- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

NEW YORK | Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde dancer and choreographer who revolutionized modern dance by creating works of pure movement divorced from storytelling and even from their musical accompaniment, has died at age 90, a spokeswoman said Monday.

Mr. Cunningham died Sunday at his Manhattan home of natural causes, said Leah Sandals, spokeswoman for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Miss Sandals would not specify the cause of death.

In a career spanning more than 60 years and about 150 works, Mr. Cunningham wiped out storytelling in dance, tossed coins or dice to determine steps and shattered such unwritten rules as having dancers usually face the audience.

He worked closely with composer John Cage, his longtime partner, who died in 1992, and with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. However, he said, “I am and always have been fascinated by dancing, and I can just as well do a dance without the visual thing.”

Unlike his one-time mentor, Martha Graham, he did not intend his dances to express emotion or act out a drama.

Other choreographers have made plotless dances, but Mr. Cunningham did his even without music. The audience got both dance and music, but the steps weren’t done to the music’s beat, and sometimes the dancers were hearing the music for the first time onstage.

Mr. Cunningham also used chance — tossing pennies or whatever — to determine such things as which of several sets of steps would follow another series of steps. Once the toss determined the steps, however, the dancers had to follow them precisely.

Though he had to use a wheelchair in later years, he remained an active artist. As he turned 90 in April, he premiered a long piece called “Nearly Ninety,” set to new music from Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, the rock band Sonic Youth and Japanese composer Takehisa Kosugi.

He also set up a new organization, the Merce Cunningham Trust, to maintain his legacy into the future. Under the plan, his dance company would have a final, two-year tour and then shut down. Its assets would be transferred to the trust, which would hold licensing rights and preserve Mr. Cunningham’s choreography in digital form for future artists, students, scholars and audiences.

“My idea has always been to explore human physical movement,” Mr. Cunningham said in June. “I would like the trust to continue doing this, because dancing is a process that never stops and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh.”

Among the honors that came his way over a long career were the Kennedy Center Honors in 1985 and the National Medal of Arts in 1990.

“I think the things in my earlier work that were shocking, like shifting abruptly, no longer are shocking,” he once said.

Mr. Cunningham also appeared at the Kennedy Center in 2004, 2006 and in December; his company was part of its Modern Masters of American Dance series, officials at the performing arts institution said Monday. Earlier this month, Mr. Cunningham’s company performed the gracefully complex “Split Sides,” set to the music of Radiohead and Sigur Ros, at Wolf Trap.

Mr. Cunningham took the lead among choreographers in using the computer, just as he had been one of the first to use video in the often conservative dance world.

“I don’t think it is going to revolutionize anything about dancing,” he said, “but it can enlarge what you see” by fixing something in midmovement.

Among his other creations — more than 150 in all: “Sounddance,” 1975; “RainForest,” 1968; “Septet,” 1953; “Exchange,” 1978; “Trackers,” 1991; “Pictures,” 1984; “Fabrications,” 1987; “Cargo X,” 1989; and “Biped,” 1999.

His dances may have been nontraditional, but the intricate choreography wasn’t easy to do, and his dancers were all highly trained. Mr. Cunningham himself continued to dance with his company well into his 70s.

He said there is always something new to do in choreography “if your eyes and ears are open and you have wit enough to see and hear and imagine.”

“Over the history of art, something unfamiliar becomes part of society, and everybody accepts it. Obviously, the artist goes on. You try to see what the next problem or question to ask is.

“That’s what an artist does; you find another question.”

In 2003, Mr. Cunningham’s company wound up its 50th-anniversary season with the world premiere of “Split Sides” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In classic Cunningham fashion, the order of the music and other elements of the performance was determined by rolling the dice.

The acclaimed choreographer Paul Taylor made his dance debut with Mr. Cunningham’s company in the 1950s before becoming a star with Martha Graham and founding his own troupe.

Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Wash., the son of a lawyer. He studied tap and ballroom dancing as a child, then attended the Cornish School, an arts school in Seattle, after high school. In a 1999 Public Broadcasting Service interview, he recalled that he wanted to be an actor and took dance just to help him act better.

He met Mr. Cage in 1938, and the composer became his longtime companion as well as frequent collaborator.

The following year, he met Miss Graham at a summer dance session at Mills College. She invited him to join her company and created many leading roles for him. He left the company in 1945 to begin his turn from psychological dances toward “pure movement.”

The foundation did not provide information Monday on Mr. Cunningham’s survivors, and funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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