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Merce Cunningham, Dance Great, Dies at 90

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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.”


  1. I was lucky enough to see his performance in and composed for Grand Central Station in Manhattan. The station had just had a spruce up, and I guess they were celebrating, esp with the cleaned and touched-up ceiling. Merce and company were thrilling, moving, using up all that space. You could hear a pin drop in that crowded place–commuters stopped abruptly–unforgettable! I laughed out loud when I read that people at Wolf Trap booed his performance there—still stirring up things to the very end–wonderful!

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