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The Day Merce Died
Men in Dance

The Day Merce Died

Not only did Merce Cunningham’s career intersect with Jacob’s Pillow throughout the decades, but his final days are now inextricably linked to his company’s last Pillow engagement.


By Sydney Skybetter
Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Pillow Rock, 2009. Photo by Karli Cadel.

And when we die and float away
Into the night, the Milky Way
You'll hear me call, as we ascend
I'll see you there, then once again
Thank you for being a..
(Ba ba ba ba ba ba)
Thank you for being a friend.

"Thank You For Being a Friend" (The Golden Girls Theme) Andrew Gold

Introduction

Since the founding of Jacob’s Pillow, visiting dance companies have posed for group pictures at the flat slab called the “Pillow Rock.” There are hundreds of such images in the Pillow archives, representing thousands of smiling dancers, administrators, designers, and choreographers over nearly a century, an auspicious marker of the passage of people through the place. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company has been a frequent guest at the Pillow since the 1950s, but for their last visit in 2009, the founder of the company, Merce Cunningham, was notably absent.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Septet, 1955. Photo by John Lindquist.
Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown in Septet, 1955. Photo by John Lindquist.

His health had deteriorated over the previous weeks, and so the troupe took the trip—and “Pillow Rock” picture—without him. Once the company’s performance run reached an end, they returned to Manhattan in a loose caravan, and as the last of the production team crossed into the city, Cunningham died in his sleep. It was Sunday, July 26th, 2009. He was 90.

Overview of Merce Cunningham’s Career

Cunningham was a giant figure in American modern dance, a preeminent avant gardist who exerted a powerful influence on the fields of performance, film, music, and visual art. Born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, Cunningham joined the Martha Graham Dance Company at the age of 20 and famously originated the character of the Preacher in Graham’s Appalachian Spring, among other roles. As early as the 1940s, Cunningham (and his catalytic collaborator and eventual life partner, John Cage) began experimenting with compositional methods which sought to complicate the relationship between the individual artist and intentional aesthetic expression. This lead to a decades-long, convention-warping disintegration of the choreographic process, and the disentangling of the component parts of proscenium dance (music, lights, costumes, bodies, decor) into asynchronous, independently rendered vectors that happened to occur in shared space at showtime.

This is an inversion of the famed, Diaghilevian ethos of Gesamtkunstwerk (roughly translated from Wagner and German as “total art work”) where collaborating artists seek aesthetic harmony and to produce specific affects and narrative elements within a piece of art. Not coincidentally, Cunningham saw himself in the Diaghilevian tradition, as an artist who embraced collaboration in particular, sometimes disorienting ways, but with an aesthetic depth of focus on par with the Ballets Russes. One of the means by which Cunningham—alongside Cage—interrogated compositional form was through his use of “chance procedures,” aleatory choreographic techniques that included, for example, deciding the direction of a particular movement pattern by consulting the I Ching (the ninth century Chinese “Book of Changes”), the casting of dice, use of random numbers and, eventually, deployment of specially-designed computer software. Cunningham used these methods to momentarily spring outside his own habitus and movement imagination, harvest non-obvious and potentially impossible movement ideas, and then activate his dancers’ embodied intelligence so as to choreograph. The creative black box and controlled chaos of his dancemaking may have removed aspects of Cunningham’s agency, but the system was still designed by CunninghamHe told The New York Times in April of 2009, the point of such procedures is to “find out something you didn’t know. It lets your mind open up to something new.” How movements found their way into a dance may have been subject to chance, but the finished product always represented the apotheosis of Cunningham’s choreographic intentions and a vaudevillian sense of showmanship. In this way, much of Cunningham’s career can be understood as proto-digital, not only in that many of his dances anticipate and deploy emergent means of digital production (for example, Biped and the technology of early motion capture, the subject of another essay in this series) but in that his dances were algorithmically authored. The creative black box and controlled chaos of his dancemaking may have removed aspects of Cunningham’s agency, but the system was still designed by Cunningham, and the resulting work necessarily included traces of his imprimatur.

PillowTalk with Bill Cook, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, 1997
View Archival Record

Cunningham was famously cerebral, but he was also, simply, a phenomenal dancer, capable of impossible bounding leaps that defied audience expectations and, seemingly, physics. In early archival footage of his Banjo at the Pillow in 1955, one can see a 36-year old Cunningham executing a stunningly high, modern-dancerly gargouillade (a complex balletic jump where both feet circle towards and away from the opposing knee). With each of these leaps, Cunningham adds an additional “beat” of his foot at the last possible moment, even as he descends perilously low to the ground. This is virtuosic (if, somewhat obscure) movement, executed as only a dancer with brilliant classical technique and preternatural buoyancy could.

