x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Choreographer who put movement before music

Merce Cunningham was a dance prodigy who struggled for recognition in the US until a single tour abroad thrust him into the spotlight, where he stayed until arthritis forced him to retire at the age of 70.

In a August 18,1986 file photo, choreographer Merce Cunningham, second from right, performs in a piece titled Quartet with his dance company
In a August 18,1986 file photo, choreographer Merce Cunningham, second from right, performs in a piece titled Quartet with his dance company

The avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham, who has died aged 90, transformed the face of modern dance in the 20th century. In a radical break with tradition, he conceived visually arresting pieces of theatre in which dance and music were completely dissociated. Up to the age of 70 he appeared in every single performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company until crippling arthritis forced him from the stage.

His signature works - simultaneously disturbing and seemingly abstract, witty and amusing - incorporated kaleidoscopic changes of tone and mood, often within a single sequence. Frequently the dancers had no idea of the accompanying music, lighting, set or costumes until the first performance. In Variations V, radio antennae mounted about the stage responded to the motion of the dancers' bodies, creating an electronic score anew each time. In Place, Cunningham thrashed violently inside a large plastic bag from the stage into the wings, while in Antic Meet, Carolyn Brown - one of the original company - stepped through an onstage door and sat down in a chair strapped to Cunningham's back.

Born in Centralia, Washington, Mercier Philip Cunningham learnt to dance at the age of 12 with Mrs Barrett, a former vaudeville performer and circus bareback rider, who swiftly recognised her young pupil's extraordinary talent. After high school he attended the Cornish School in Seattle where he first met John Cage, the experimental musician, who would become a lifelong collaborator and friend. Spotted at a dance workshop by Martha Graham, a pioneer of modern dance, Cunningham travelled to New York at her invitation. She gave him his first solo as the Acrobat in Every Soul Is a Circus. Standing six feet one inch high, long in the torso, slightly short in the leg, Cunningham's frail form belied a powerful athleticism and his high jump was marvellous to behold. For the next five years he was one of the featured male soloists within Graham's predominantly female troupe.

In New York, Cunningham was reacquainted with Cage and in 1944, dancer and composer gave their first New York recital: Cage played a "prepared" piano - in which various objects were inserted between the strings to percussive effect - while Cunningham danced to rhythms that sometimes coincided with what Cage was playing and sometimes did not. Keen to distance himself from the drama and passion characteristic of Graham's style, Cunningham increasingly focused on his own choreography, developing elaborate charts for different elements of dance - tempo, direction and type of movement - and tossing a coin to determine the order in which these would go together. Latterly, he employed advanced computer technology to a similar end.

In 1953, he founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which travelled America in Cage's Volkswagen minibus, playing to college and university audiences. His sense of geography being a trifle hazy, he once booked the company to perform in Phoenix and Seattle on the same day, thinking somehow that the difference in time zones would make it possible. Audiences were often dumbfounded by what they witnessed, while the state department deemed Cunningham's work "controversial" and consistently withheld financial support. Funded by a sale of paintings by artist friends, eventually the company undertook a tour of Europe and the Far East in 1964. The critical acclaim they received in London paved the way for a triumphant return to New York.

Cunningham embraced ambiguity to the end. "There's no thinking involved in my choreography," he once said. "I don't work through images or ideas - I work through the body. And I don't ever want a dancer to start thinking that a movement means something." Merce Cunningham was born on April 16, 1919. He died on July 26. * The National