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Merce Cunningham, Who Collaborated with an Array of Visual Artists and Designers, Died
Merce Cunningham and dancers of the Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris, 1973. Photo by Babette Mongolte, courtesy of Cunningham Dance Foundation.
NEW YORk, NY.- Merce Cunningham, who was among the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, and was at the forefront of the American avant-garde for more than 50 years, died on Sunday night, the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation said. He was 90. Throughout much of his life, Cunningham was also considered one of the greatest American dancers. A constant collaborator who has influenced artists across disciplines—including musicians John Cage and David Tudor, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Nauman, designer Romeo Gigli, and architect Benedetta Tagliabue—Cunningham’s impact extends beyond the dance world to the arts as a whole.

In its early years, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company toured in a Volkswagen bus driven by John Cage with just enough room for six dancers, the two musicians, and a stage manager, who was often Robert Rauschenberg. MCDC’s first international tour in 1964—which included performances in Western and Eastern Europe, India, Thailand, and Japan—solidified a constant stream of national and international bookings. In the years since, MCDC has continued to tour the world to critical and popular acclaim, serving as an ambassador for contemporary American culture.

Recent performances and projects include a two-year residency at Dia:Beacon, where MCDC performed Events, Cunningham’s site-specific choreographic collages, in the galleries of Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt among others.

The Company has also collaborated with an array of visual artists and designers. Robert Rauschenberg, whose famous “Combines” reflect the approach he used to create décor for a number of MCDC’s early works, served as the Company’s resident designer from 1954 through 1964. Jasper Johns followed as Artistic Advisor from 1967 until 1980, and Mark Lancaster from 1980 through 1984. The last Advisors to be appointed were William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw in 1984. Other artists who have collaborated with MCDC include Tacita Dean, Rei Kawakubo, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Ernesto Neto, Frank Stella, Benedetta Tagliabue, and Andy Warhol.

Merce Cunningham had been at the forefront of the American avant-garde for more than seventy years and was considered by many to be the most important living choreographer. Throughout much of his career, he was also one of the greatest American dancers. With an artistic career distinguished by constant innovation, Cunningham expanded the frontiers not only of dance, but also of contemporary visual and performing arts. His collaborations with artistic innovators from every creative discipline yielded an unparalleled body of American dance, music, and visual art.

Of all his collaborations, Cunningham’s work with John Cage, his life partner from the 1940s until Cage’s death in 1992, had the greatest influence on his practice. Together, Cunningham and Cage proposed a number of radical innovations. The most famous and controversial of these concerned the relationship between dance and music, which they concluded may occur in the same time and space, but should be created independently of one another. The two also made extensive use of chance procedures, abandoning not only musical forms, but narrative and other conventional elements of dance composition—such as cause and effect, and climax and anticlimax. For Cunningham the subject of his dances was always dance itself.

Born in Centralia, Washington on April 16, 1919, Cunningham began his professional modern dance career at 20 with a six-year tenure as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company. In 1944 he presented his first solo show and in 1953 formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a forum to explore his groundbreaking ideas. Over the course of his career, Cunningham choreographed more than 200 dances and over 800 “Events.” Dancers who trained with Cunningham and gone on to form their own companies include Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Karole Armitage, Foofwa d’Immobilité, and Jonah Bokaer.

Cunningham’s lifelong passion for exploration and innovation made him a leader in applying new technologies to the arts. He began investigating dance on film in the 1970s, and since 1991 choreographed using the computer program DanceForms. He explored motion capture technology to create décor for BIPED (1999), and most recently his interest in new media led to the creation of Mondays with Merce (www.merce.org/mondayswithmerce.html). This webcast series provided a never-before-seen look at the Company and Cunningham’s teaching technique with video of advanced technique class, Company rehearsal, archival footage, and interviews with current and former Company members, choreographers, and collaborators.

Cunningham earned some of the highest honors bestowed in the arts. Among his many awards are the National Medal of Arts (1990) and the MacArthur Fellowship (1985). He also received Japan’s Praemium Imperiale in 2005, the British Laurence Olivier Award in 1985, and was named Officier of the Legion d’Honneur in France in 2004. Cunningham’s life and artistic vision have been the subject of four books and three major exhibitions, and his works have been presented by groups including the Ballet of the Paris Opéra, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, White Oak Dance Project, and London’s Rambert Dance Company.

Merce Cunningham | John Cage | David Tudor | Robert Rauschenberg | Bruce Nauman | Romeo Gigli | Benedetta Tagliabue |




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