Monday, July 27, 2009

Merce Cunningham 1919-2009

IT IS VERY SAD to hear about the death of Merce Cunningham, surely one of the most remarkable men I ever had the pleasure to meet. What I associate with him, what characterized him most of all to my eye, was the best qualities of humanity: Intelligence, Strength, Grace, Humor, and Invention. He was observant, quick, disciplined, and dedicated. He made great demands, seemed unfailingly courteous, and had that strange ego that is fundamentally egoless, because while aware of his own agenda and skills in meeting that agenda he could simultaneously stand outside it looking on.

I only met him a few times over the last twenty years or so, but he always seemed to recognize me and to be ready, even willing I hope, to continue a conversation. I was drawn to him of course via his companion John Cage, who I knew somewhat better because we were both interested in sounds and silences, a musician's parallel to the movements and stillnesses of a dancer. My memories of their apartment in New York fasten on a number of details: Merce's drawings are among the most persistent.

We were lucky to see a number of pieces of Merce's, mostly thanks to his many appearances in Berkeley, sponsored by Cal Performances. Biped, premiered ten years ago (how can it have been so long ago?), was a superb late piece, both nostalgic and forward-looking. Even more lasting is the impression of Ocean, which we saw in its Berkeley premiere in 1994, and which I then had the privilege of seeing three times running in New York the following year: a two-hour piece full of surprise, familiarity, certainty and unpredictability.

His choreography always seemed to me to duplicate the ultimately unknowable motion of Life. Unknowable, I mean, in that while the physical qualities that facilitate that motion can be seen, studied, understood, and discussed, the inherent questions of purpose and origin and meaning always remain both ineffable and enigmatic.

To that extent Cunningham was, like so many of the great Modernists of the 20th century, a moral philosopher. I see in both the man and his work a Modernist, but also a Romantic and a Classicist. The cliché is always that there are not many left like him: but then, there never were.


Unknown said...

Please correct Michael Steinberg's age. He was eighty not eight years old. And yes, Jorja, said it was peaceful. Michael lived a full good life and died a good death.

Thanks for a nice tribute to him. There are many other notices out there in addition to the ones you mentioned.

Michael Steinberg ... died yesterday, peacefully ... of cancer; he was eight years old."

Karen Borst-Rothe

Unknown said...

This comment was meant to be related to Michael Steinberg's obituary NOT Merce Cunningham. I was having trouble getting the post up.

Correcting the age as soon as possible would be great.