Merce Cunningham Is No Longer ‘Nearly Ninety’

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Legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham celebrated his 90th birthday by presiding over the world premiere of his latest piece, “Nearly Ninety,” at BAM. Sonic Youth accompanied the dancers, and before the show, Kim Gordon shared an intimate Merce moment: “Last night we were doing a dress rehearsal, and you know he’s in a wheelchair, and he doesn’t really like, I have a feeling, any of the attention, but he did this very gracious sort of bow in his chair, with his arms out. It was very actually sweet.” At the end of the performance, Cunningham rolled onstage in his chair, and gave that bow — arms out, palms up. There were speeches and acknowledgments and Audra McDonald sang, and then there was a hush as Merce began to speak.

“There are so many people to be grateful to, I’m not going to try,” he said softly, before he told a story about Seattle, where his career began. "I went to the Cornish School of the Arts for two years. It was an incredible experience. At the end of the first year, I went home for the summer to my family in Centralia. One sunny day, I was sitting outside, wishing, frankly, I was back at school, working — I admired it so much. At the same time, behind me, without me being aware of it, my parents were discussing my schooling. My mother was quite worried, because she didn’t see much future in work in the dance.” His audience laughed, and Cunningham continued. “My father said, ‘Listen, that fellow, if he didn’t have that dance game, would be a crook, and chose the other way,” he said to cheers. Afterward, at dinner, Cunningham told us he was actually relieved that the evening, and his birthday, was over. “It’s been very difficult, [and] at the same time, a marvelous experience.”

Related: Merce Cunningham: The Natural [NYM]