Banjo

Cunningham Ages

Cunningham continued to perform with his company for decades, even after becoming the oldest dancer on stage by a factor of two, three, and then four. As Cunningham’s physical container diminished, he adjusted his kinaesthetics without nostalgia. After he lost the ability to balance unaided, he performed with a barre.

Trackers

After he couldn’t stand, he sat. His physical capacities dwindled, but after all, Cunningham was used to working within shifting parameters, the ultimate one being, perhaps, his own mortality.Cunningham did not lament the gradual loss of his body, nor did he long for his repertory and company to exist in perpetuity. Cunningham did not lament the gradual loss of his body, nor did he long for his repertory and company to exist in perpetuity. A month before he died, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company announced an unprecedented plan for what the institution would do once Cunningham was gone. With rigor, celebratory prose and utterly without remorse, the plan articulated how, when Cunningham passed, the company would tour the world for two years, and then close. This is in stark contrast to, for example, the Martha Graham Dance Company, which continues to perform Graham’s repertory to this day despite her having been dead for nearly 30 years. The Legacy Plan has since rightfully become a case study for single-artistic director dance companies pondering the departure of a founder.

The denouement of the company may have been elegantly planned, but the final years were not without controversy. In March of 2009, Holley Farmer, Daniel Squire and Koji Mizuta—celebrated, senior dancers who had performed for the company over many years—were abruptly and unceremoniously fired. The stated (and abundantly reiterated) rationale for their termination was an “artistic decision,” language apparently crafted to prevent the dancers’ union from having grounds to contest the machinations, which otherwise smelled like a management maneuver to eliminate the expense of several salaries. The firings were covered by The New York Times and hotly debated within the dance community, which is notable because the field is tragically accustomed to poor working conditions and singularly awful hiring and firing practices. Even given the recessionary context, it was a disappointing episode from a company clearly capable of better.

The End

After the performances of Nearly Ninety (so named because Cunningham was almost 90 years old, and because it lasted almost 90 minutes) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April of 2009, there wasn’t a new dance slotted to be made, and things started slowing down. Without a work to choreograph, Cunningham appeared less frequently outside his apartment, and was only a few months away from death. Even though there was no public prognosis or estimate for how long he yet had to live, there was a growing sense he had limited time. Small groups of dancers, administrators, collaborators, and alumni visited him to say goodbye, and he enlivened with every arrival. Ever the showman, Cunningham regaled his deathbed guests with hilarious—if meandering and anticlimactic—stories about his life, anecdotes funny mostly for the telling rather than a punchline. He would revel in a tale, and then nod off for a nap lasting seconds or several minutes before re-entering the conversation exactly where he had left it, as though no time had elapsed at all. For an artist whose life’s work played with the dismantling of audiences’ expectations, it seems apropos that Cunningham’s final moments would likewise dip in and out of conventional space and time.

In unguarded moments, Cunningham would question the experience of his own mortality and last days. “Why am I still alive? What is keeping me here?” He rallied for visitors, but also experienced an increasing visual dysphoria, and objects sometimes appeared to be somehow an alarmingly wrong size. He slept more as his sensorium degraded, drank wine to the end, and loved to watch The Golden Girls, which was apparently just the right level of bawdy for the nonagenarian. That last week while the company was at Jacob’s Pillow, Stephan Moore (then sound engineer and music coordinator for the company, now Lecturer at Northwestern University) set up a primitive “uStream” live stream of rehearsals and performances from a laptop so that Cunningham could watch the company in Massachusetts from his bed in New York City.

Sounddance

This live stream—the first of its kind at the Pillow—piqued Cunningham’s interest whenever there were dancers on the screen. In those final days, this kluge of a media stream—intermittent, high latency, low quality—momentarily absented Cunningham from the heavy work of dying, and he again found delight in dancing. For as long as the stream was on, he stopped questioning the purpose of those emotional last weeks (“What is an old man supposed to do?”) and bore witness to a choreographic project that had spanned the world, survived his lovers and was, he knew, about to reach an end. In those final moments, after a career of posing questions, finally, there were none left.

Once Cunningham died, the legacy plan was carried out, and the company toured and disbanded to acclaim. Cunningham’s body was cremated, and in the ultimate act of aleatory oblivion, he distributed his ashes to his collaborators in small envelopes, asking they do with his body what they will. Daniel Madoff, a member of the final incarnation of the Cunningham company, opted to deposit his quote of ashes at Jacob’s Pillow—at the Pillow Rock.

Sydney Skybetter is a choreographer. Hailed by Dance Magazine as “One of the most influential people in dance today,” his work has been performed around the country at such venues as The Kennedy Center, The Boston Center for the Arts, Jacob’s Pillow, and The Joyce Theater.Read Bio

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