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A dancemaker emboldened by curiosity

The spirit of inquiry motivates the lifework of Merce Cunningham, whose longevity and vitality still inspires

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The same democratic notions apply to the body, he adds. Every limb, each muscle - all are equally valid as a source of movement. All of this is in stark contrast to longstanding dance traditions. In ballet, movement interprets music and - just as there is a hierarchy in the ballet company (prima ballerina vs. the corps) - the ballet dancer's body is trained with a vocabulary of movements that emphasizes the beautiful line rather than the inherently interesting gesture.

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Cunningham has also pioneered the use of a tool that helps expand his ideas about the human body even further - the computer. He works with a software program called Dance Forms that allows him to choreograph using computer-created figures. "For one thing," he says with a gentle laugh, "you can have [the figures] do it over and over and they don't get tired, as the dancers do. Then you can bring something into rehearsal you've already worked on."

Cunningham's love for the creative process has been a source of inspiration to others.

In 1993, Stanford music professor Mark Applebaum was a graduate student in San Diego when he was asked to create a composition for Merce Cunningham. The piece was an hour and half long.

"It was 90 minutes that changed my life," he says. The notion that dance and music could be put together in such a way opened his eyes to the possibility "that any two media could be put together, have separate but parallel worlds, and yet have felicitous results."

Mr. Applebaum coordinated several events for "Encounter: Merce." "What I like about Merce," he says, "is that his work has incredible beauty but also incredible complexity."

The dancemaker's unsentimental willingness to question traditions has inspired Stanford senior Jessica Goldman to further her education. For her part in the campus-wide encounter with Merce, the English major from Palo Alto compared Cunningham and ballet techniques using motion-capture technology.

"We are looking at the essence of Merce," she says, standing in the middle of the Motion and Gait Analysis lab at the Stanford Medical Center.

Her subject, Cunningham dancer Jonah Bokaer, is dotted with round rubber markers covered with reflective tape. He moves slowly and deliberately through a series of dance phrases, which the computer records and Jessica studies.

While no sweeping conclusions were reached about the ultimate value of either technique, Ms. Goldman, who already has a minor in dance, says subjecting her interests to such intense scrutiny has given her a new appreciation for asking questions. She's decided to add a new minor to her degrees, one with a focus on research.

Cunningham's relentless democratic tendencies have always been infectious, says Lewis Segal, dance critic for the Los Angeles Times. "His work has never been about dramatizing stardom or virtuosity for its own sake," he says, although technical skill and individual personalities are accounted for in the choreography. Rather, he says, Cunningham is interested in the process itself, the exploration of the potential in any given movement.

This emphasis pointed the way for the development of modern dance as we know it today, he adds. "There are relatively few people alive today who completely define an epoch. Merce is one of them."

Cunningham freed dance from the influence of centuries of European ballet traditions, Mr. Segal says, with their emphasis on creating dance stories and a rigidly hierarchical company structure. "In terms of dance," he adds, "there is before Merce and after Merce."

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