Monday, July 27, 2009

Ave Atque Vale Merce Cunningham

You've probably heard by now that Merce Cunningham has died.

As it seems we've been doing a lot lately, let's celebrate a life as well as mourn a loss.

This Annie Liebowitz portrait is an iconic one, and seems to fit the bill.

I was fortunate enough to attend what must have been one of his last public appearances, and maybe his very final performance event at Dia Beacon. It was incredible, beautiful, stunning, moving. The program shared the oft-stated (Alastair Macaulay writes "almost routinely hailed") contention that Merce was The Greatest Living Choreographer, and I asked someone who is more than passingly familiar with the dance world if they could really do that. Make that claim? THE Greatest? And the response was: "Well, who else would it be?"

Good point.

Love these images from his 1958 piece "Antic Meet," which was designed by Robert Rauchenberg and photographed by Richard Rutlege

Now, while I 've said before and will say again that I'm not a fan of favoritism, so that whole 'The Greatest' thing falls a little flat, I think it's surely fair to say that Merce Cunningham was one of the greatest artists in any medium, not limited to dance/choreography, of the last century or so. I have the sense that if you gave him a paperclip, a ball of twine and a tuba he could turn them into something you couldn't take your eyes away from.

Various media outlets/newspapers have their own obituaries, of course. Among many many others are Macaulay at The Times, Tobi Tobias for Bloomberg, and one from the London Telegraph that has no byline, but that yields some choice commentary:

He was impatient with the quest to discover meaning in art; asked what one dance was about, he answered: "It's about 40 minutes."

...for many years he was derided. Fairly early in the life of his company, a New York reviewer wrote: "Last night Merce Cunningham presented a programme of his choreography, and if someone doesn't stop him, he's going to do it again tonight."

The reception was not always rapturous: in Paris in 1964, when the company was beginning to tour Europe, audiences threw tomatoes and eggs, and Cunningham later recalled that people would leave in the middle of the performance to go out to buy more.

Love those, for their display of his persistence, and for their revelation of his originality and passionate creativity as he worked with Rauschenberg, Martha Graham and (especially) John Cage as well as countless other dancers, artists and musicians.

And the obits (along with commentary as he was still working) make the supremely important point that his work continued to be vital, relevant, important, well past the time he was able to dance with full vigor, or even get around unaided. That event we experienced in Beacon was beyond remarkable: he was creating up until the end, and he'll be missed.

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