Aboy born in Centralia, Washington, would grow up to be one of the most important and revolutionary choreographers in American history. He would change the course of modern dance and win all the awards, from the MacArthur Grant to the French Légion d'Honneur to the Praemium Imperiale from the emperor of Japan. Merce Cunningham was a genius.
He was a sort of pre-postmodernist who dealt in austerity, complexity, and fractures. He borrowed from ballet, high modernism, pop culture, and the extreme fringes of the avant-garde, but his dances weren't pastiche. They were wholly their own, influence without anxiety. In Bali, Cunningham learned from shadow-puppet dancers that the center of the stage didn't have to be the center of the action. From computers, he learned that even a soloist didn't have to be the center of the action: He exploded dancers into many parts, projecting a leg on one screen and an arm on another.
At the beginning of his career, Cunningham worked with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Toward the end, he worked with Sigur Rós and Radiohead. He was a relentlessly democratic collaborator and rejected the despotism of music over dance and dance over stage design—he and his colleagues would typically decide the duration of the dance and the size of the stage, then squirrel themselves away to work separately, bringing everything together at the end of the process. Often, the dancers first heard the music on opening night.
Cunningham's most constant collaborator—and lifelong romantic partner—was John Cage. The two met in the late 1930s in Seattle, at Cornish College of the Arts, where Cunningham studied dance and Cage worked as an accompanist, playing the piano for the dance classes. (Incidentally, Cage wrote his first piece for prepared piano at Cornish—a commission for a dance. Cage wanted a percussion section, but the recital hall only had enough room for one grand piano. He attached weather stripping to 12 of the piano strings and made his first "exploded keyboard.")
Martha Graham saw Cunningham dancing at Cornish, fell in love with his power and precision, and invited him to join her company. Cunningham moved to New York in 1939. Cage—and his wife Xenia—followed three years later. Nineteen forty-five was a year of divorces: Cage broke with his wife and Cunningham broke with Graham and began a career of experimentation, using chance operations (including the I Ching), computers, digital projections, and deep subtlety. Local choreographer Donald Byrd describes Cunningham's work as having "a real clarity of vision that was unclouded by emotionalism. There was a great deal of emotion under the surface, but it was held in check, like it might explode at any time. And it never did. It was amazing."
John Cage died in 1992. Seventeen years later, on the afternoon of July 26, 2009, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed at Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts. A few hours later, Merce Cunningham died in his sleep. BRENDAN KILEY
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• My first modern-dance teacher gave me Silence by John Cage when I was 15 years old. I remember reading it while sitting on a dock on Lake Superior. Somewhere between the white spaces and the stories of Merce, John, and company touring the country in a white VW bus, having tomatoes thrown at them by audiences, I became totally smitten. When I turned 21, I moved to New York as a scholarship student to study with Merce. I remember odd things he said, like the time he told our class to go home and listen to Billie Holiday. "Dance like Billie," he told us. "She slides around the notes." He also said: "I always look for the frame and where the limits are. Everyone wants to know what's unique about them, what's their unique style. Well, it's what you can't do that makes you unique."
We rode up in an elevator together once, 10 or so floors, while he talked animatedly about bird behavior. I think people sometimes get Merce wrong. They think he was only interested in the "abstract" and wasn't expressive. He had an uncanny ability of noticing things: the movements of people on the street, of children and animals, the shift of light in a room. His studio had great calm and wonderful energy. It turned golden during sunset. Tonya Lockyer dancer, choreographer
• I had fallen into many of the traps of the late '70s and early '80s—I had a really bad cocaine addiction and was living in L.A., so I came back to New York City and sought out the Cunningham studio, because his work was so disciplined. I thought it would be good for me. In the studio, he would push to see what you were made of. He'd give these steps that were impossible, and you could feel him looking at you, thinking: "Don't you dare put your leg down." You were being prodded and challenged to be incredible. They asked me to join the company, but I wanted to do other things, and the worst thing you can do to a choreographer is say, "Yes, I'll dance with you" but only stay for a season. People never said "no" to Merce, so I just disappeared. Ten years later, I saw Merce at Meet the Composer in New York. I went over to say hello. He looked at me and howled with laughter and said: "I wondered what happened to you!"
