Saturday, August 8, 2009

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

Two weeks ago, Merce Cunningham died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 90. I'm late to the blogging party in eulogizing Cunningham, one of the best of mid-century modern dancers, but I wanted to share my memories of him.

I first discovered Cunningham the same way many musicians do - through John Cage. Cage's music is almost indescribable apart from modern dance as many of his best works were written for dancers (the prepared piano was even invented for dance concerts). And perhaps no dancer had more impact on Cage's development than Cunningham. Their collaborations are legendary as they would decide on the general timing of the production and then each would work alone. The music and dance would be put together as a final product with hardly any change right before the concert.

Learning of their working methods may make you question my statement that Cunningham had an enormous impact on Cage's music, but their aesthetic moved ever closer and closer together the more they collaborated. Together they opened dance and music to ideas often thought of as against all the arts forms stood for.

As a result, when I met Cunningham in 2002. Joy and I both were in the US premiere of Mikel Rouse's realization of Cage's James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet
where I played Robert Rauschenberg, Joy played one of Brigham Young's wives, and Cunningham played Erik Satie (Rouse was James Joyce for the production). Although Cunningham had to be carried on stage because his legs would not hold him up, he delivered his lines with relish and had the best humor through the long nights of practice of anyone there. Backstage, he regaled us with stories of his time with Cage and treated us all as equals, providing kind attention even to a young musicologist.

Cunningham was truly a link with the past, with a pivotal part of American musical and artistic history. As I teach my post-1945 class I'm continually saddened to watch so many great musicians slowly disappear, roughly one a year. But I'm also gratified to see their legacy live on in younger musicians who take their ideas and twist them to their own purposes just as once Cage and Cunningham did the same. Life is short but art is long indeed.

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