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Happy Birthday, Merce Cunningham

April 16, 2009 | 12:21 pm

Merce Culture Monster gives a big standing ovation to Merce Cunningham, one of the most important figures in modern dance, who turns 90 today.

Members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will fete the legendary choreographer tonight with the performance of his latest work, "Nearly Ninety," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The evening will feature music performed by Sonic Youth and Led Zeppelin instrumentalist John Paul Jones.

It's hard to overstate the importance of Cunningham's impact on the field of modern dance, but his interdisciplinary collaboration with other artists deserves equal mention. Throughout his career, he has worked closely with John Cage (who was also his life partner), Robert Rauschenberg and numerous pop music groups.

The Times' critics have written about Cunningham on numerous occasions over the decades. Most recently, music critic Mark Swed wrote a glowing review of Cunningham's "Ocean" when it was performed at the Rainbow Quarry in Minnesota in September 2008:

Cunningham's dance has the fascination of an underwater dive. Ninety minutes is a long sit for an abstract work in which nothing repeats and nothing is predictable. And Cunningham doesn't obscure the slow passage of time. Digital clocks face the audience, ticking off the seconds.

But that only makes the sensation of an oceanic adventure all the more realistic. A chronograph is a diver's lifeline because one experiences time differently when submerged. Underwater, one is alone with one's senses. You bear your own wondrous or terrifying witness.

In 2007, Cunningham spoke to The Times on the occasion of his company's performance of a site-specific piece at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. At one point, he talked about being confined to a wheelchair.

I can't move much, but I can still twiddle my feet. To my dancers, I will attempt to show whatever I can and explain the rest. I don't enjoy talking, but I do it.

He later added:

 I strongly believe that any kind of work is the only thing that keeps one going. I always felt strongly about the ideas that I was dealing with, that they had a real value.

— David Ng

Photo: Merce Cunningham in 2007. Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service.