Page last updated at 09:32 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 10:32 UK

Dance great Cunningham dies at 90


Archive footage of Merce Cunningham

US choreographer Merce Cunningham, widely recognised for revolutionising modern dance, has died aged 90.

A statement from the Cunningham Dance Foundation said the New York-based dancer "died peacefully in his home of natural causes" on Sunday.

He formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953 and choreographed nearly 200 works for it.

Although he used a wheelchair by the end of his career, Cunningham danced on stage well into his 80s.

'Kind and hospitable'

The statement said he "revolutionised the visual and performing arts, not for the sake of iconoclasm, but for the beauty and wonder that lay in exploring new possibilities".

Radiohead have paid tribute to the dance star, calling him "kind and hospitable".

In a statement posted on their website, the band said: "We are very sad to hear about Merce Cunningham's death.

"Merce invited us to take part in his Split Sides project, in October 2003.

Steve Schifferes
Steve Schifferes, BBC News reporter

I studied the Cunningham technique as a student at Bennington College in Vermont with many of his key disciples, and later briefly took some classes with Cunningham at his Westbeth studio in New York's Greenwich Village.

Cunningham was mesmerising in person and as a dancer - especially the expressiveness of his gestures, with his feet almost as expressive as his hands.

His technique, involving loosening up the lower back and making movement more free-flowing, was a relief to those who studied the tensed movements of his previous mentor, the great modern dancer Martha Graham, whose story-telling approach to dance he also rejected.

"It was a collaboration of music and dance, but one where each of the elements - set, costume, choreography and music - were randomly combined, to create a performance around chance."

They added that Cunningham had showed them how "discipline and focus can create the space for an unexpected moment, when something new can suddenly exist: such a contrast to the scripted world of rock".

'Great artist'

Judith Fishman, chairman of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, said: "Merce was an artistic maverick and the gentlest of geniuses.

"We have lost a great man and a great artist, but we celebrate his extraordinary life, his art, and the dancers and the artists with whom he worked."

In April, Cunningham celebrated his 90th birthday with the premiere of new work Nearly Ninety - set to new music from Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and Sonic Youth - at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York.

Last month, Cunningham set up The Living Legacy Plan, aimed at continuing his teachings in the future.

As part of the plan, Cunningham's work is to celebrated by his company with a two-year world tour culminating in a final performance in New York.

Toss of coin

Born just after World War I in a small town near Seattle, Cunningham loved to dance as a child.

From 1939 to 1945, he was a soloist in the company of Martha Graham, regarded at the time as one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance.

He presented his first New York solo concert in April 1944, with music from composer John Cage, who became his life partner and frequent collaborator until Cage's death in 1992.

Merce Cunningham
Cunningham formed his own dance company in 1953

In a radical move, the couple decided to end the traditional marriage of movement and music, saying that both arts should exist independently even when sharing the same space.

Cunningham also abandoned conventional storytelling through ballet to focus entirely on the poetry of dance.

He even tossed coins or threw dice to determine steps, saying the use of chance was "a present mode of freeing my imagination from its own cliches".

He was hugely admired by other dancers and worked with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.

Cunningham's work has been presented by the New York City Ballet, Zurich Ballet and the Rambert Dance Company among others.

Among the accolades he received over his long career included the Kennedy Center Honors in 1985 and the National Medal of Arts in 1990.

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