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Merce Cunningham Is Dead

posted by Julia May Jonas

Merce Cunningham died last night.  He was 90 years old.  Groundbreaking dance and performance visionary of the 20th and 21st century, exceptional performer and theorist, Merce created art until the end, choreographing a piece this winter at Brooklyn Academy of Music titled, “Nearly Ninety.” 


annie_leibovitz_merce_cunningham.jpg

The first time I heard about Cunningham I was eight years old.  My best friend Athena’s parents had taken her to a dance concert at Jacob’s Pillow.  I remember shaking with hilarity as she recreated the odd asymetric moves set to even odder atonal sounds.  Merce Cunningham = not for children of eight.

The next time I intimately encountered Merce was in my avant-garde theory classes in college.  A theoretical master-mind, Merce, along with his partner John Cage and the whole Black Mountain gang helped to define post-modernism, exposing, highlighting and transforming the interdependent elements that comprised performance and, by reification, human experience.  As stated in the New York Times Artsbeat (worth reading if you’re unfamiliar with Merce):

In his final years he became almost routinely hailed as the world’s greatest choreographer. For many, he had simply been the greatest living artist since Samuel Beckett.

We also shared a birthday.

Along with my previously discussed reverence for choreographers, I have unlimited admiration and respect for thinkers that are interested in breaking down any kind of experience and looking at its composite parts. After all, that’s what the Buddha did with ultimate reality, don’t you think?  

Pina Bausch died June 30th.  Merce Cunningham leaves us less than a month later.  The European then the American.  The mother and then the father.  The corporeal then the cerebral.  A friend mentioned that it feels like that week that Begman and Antonioni both died – like a certain kind of monolith of mentorship has crumbled and the future seems suddenly less determined than before.     



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ellen9

posted July 27, 2009 at 3:45 pm


Losing Merce and Pina in one summer. Bummer.
My husband and I saw “Nearly Ninety” at Brooklyn Academy of Music this spring/summer, with Sonic Youth and John Paul Jones (ZOSO forever! that’s the Led Zep dude, ya know ;) performing the live score. We stayed to hear the dancers, musicians, and set designer talk about working with Merce, and how chance played out in his compositional techniques. Pretty amazing stuff.
He was really amazing, and John Cage was too, although I have to admit I find it nearly impossible to sit down and listen to a John Cage piece with any real sensual enjoyment. Right, breakdown of reification, music v silence, atonal giant buddhist brain head musics. . . . eek! Too much Led Zep in my youth, perhaps.
But I certainly took pleasure in both the corporeal and the cerebral, and I loved his choreography.
There’s no imaginary buddhist heaven to postulate Pina and Merce in one final “Pants-Off Dance Off” competition, and it’s not a competition anyway, but I do pay tribute to two complementary energies in the dance world that just dissolved here, or whatever the heck happens when people die.
And we were lucky to see them both. Alive.



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