Merce Cunningham, the legendary New York-based choreographer who helped reinvent modern dance, has died at age 90, his foundation said.
“It is with great sorrow that we note the passing of Merce Cunningham, who died peacefully in his home last night of natural causes,” the Cunningham Dance Foundation and the Merce Cunningham Dance Co announced in a statement on Monday.
Although wheelchair-bound by the end of his life, Cunningham was still hard at work choreographing new works until shortly before his death late on Sunday.
He had danced on stage right into his 80s, even joining Mikhail Baryshnikov in a duet at the New York State Theater.
His foundation said he left “an indelible mark on our collective creativity and culture” and opened “new ways of perceiving and experiencing the world.”
Although a revolutionary, he was motivated “not for the sake of iconoclasm, but for the beauty and wonder that lay in exploring new possibilities,” the foundation said.
During the World War II era, Cunningham partnered with Martha Graham before striking out on his own and forming his company. It was then, in long collaboration with John Cage, an influential Minimalist composer who was also his life partner, that Cunningham turned dance on its head.
Most radically, 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.
“Dancing, for me, is movement in time and space,” he once said. “Its possibilities are bound only by our imagination and our two legs.”
Last month, he announced a “Living Legacy Plan,” with a trust tasked with preserving and continuing his work. The trust is now set to follow a meticulously prepared program, including a two-year world tour. After the tour, the foundation will formally close and the dance company will disband, but the trust will live on to manage Cunningham’s works.
The New York Times paid tribute, saying Cunningham was “among a handful of 20th-century figures to make dance a major art and a major form of theater.”
He ranked alongside giants such as Serge Diaghilev and George Balanchine “in making people rethink the essence of dance and choreography,” the Times said.
In Taipei, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) founder and artistic director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) mourned Cunningham’s death, calling him “the greatest choreographer of the 20th century.”
“His understanding of and concepts about dance influenced every important choreographer after the 1970s because he isolated dance from narrative and emotion,” Lin said.