Merce Cunningham, Dance Great, Dies at 90

What is dance?

Is it storytelling, using human forms to advance the storyline?

Is it movement with music?

Is it movement alone?

Merce Cunningham, a giant of modern dance, asked these questions and answered them–affirmatively in each case–over seven decades.  He died, at age 90, on Sunday in Manhattan.  From his introduction to the avant-garde composer John Cage in 1938 (a longtime collaborator) to his work with the great storytelling choreographer Martha Graham, to his later choreography of dance that existed as movement alone, Cunningham was an acknowledged master of this most human art form.

The Library of Congress has a early tie with Merce Cunningham’s work–he was in the premiere cast of the Aaron Copland/Martha Graham collaboration, “Appalachian Spring,” which was commissioned by Library patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and first performed in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium on October 30, 1944.

Merce Cunningham in 2000 also was among the first people to be named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress.  To date, only 100 people have been so honored.

To return to this posting’s original question, let’s close with a comment by Mr. Cunningham, as quoted in his Associated Press obituary by Polly Anderson:

Over the history of art, something unfamiliar becomes part of society and everybody accepts it. Obviously, the artist goes on. You try to see what the next problem or question to ask is.  That’s what an artist does; you find another question.”

How Green These Valleys Were, As Well …

Take a moment out of this busy day to relax at the side of a waterfall at Fairy Glen in Bettws-y-Coed Wales or go explore the castle ruins at Aberystwith, Wales. We’ve loaded 167 new color Photocrom travel views of Wales from 1890-1900 on our Flickr photostream at The set is full of castles […]


From time to time, we ask ourselves: Where is the outrage? Well, for an amazing 72 years, it was on editorial pages, especially that of the Washington Post–in political commentary by the influential cartoonist Herblock (Herb Block), who made presidents and other public figures, from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, ink-stained and wretched. The Library […]

'Authorama' on the National Mall

The authors’ lineup for the National Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26 went public today–what star-power! Bestselling authors David Baldacci, John Grisham, John Irving, Julia Alvarez, Judy Blume, Ken Burns, Gwen Ifill, and Jodi Picoult–as well as celebrity chef Paula Deen–will be among scores of authors and illustrators presenting at the festival, organized and sponsored […]

Library Helped Finger Another 'Would-Be Assassin' Named Booth

Letter from Junius Brutus Booth to Andrew JacksonYou know how some of the best jobs are the ones where you learn something new every day? I definitely have one of those.

I was watching a new episode of History Detectives last night on PBS (one of the few shows to which I am hopelessly addicted). Tukufu Zuberi did a segment about a letter purportedly written by the father of John Wilkes Booth to President Andrew Jackson threatening to assassinate Old Hickory.

The piece turned up some interesting tidbits supporting the notion that at least thoughts of assassination ran in the Booth family, such as what appears to be a contemporaneous apology for the letter from Booth the elder to Jackson in a Philadelphia newspaper.

The Library of Congress in the past had done some pretty exhaustive work of which I was unaware that signals our letter’s authenticity. Quoting Barbara Bair of the Library’s Manuscript Division:

[A]ccording to research by an LC conservator who specializes in manuscripts [Mary Elizabeth (Betsy) Haude], and who has examined the letter, the paper used in the Junius Booth to Andrew Jackson letter of July 4, 1835, as evidenced by the watermarks (dove, and A KELTY), was that of the paper maker Anthony Kelty. He operated a paper mill from 1830-1840 on Buck Run, near Coatesville in East Fallowfield Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. [The letter was dated July 4, 1835, and addressed from Philadelphia.]

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Is a Bad Economy Ever 'Good'?

It’s sometimes said that if you want a really steady income, become an undertaker. There’s no doubt right now that times are tough all over.  The news media is among the industries that have been hit especially hard–in this case, by factors including changing technology and news-consumption habits, but also by lower ad revenues from […]

Life in a Library 'Theme Park'

The Library of Congress acquires some 10,000 items a day for its collections. But many of our finest acquisitions are not bound between leather covers or captured on a reel of celluloid: They are the people who make our collections come alive, who unearth meaning and inspiration among our 653 miles of stacks. One such […]