Gay Dance Pioneer Merce Cunningham Dies at 90

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jul 27, 2009

Merce Cunningham, long considered one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, died at age 90 on Sunday, July 26, in New York City, where he lived most of his life.

With his partner in life and artistic collaborator John Cage, he created some of the most memorable dance pieces of his time. The New York Times reports that he has long been considered "the world's greatest choreographer."

Cunningham has long been associated with the Downtown New York avant-garde arts scene. He rejected the formal classicism embodied by the great ballet choreographer George Balanchine; but he also attempted more of an integration of classical ballet than the other end of the pole, the modern dance giant Martha Graham.

Cunningham followed others in integrating various forms of dance--notably, as the Times points out, Jerome Robbins, and Paul Taylor. But Cunningham also brought something to the table that neither of them did, even at their best: a mischievous sense of fun that was also subversive.

Cunningham met Cage soon after he moved to New York from Washington State, where he was discovered by Graham. His first solo concert, in 1944, was a collaboration with Cage, and the two remained close both personally and in their work, until Cage's death in 1992.

Cunningham formed his own dance company in 1953, after a residence at the Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C. The company quickly became known for innovation and established itself as an important fixture in the ferment of the post-war New York dance scene.

The artist Rober Rauschenberg worked as the company's stage manager, and collaboration with visual artists like Ricahrd Serra, Jasper Johns and Sol LeWitt continued that tradition well into the 2000s. In 2007, Cunningham and Rauschenberg premiered a new piece.

Cage was as influential in the sphere of music (or, one could say, musical-like sounds) as Cunningham was in dance. The two together made for an artistic powerhouse that slammed through the conventions of post-war America. They experimented with chance encounters of dance and music, and conventional structure.

Carolyn Brown's memoir "Chance and Circumstance" details her relationship with Cage and Cunningham. The New York Times, in a 2007 book review, summarizes her view of the two men as both the products of unconventional parents. In his review of the book in Gay & Lesbian Review, Walter Holland spoke of "their long life together as monogamous partners."

Cunningham himself continued to dance well into old age. At 80, he danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov; and he continued to choreograph up until his death.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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