To Merce Cunningham, one of the 20th century's greatest dancers and choreographers, this simple fact was cause for celebration, reflection, and his life's work. He died on Sunday at the age of ninety, still dancing into his 70's and still active in the dance world until his death, choreographing work that will long outlive him. His enduring legacy will mostly be defined by his insistence that movement, in and of itself, is enough to justify the art of dance. This was a revolutionary idea when he entered the dance world in 1939, when conventional wisdom held that dance needed to follow and depict a narrative. (Just as today few in our culture, perhaps poets alone, it sometimes seems, and perhaps not even all poets, understand that poetry can be experienced primarily through sound, and even if there is no clear, easily deciphered, or linear narrative or "meaning," a good poem always offers something to savor: the sound of words.) Cunningham's was a sensual world and to enter it was to be elevated into a closer relationship with one's own body and senses.
His impact also includes his frequent collaborations with artists of other genres, including musicians, visual artists, poets, and architects. Again, this was a new idea when Cunningham was discovered by the modern dance pioneer, Martha Graham in the 1940's. Still today such collaborations are rare. Below is a video of his work with the artist with whom he created dozens of collaborations, the musician John Cage, who was also his life partner for five decades until Cage's death in 1992. Their work together included the innovative practice of Cage composing music and Cunningham choreographing dance independently of each other and then performing the two simultaneously on stage.