Merce Cunningham died in his sleep late Sunday night, June 26, at his home in New York. He was 90.
When famous people die there is much to be said, and Cunningham was quite famous. As one of the pre-eminent choreographers and dancers of the 20th century, Cunningham’s death rated a prime spot on every TV network and cable news outlet. Not as in-depth as Walter Cronkite, perhaps, but then Cronkite was one of their own.
Cunningham was a leader in an art form that few understand but nearly everyone is impressed by. He began as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company and, later, his own company spawned such dancers as Paul Taylor. He worked with myriad composers and musicians, both popular and avant-garde.
Much was said about Cunningham’s illustrious career on ABC, CBS and NBC. The clips of Cunningham on CBS were especially breathtaking. ABC showed Cunningham in his wheelchair at his most recent piece, “Nearly Ninety,” which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April.
Much attention was paid to the way Cunningham incorporated other art forms into his work — from music to the literary to the visual arts, he pioneered a movement in dance that crossed interdisciplinary lines.
What was not said about Cunningham by those reporting for the national TV news was that he was gay. Not just gay, but openly gay at a time when being openly gay was far from de rigeur. Not just gay, but gay and a genius.
When Cronkite — a contemporary of Cunningham — died, his late wife Betsy was mentioned. She’s dead, but they’d spent 50 years together, so of course she was mentioned.
But when Cunningham died, his partner of 50 years who pre-deceased him went unmentioned.
And yet Cunningham’s spouse wasn’t just his lover of 50 years, he was illustrious in his own right — the composer John Cage. The two began working together in the early 1940s and continued to collaborate until Cage’s death in 1992.
TV news doesn’t just report the way we live, it also reports the way we die. Cunningham was, quite simply, a giant in the dance world, a genius. He’d been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. He also had been awarded the National Arts Medal and its British and French versions — the Olivier Award and the Legion of Honor.
So why the elision of his being gay? Are there not thousands of boys and girls out there dancing their hearts out in “Chorus Line” — fashion who need to know that one of the most famous dancers and choreographers of their lifetime was gay?
One needn’t lead with “gay dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham died last night” but could note, “Cunningham was pre-deceased by his life partner of 50 years, John Cage.”
Reporting the news is about reporting detail. How many LGBT people have had to read between the lines when a person of prominence described as “life-long bachelor” or “she never married” dies?
Cunningham had the courage to come out in the 1930s. Shouldn’t his death be honored with noting that he had a personal life outside of dance that included a beloved spouse for decades? Few artists of Cunningham’s caliber have had spouses for as long as Cunningham did. The longevity of his relationship with Cage — as well as the collaborations born from it — merit at least a passing mention.
Our lives will continue to mean less as long as how we live, and with whom, doesn’t even merit a footnote to our personal histories.