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Famed Choreographer Cunningham Dies At 90

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Maybe the man who's trying to choreograph the economy could learn a little bit from the life we will remember next. Merce Cunningham demanded the impossible from his dancers and his audience.

Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Choreographer): Also everybody step further than you think you can do, just make it bigger. One and two.

INSKEEP: The choreographer died this past weekend at age 90, one of the last of a generation of avant garde American artists.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Our colleague, Renee Montagne, interviewed Merce Cunningham a few years ago while he was still teaching.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I'm sitting down and I have a bar, like a dance bar, you know, in front of me, and then I indicate the tempo and try to show the steps. Then the pianist plays tunes that I remember from when I could play the piano years ago, and I - in the mean time I'm tapping my feet so I'm doing tap dancing.

INSKEEP: Merce Cunningham began his career in the 1930s dancing with Martha Graham's company. Before long, he broke away to create his own dance company and a new kind of dance with his personal and professional partner, composer John Cage. The two experimented with the art form, even letting chance dictate the dancer's steps.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, if you had three movements, a run, a jump, and a fall, you would think, well, you run, you jump up, and then you fall. But what if you toss a coin and it comes up you have to do the fall first and then the jump, and then the run? It breaks down what anybody has, and dancers in particular have muscular memories of how things should go. But instead of saying that's impossible, you try it out.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Well, I'm going to quote you something that you've said that I hope is an accurate quote, but here it goes. I think of dance as being movement, any kind of movement.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes.

MONTAGNE: And that it is as accurate and impermanent as breathing.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I think it is.

MONTAGNE: So does that mean that you will be dancing, in effect, right to that last breath?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, probably.

MONTAGNE: As long as you live, you'll be dancing.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, or I - or I can call it dancing, even if nobody else does.

WERTHEIMER: Merce Cunningham, a dancer to his last breath.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: And go, and one.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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