I went to the last piece he made, Nearly Ninety [at the Brooklyn Academy of Music]. He was doing things he'd never done before. The dancers were on the edge of—not chaos—but it was dangerous-looking, extreme, and exhilarating. I hadn't felt that way since I saw the Alvin Ailey company for the first time. I just hope I have 30 more years to make work. Now I don't dare to not take chances and risks. Do it the way Merce did it. donald byrd choreographer
• I snuck out of math class in high school in San Antonio to go hear Merce talk. Years later, I rode up in an elevator with him once in Vienna, and we just smiled at each other. I didn't have the guts to talk to him, but somehow the silent smiles felt like more. I told myself years ago that it would be a sad, sad day when he finally goes. Amy O'Neal dancer, choreographer
• I first met John Cage as he was arriving at the airport for a stint at Cornish in the 1980s. He was carrying a coat and a wicker picnic-type basket. When I offered to carry the basket, he declined, saying it was too heavy. When I asked what was in the basket, he said rocks and a loaf of his homemade bread, which he said was "like a rock." Cage stayed at my house, and I had the amazing good fortune to watch him as he used those stones to help him compose the score for Ryoanji, a piece based on the famous rock garden in Kyoto. In conversation one evening, the subject of his artist fee came up. "Oh, I give it all to the Merce Cunningham Company," he said. "It is very expensive to support a dance company, you know." He laughed, but it was clear from the look in his eyes that he was devoted to the cause and devoted to Merce. Jarrad Powell composer
• Sometimes when I'd get off the stage, his great big hand would reach out and grab mine with amazing force. It was the best communication we had. Holley Farmer dancer with the Cunningham Dance Company for 12 years
• My senior year at Cornish, I was sitting in the familiar third-floor hallway of Kerry Hall, where Mr. Cunningham once sat on the floor as a student and where he met John Cage. I was on a fold-down bench, thinking about school, my job as a cook, and the overall pain in my body, and then it happened—as if Christ himself were entering. Merce was held up by two of his male dancers, one at each side. It seemed like forever, as he sauntered with a slow shuffle down the hall. It was a simple, beautiful moment. Ellie Sandstrom dancer, choreographer
• Merce believed that no art form should dictate to another. In a lecture I heard him give at Harvard in the 1970s, he responded to an angry question about the relationship of music to dance by saying, "You know, the age of imperialism is over." One of his favorite anecdotes concerned the instructions Nellie Cornish gave to students each year: "Miss Cornish would tell us that she never wanted to see us doing nothing. It was fine to dream or daydream, but not to do nothing." He talked about the pranks he and Cage and Rauschenberg pulled in performances. It was something he took immense delight in 70 years later. There was a group of artists in Seattle who would become leaders in visual art, music, and dance. They were here, growing up together. Kitty Daniels chair of the dance department at Cornish College of the Arts
• The only time I have snuck into a second night of performance without tickets was to see Sounddance by Merce Cunningham. Molly Sheldon Scott choreographer
• His Sounddance is the only piece of dance that has ever left me openly weeping. Afterward, I stumbled into the lobby and ran into Molly Sheldon Scott, also in tears. The whole of Meany Hall seemed to chime, to achieve a higher, hovering harmonic, created purely through choreography framed by sound—the perfect orchestration of a living pattern. It still gives me chills. Corrie Befort dancer, choreographer
• I was in New York in the '60s, visiting John Cage. I walk into his studio and there's a man doing a headstand. It's Merce, and John introduces us: "Merce, this is Sergei." With his feet in the air, he says, "Hi, Sergei, how are you?" in Russian, which totally threw me—I speak Russian. I walked away and asked, "John, why is he standing on his head?" He said: "Merce's feet hurt. He stands on his head a lot." Merce probably met many people with his head on the floor and his feet in the air. Sergei Tschernisch president of Cornish College of the Arts
• We weren't friends, but I knew him. We knew Bob Rauschenberg better, and he was mesmerized by Merce. I went to Merce's studio and tried to understand what he was doing—I'm not sure I ever did, but I got within throwing distance. My foundation awarded him a prize, I think $25,000. They all came to a party on Bainbridge Island in the 1960s. It was a rather raucous party, as I remember—the dancers all jumped into the swimming pool. I wish I could tell you more, but it was so many years ago. The generation that knew him has mostly passed away. Bagley Wright philanthropist