A seminal dancer and choreographer, Merce was a huge presence on the downtown NYC scene when I was coming up. And his partnership with the composer John Cage made that presence even greater in ways few avant-garde artists ever achieved.
He was ninety and still creative to almost the end.
Back in the 1970s, when the city was in terrible financial shape but the avant-garde arts scene was flourishing on many levels, there were times when it seemd like dance was the dominant art form downtown. All kinds of new and exciting choreographers were appearing, from Twyla Tharp to Sara Rudner (my alltime favorite).
If you went to any downtown arts event, like a fundraiser for a cause or a downtown arts institution, or the St. Mark's Poetry Project space for their annual New Years Eve marathon etc. there'd usually be some dance as part of the performances, and it would often be what stopped the show, impact-wise. At least for me.
Well the daddy of all that, and eventually the granddaddy, was Merce Cunningham. His experiments with "chance" as a tool for constructing any art, ala Cage in "music" or Jackson MacLow in poetry, created dances that contained gestures and movement and postures and poses etc. that no one had ever seen before on a dance stage.
To be able to create something entirely new out of something as mundane as human physicality or out of something as ancient as basic dance movements, was not only a sign of Cunningham's genuis, but of his humanity, which he seemed to me to surrender to completely, the most touching thing about his approach to dance that some critics initially found too cool, too abstract, too un-romantic.
But watch the video at the top of Ron Silliman's Cunningham's post for today, Wednesday, July 29th, (this link just goes to the blog so if you're reading this after that date, you can find it) which is one of his posts full of links (usually they're to poetry related topics but often to the other arts as well, this one is devoted entirely to Cunningham), which have become a primary source for me for news of what's happening in the avant-garde (lousy term for it these days, but "alternative" etc. works no better) poetry (and other arts) world.
It's a pretty good summary of Cunningham's methods and creative genius.