Merce Cunningham, magnetic dancer and outstanding choreographer, was the leading figure of contemporary dance for the last 50 years.
He was inquisitive, inventive and adventurous to the last. Thirty years ago he was embracing information technology, using the choreography programme DanceForms. Elements of Chance, a dance piece created in 1952, relied on the spinning of a coin to determine what would happen next. He wanted to take dance beyond his own imagination.
Born in Centralia, Washington State, on April 16, 1919, Mercier Philip Cunningham studied folk dance, tap and ballroom in his early teens and then enrolled at the Cornish School of Fine and Applied Arts in Seattle. His teacher at the Cornish was Bonnie Bird, later the artistic director at the Laban centre. The accompanist was John Cage and he and Cunningham formed a life-long artistic partnership, eventually becoming lovers. Cunningham was noticed by Martha Graham at a summer course at the Bennington School of Dance in California. There was an immediate invitation to join her company and accordingly he moved to New York in 1939. His dancing was noted for characterisation and athletic leaps. Notable roles with Graham were March in the Emily Dickinson ballet Letter to the World and the preacher in Appalachian Spring.
Cunningham had begun to create dance pieces and Cage’s move to New York was the impetus for him to create his own company, in 1953. Success and acclaim were hardly instant. He was never to tread an easy path.
His choreography was constrained neither by music nor the demands of narrative. The movement mattered, pure and simple, but sometimes touching on the bizarre and baffling. He once danced with a chair strapped to his back. Often his dancers were introduced to the music during the first performance. Similarly his designers worked without seeing the dancers.
Asked by one critic what a particular dance was about, Cunningham is said to have replied: “About 40 minutes.” Intellectual examination was not for him and not for dance. Composers were simply told the length of the piece. When movement and music came together he could not predict what would happen, but it would be memorable.
Cunningham’s reputation was made with his company’s visit to London in 1964. The reception was sensational. After the initial run at Sadler’s Wells, attended by Nureyev and Fonteyn, and a deeply impressed Frederick Ashton, the company was at the Phoenix for three weeks.
It is worth recording – and Cunningham would insist it be recorded – that audiences in Paris had thrown tomatoes and rotten eggs. Indeed, Cunningham himself told me that many of them had gone out to get more tomatoes and eggs.
News of the excellent London reception got back to the USA and Cunningham’s stature grew. In 1989 the French government appointed him a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. No doubt he was smiling rather wryly when news of that came through.
Genial and impish, Cunningham had natural charm. He was still dancing in the nineties and attending company classes in the early years of this decade. He wore his iconic status with easy grace. He made people feel comfortable, especially this awestruck interviewer.
When we parted, we shook hands, firmly and warmly. His forearm was like the branch of an ancient apple tree. I can still feel his spirit and his energy. He seemed immortal.
Cunningham died on July 26, aged 90.