Merce Cunningham, the revolutionary American choreographer, died Sunday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 90. His death was announced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation.
Over a career of nearly seven decades, Mr. Cunningham went on posing “But” and “What if?” questions, making people rethink the essence of dance and choreography. He went on doing so almost to the last.
Until 1989, when he reached 70, he appeared in every single performance given by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In 1999, at 80, though frail and holding onto a barre, he danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center. In April he observed his 90th birthday with the 90-minute “Nearly Ninety” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Even when it became known that he was fading, and friends began coming to bid farewell to him in recent days, he told one colleague that he was still creating dances in his head.
Mr. Cunningham ranks among the foremost figures of artistic modernism and among the few who have transformed the nature and status of dance theater, visionaries like Isadora Duncan, Serge Diaghilev, Martha Graham and George Balanchine.
In his works, independence was central: dancers were often alone even in duets or ensembles, and music and design would act as environments, sometimes hostile ones. His movement — startling in its mixture of staccato and legato elements, and unusually intense in its use of torso, legs and feet — abounded in non sequiturs.
In his final years, while still known as avant-garde, he was almost routinely hailed as the world’s greatest living choreographer. Mr. Cunningham had also been a nonpareil dancer. The British ballet teacher Richard Glasstone maintains that the three greatest dancers he ever saw were Fred Astaire, Margot Fonteyn and Mr. Cunningham. He was American modern dance’s equivalent of Nijinsky: the long neck, the animal intensity, the amazing leap. In old age, when he could no longer jump, and when his feet were gnarled with arthritis, he remained a rivetingly dramatic performer, capable of many moods.
International fame came to him before national fame. In due course he was acknowledged in America as one of its foremost artists, but for a time his work was known here only in specialist dance, art and music circles. Not so in London, Paris and other cities. There Mr. Cunningham was widely celebrated as the creator of a new classicism, as Diaghilev’s successor, as one of the most remarkable theater artists of his day. And it was in Europe that he was most acclaimed right through to this decade, with sold-out Cunningham seasons in Paris at the Théâtre de la Ville or the Opera.
Yet he was always a creature of New York. Close to the founding members of the New York Schools of Music, Painting and Poetry, Mr. Cunningham himself, along with Jerome Robbins and the younger Paul Taylor, led the way to founding what can retrospectively be called the New York School of Dance.
These choreographers both combined and rejected the rival influences of modern dance and ballet, notably the senior choreographers Graham and Balanchine. They absorbed aspects of ordinary pedestrian movement, the natural world and city life. They tested connections between private subject matter and theatrical expression. And they re-examined the relationship between dance and its sound accompaniment. With Graham and Balanchine, they made New York the world capital of choreography, and the New York School influenced the world in showing how pure dance could be major theater.
Many of the dancers who passed through Mr. Cunningham’s company, notably Mr. Taylor and Karole Armitage, went on to become prestigious choreographers themselves. Many other choreographers, notably Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, have paid tribute to his influence.
Mr. Cunningham’s most celebrated and revolutionary achievement, shared with the composer John Cage, his collaborator and companion, was to have dance and music created independently of each other. His choreography showed that dance was principally about itself, not music, while often suggesting that it could also be about many other things.
“Ambiguity” and “poetry” were among Mr. Cunningham’s favorite words when talking about choreography. So was “theater.” Wit and humor abounded in his work; his conversation was full of laughter and wry anecdotes. Partly because dance was the main subject of his choreography, and partly because he often created dances requiring virtuoso skill, he did more than any other choreographer to demonstrate that dance can be classical while being in most ways far from ballet.
Mercier Philip Cunningham was born on April 16, 1919, in Centralia, Wash., the third of four children of Clifford Cunningham, a lawyer, and the former Mayme Joach. (One brother died before Mercier’s birth.) His two other brothers, Dorwin and Jack, followed their father into the legal profession.
Like many artists, he grew up feeling different, “from about age 2.” Later, with this in mind, he made a solo for himself called “Changeling” (1957).
But he also took his birthplace with him. Even the names of Cunningham works like “Borst Park” (1972), “Inlets” (1977) and “Inlets 2” (1983), all made in New York, referred to parts of Washington. It was there that his interest in wildlife began. Although he did not enjoy country life, his series of “nature studies” continued for decades, from “Springweather and People” (1955) to “Pond Way” (1998). In “Solo” (1975), which he alone ever danced, he seemed to metamorphose from one animal into another.
He took his first dance classes in Centralia. In 1936, he went to Washington, D.C., to study at George Washington University alongside his elder brother Dorwin. He quit after a few months, but it was there that he first saw choreography that electrified him, in a performance by the Kurt Jooss company.