Monday, July 27, 2009

Merce Cunningham 1919-2009 RIP

Photo- Annie Leibovitz
Merce Cunningham

12 7/8 x 13 in. (32.7 x 33 cm)
Gelatin silver print, printed 1997
Signed and numbered lower edge.
I am lucky enough to own this photograph! Love it!

Merce Cunningham was a choreographer who, for all the clarity of his vision, frequently left his audiences perplexed.

People streamed out of his performances uplifted by the beauty of the dancing and energized by its formal rigor. Yet his famous use of chance as a tool of choreography planted a seed of doubt. One always emerged carrying something in the heart: the quiet awe that comes from wanting to explain the unexplainable, and from contemplating the imponderables of life.

Cunningham, who died Sunday at age 90 at his Manhattan home, notoriously employed chance in creating his works; he would throw dice, toss coins or consult the I Ching to determine the order of steps in his dances. Discussing this tactic in a 1998 interview, Cunningham said, "For me, it is about acceptance." He added, "It's a very easy way to make decisions -- very simple. If you can't make up your mind about something, toss a coin and then accept it. Accept it."

Bowing to an act of fate and living with the results of a gamble -- that was the hard part. But Cunningham's philosophical attitude, which derived from Zen Buddhism, lent a peacefulness to all of his works regardless of their dynamic energy and despite the attention-grabbing antics of some of his many collaborators from the worlds of rock music, modern art and fashion.

Born in 1919 in Centralia, Wash. -- where he studied tap dance as a child, -- Cunningham kept alive the independent spirit of American modern dance by rebelling against the psycho-dramatic aesthetics of the previous generation, notably Martha Graham, from whose company he emerged as a brilliantly original voice, founding his own troupe in 1953. He was greatly influenced by the ideas of his artistic partner and lifetime companion, the late musician and composer John Cage, who died in 1992.

Cunningham remained firm in his devotion to avant-garde experimentation. He never compromised his ideals, or succumbed to commercial temptations. Perhaps more than anything, this integrity explains the durability of his example, which not only influenced the rebel choreographers of the Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s and the Minimalists of the 1970s, but also can be seen today in the evolving work of theatrical artists like Angelin Preljocaj and Garth Fagan. Cunningham became the patriarch of American modern dance, revered internationally as a symbol of American artistic freedom and ingenuity.

Cunningham was quick to embrace new technologies, creating dances for video and film, learning in his 70s to work with the choreographic software program now called Danceforms, and helping to pioneer the use of MotionCapture. In Cunningham's 2006 premiere "EyeSpace," audience members received iPod loaners to listen to the score.

Cunningham also allowed his famous collaborators (Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, among them) to challenge him by introducing sculptural elements on stage, and even by deforming the dancers' line -- as fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, for example, did by adding humps and goiters to the dancers' costumes in the 1997 "Scenario."

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