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A defining innovator of contemporary dance, Merce Cunningham was born a century ago this year. Along with his partner in life and art, composer John Cage, and their friend and accomplice, painter Jasper Johns, Cunningham helped create an aesthetic that dominated artistic expression in the 1950s and 1960s. The everyday was celebrated: Silence could be music, an American flag could be a painting, and the chaos of a city sidewalk could be a dance.
Cunningham’s choreography discarded narrative, emotional suggestion and even coordination with music, focusing instead on the physical form and movement of his dancers. He democratized his art by eliminating any notion of a focal point—the dance was happening everywhere. “The dancers are not pretending to be other than themselves,” he once said. “They are, rather than being someone, doing something.”
A Merce Cunningham Dance Company production could be a bustle of activity, with no center and no star. Yet many of Cunningham’s dancers have gone on to create major work of their own. To honor his ongoing legacy, his centennial will be marked with events around the world and in the city he called home. Here are some of the highlights.