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Friends and colleagues recall Merce Cunningham*

July 27, 2009 |  3:30 pm

Merce Merce Cunningham, who passed away Sunday at the age of 90, was a contemporary dance figure with few equals in the world. It's hard to imagine anyone in his profession whom he didn't influence either directly or indirectly.

Culture Monster has been speaking today with some of the leading figures in the dance world who have worked closely with Cunningham during his 70-plus-year career. They include fellow choreographers, dancers and video artists.

Here are some of their anecdotes and remembrances of Cunningham over the years. We'll be updating the post with more reactions throughout the day, so keep checking back.

* Robert Swinston, assistant choreographer, Merce Cunningham Dance Company:

"Merce was always a little bit private, but he opened up over the last years. He would continue to teach twice a week up until the end. The last class was June 22 at his studio in New York -- it was a class of his signature technique and format. Merce always found different ways to teach exercises, and he continued to challenge us. He had an intensity about him, but he was not overbearing. The last time I worked with him was Thursday, July 9 -- he was in the studio, and he choreographed a transition for 'Nearly Ninety' [a full-evening work unveiled in April]. There were going to be several versions of the dance, one with intermission and one without. He was a man of great energy and grace -- and he had a great sense of humor too."

* Kevin McKenzie, artistic director, American Ballet Theatre:

"What a remarkably prolific life he had! To have worked in and affected the dance world with such influence right up until the very end was a gift both to him and us. May he rest with a smile knowing we are all better for having his light in the world." 

* Charles Atlas, former filmmaker in residence, Merce Cunningham Dance Company:

"I taught him video, and he taught me dance. He wanted to explore new possibilities of technology at a time when a lot of people in the dance world weren't interested in it. He was the gold standard as a collaborative artist and would give you complete freedom. He didn't understand every detail of the technology he was using, but he was interested in adding something to the family of dance, of trying to find new ways of looking at things."

* Joe Melillo, executive producer, Brooklyn Academy of Music:

"Merce Cunningham was a mentor to the world's creative community. His legacy includes multiple generations of artists who have been and continue to be inspired by his trailblazing interrogation of the relationship between choreography, music and the visual arts. On a personal level, I shall miss his devilish sense of humor, his sensitivity and his supreme patience. Watching his art was always a learning experience for me, as for so many other devoted fans and friends."

*Andrea Weber, company member, Merce Cunningham Dance Company:

"Merce pushed me in a way that I didn't expect. Each new piece was not what I expected but what I needed to move forward. It is the thing I will miss the most. He wasn't a man of a lot of words, and he trusted our choices and he allowed us to shine through in his work. All it took with Merce was one sentence. I remember we were doing 'Suite for Five,' and all he said was 'thank you' afterward. It was the biggest compliment of my career. "

* Elliot Caplan, former filmmaker in residence, Merce Cunningham Dance Company:

"Merce wanted the videos to be more than just a document of his choreography -- he was interested in using the technology of film and TV in such a way so that people could enjoy dance on film. We would spend a lot of our time figuring out how to do that. When we would shoot, we would look at the output from the camera and we would talk over decisions. During editing, I would bring rough cuts, and we would talk about the work. It was an involved process. I would screen footage for him and John Cage, and it was quite extraordinary to observe them together."


* Mark Morris, choreographer and dancer:

"Merce is gone, having finished his life's work: a dance that carried on for scores of years. He was a full genius, a beautiful dancer, a great thinker, a kind puzzle and a sweetheart. We thank him."

* Philippe Vergne, director, Dia Art Foundation:

"His presence contributed to the understanding that art is a conversation. I remember talking with him about an exhibition and showing him my version of a design. He replied, 'It's marvelous.' And then I made some changes and showed it to him again, and he said, 'It's marvelous.' And then a third time, 'It's marvelous.' I asked him what he meant by that and he said to just do it and we would see how it turned out. He was full of generosity and freedom -- there was a radical openness in his work that was very subversive. It was like the silence of John Cage."

* Trisha Brown, choreographer and former student of Cunningham:

"There was an indeterminacy about Merce's art that drew people in. The one thing I really learned from studying with him is that you can make up your own way about making dance. I don't mourn his absence because he was with us for such a long time, but I am very sad today."


* Mikhail Baryshnikov, dancer:

"We are saying goodbye to one of the greatest creators of our time, a giant in the artistic world who challenged and united people across disciplines, who approached his work with curiosity and rigor, who continued to be an innovator with his expansive vision throughout his long career.  Personally, I am deeply saddened by the loss of a dear friend and huge inspiration, a man who lived fully, with integrity, gentleness and immense generosity.  He taught me many lessons about life and art, and I will miss him."

-- David Ng

Photo: Merce Cunningham. Credit: Mark Seliger / Merce Cunningham Dance Company