they taught class, peppered their instructions with "Merce says..." and "here Merce wants"...., etc. So exciting to remember!

The energy of the dance world at that time was centered in New York City and perpetuated through the creations of Balanchine, Robbins and Joffrey in ballet, and Graham, Cunningham, Taylor and Alwin Nikolais in modern dance. I never realized what extraordinary history was being made.

I am truly saddened by Merce's passing.

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A true visionary has left the stage. Thank you Merce. That was quite a performance.

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Here's what he looked like in motion

pd4 from Septet, to music by Satie

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP0FTwKRa50

This is perhaps the piece that Denby said had a "shoreless beauty." It may also be one of the pieces that Ashton found poetic. (I suspect that "Monotones" owes something to this.)

THough it looks a little like Apollo with three muses, I'm told by one who might know that Merce himself said he was Krishna with the gopis....

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This is perhaps the piece that Denby said had a "shoreless beauty." It may also be one of the pieces that Ashton found poetic. (I suspect that "Monotones" owes something to this.)

Hi Paul,

The programme at the Phoenix Theatre in London that Ashton saw and made his remark "You are a poet, and I like poetic ballets" about, consisted of Nocturnes, Winterbranch and Story. It's the same programme that MacMillan walked out of halfway through.

I just loved Cunningham, he was the absolute best.

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Here's what he looked like in motion

pd4 from Septet, to music by Satie

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP0FTwKRa50

This is perhaps the piece that Denby said had a "shoreless beauty." It may also be one of the pieces that Ashton found poetic. (I suspect that "Monotones" owes something to this.)

Thank you for that, Paul -- and Ashton said that the moon landing and Cunningham's dance were two things that inspired him to make "Monotones."

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Here's what he looked like in motion

pd4 from Septet, to music by Satie

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP0FTwKRa50

...

THough it looks a little like Apollo with three muses, I'm told by one who might know that Merce himself said he was Krishna with the gopis....

MC might have thought about Krishna, but that last sequence moving upstage left is very Apollo -- thank you so much for posting this link. I've been feeling sad all day long.

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It's great to read people's early memories of Cunningham. I first encountered his work when I ran across a documentary on a UFH television station one lazy afternoon. I remember it as the late 70's but it may have been a few years later. In 1988 I heard Cage and Cunningham speak at Harvard, Merce showing a video and talking about the challenges of putting dance on film, and Cage reading a hodgepodge of texts for one of the Norton lectures, and then answering questions the next week. I bailed out of the lecture after 45 minutes, but left the Q & A session excited about the idea of hearing noise not as a nuisance, but as sound, as inherently interesting.

Finally in 1993, at the American Dance Festival in Durham, I saw the dance company live. I found the first two pieces dry, but the last one, CRWDSPCR, clicked, and I've sought out Merce's work ever since.

PBS NewHours had a nice tribute to Merce this evening. They have an interview with David Vaughan here and the tribute should be there later.

RIP, Merce.

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Thank you for the link to that beautiful video, Paul. I love the way Cunningham locates and responds to the long, langerous heart of Satie's piece, ignoring the upbeats and surface notes. It's like a religious ritual: pure, serious, performed with greata concentration.

Septet strikes me as so different from most of the later work. Alexandra is reminded of Apollo. The classical purity reminded me too, as do the 3 women. Could he have been commenting here on Balanchine's ballet?

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I first encountered Merce when I took some classes he taught in Boston. I was crazy with excitement at this strange new way of dancing, as only a teenager can be. I then saw the company while attending the American Dance Festival, held at Connecticut College. It was the summer he premiered Aeon, which caused quite a scandal, because John Cage played his score at a very high volume. People near the speakers claimed they had pain in their ears, and some of the audience walked out. Louis Horst was on the composition faculty, and he disapproved of Merce's methods, as did most of the faculty. That of course make him a rather heroic figure to us, the students (it was the 60's after all). Some members of Jose Limon and Pearl Lang's companies (who were in residence) took Merce's advanced class as well as his own co. members, whom we idolized. He may have said teaching was a necessary evil, but his classes were exhilarating. Heady times indeed, and wonderful memories. Thank you dear Merce, RIP

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For me, the Septet imagery was evocative of Matisse's Dance @ MoMA.... I remember as a young bunhead seeing a photo of Septet in Dance Magazine and thinking perhaps modern dance had something to it after all... (young idiot!)... how we pry the brain out of it's habits...

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Trom the Times article:

No other choreographer has asked dancers to move the torso with such rigor and intensity while also keeping the lower body busy. No modern-dance choreographer has ever made more brilliant use of legs and feet.

THIS is what I remember best. His technique was damn hard to accomplish! On a very simple level, it was akin to that trick where you pat your tummy while trying to rub your head in a circular motion. I studied Cunningham for four years. It was an entirely new way to move. Viola Farber was my main teacher and she was extremely demanding, so when we got something just right it felt so good! Those classes were indeed exhilarating. I've got goosebumps remembering!

The coterie of Cunningham, Cage, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg formed a "rat pack" in the world of dance, music, and visual art that has seen its equal, in my estimation, only in Balanchine's artistic clique.

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I find the news of Cunningham's death rather overwhelming. I saw his company just a handful of times-- the first with my mother at Lisner auditorium in Washington D.C. -- I am guessing in the 70's. Cunningham was still dancing and the work in which he danced seemed to thematize his isolation and difference from the other dancers (he was far older of course and moved quite differently). I was fascinated by his crabbed feet and solitary air. . . and loved the whole evening's performance which felt profoundly classical to me. Not exactly classical as in classical ballet, but simply classical -- rigorous, pure. The last time I saw his company was in 2005, an Event at the Barbican Center.

Every time I saw his works danced by his dancers I felt deep, deep pleasure and a recurrence of that initial sense I had the first time I saw them of being in the presence of classical purity and rigor offered at an extraordinary pitch of intensity. Sometimes at dance performances (hate to admit this) my mind becomes scattered and I can't focus -- with Cunningham I always felt entirely drawn in by what was before me...as well as being simply awestruck by what his dancers were able to do. For various reasons, as a dance lover, I have much, much more experience of ballet than modern dance (I'm really a balleltomane) but the two great choreographers who have always been paired in my mind as the most crucial, the "greatest" I know of, are Balanchine and...Cunningham.

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Jennifer Homans in The New Republic:

http://www.tnr.com/booksandarts/story.html...68-680d78fb6024

Judith Mackrell in The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/jul/2...unningham-dance

14 images, some striking historical ones, many recent ones, mostly of performances in the Barbican, also from The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/gallery/20...unningham.dance

Alongside the images are links to other items, including the Mackrell article, and a short interview:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/sep/30/dance.usa

What's the greatest threat to dance today?

There is none. Here in the US, there is far more dancing than there used to be. I think it's because so many people watch television, and then one day they woke up and realised they could watch dance instead.

Not that this is the time for summing up, but the modest, matter-of-fact presentation of large concepts seems characteristic of the man and his art, for me. Always moving, Merce was always Merce.

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Wow, Jack -- thanks!

Terri Gross rebroadcast her December 1985 interview with Merce today, followed by an interview with John Cage. They're online here.

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